Brain Pickings

Discipline, Quality vs. Quantity, and the Power of Intellectual Elegance: Remembering Massimo Vignelli

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“Quality stems from intellectual elegance, and is precluded from the vulgar mind.”

“We’re all going from point A to point B — how we get there is the conductor’s problem,” legendary graphic designer Massimo Vignelli once said at an event we both attended several years ago. Heartbreaking as it is to learn that, after a long illness, Vignelli has reached his final point B, he lives on as a masterful conductor of design and life, whose legacy endures as a luminous reminder that there is no greater feat of the creative spirit than the marriage of good work and good personhood, talent and integrity, poise and principle.

It is that singular spirit that imbues the 2007 monograph Vignelli: From A to Z (public library) — a sort of alphabet book of the Vignelli ethos, spanning from big-picture philosophy to the practical particulars of various projects.

One of the most poignant parts of the book appears under the letter D, for “Discipline.” It is a message that applies not only to design but to just about every endeavor — an iteration of a sentiment shared by creators as diverse as celebrated composer Tchaikovsky (“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”), novelist Isabel Allende (“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”), painter Chuck Close (Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”), beloved author E.B. White (“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”), and Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope (“My belief of book writing is much the same as my belief as to shoemaking. The man who will work the hardest at it, and will work with the most honest purpose, will work the best.”). Vignelli gives the notion his own uncompromising touch:

This is the most important virtue for a designer to possess. Discipline is the god of design that governs every aspect of a project… Without it, it is total anarchy, total randomness, pure chaos. Discipline is the attitude that helps us discern right from wrong and guides us to achieve consistency of language in whatever we do. Discipline is what helps us navigate through the social context in which we operate. Discipline is what makes us responsible toward ourselves, toward our clients, toward the society in which we live. It is through discipline that we are able to improve ourselves, mentally and physically; to offer the best of ourselves to everything around us, including every project on which we work…

Discipline is the supreme state of mind, the master of passion, and the governing structure of nature.

There is no design without discipline. There is no discipline without intelligence.

Vignelli returns to another aspect of the subject under the letter Q, for “Quality or Quantity?,” exploring the relationship between discipline and quality. He shares an anecdote of his formative philosophy that, while rooted in the client business, applies equally to any type of work that involves an external “other” — a client, a collaborator, an audience. Vignelli writes:

Early in my professional life I had to make a decision about clients. I realized that only certain types of clients can produce a consistently high level of quality in their [work]. Other clients never seem to reach any satisfactory level of quality. I noticed that what we call a good client — the one that has vision, courage, and clarity of mind — usually gives a good briefing and lets you do your work. Invariably, they get the best results. The only problem is that this kind of client is rare. The other kind, the bad client, is the one that has no briefing, changes course during the process, continuously interferes with you and most of the time, at the end, is also unhappy with the results. Most clients tend to belong to this category. Therefore, early on I had to make a decision — whether to have a large quantity of bad clients or a few good ones… So I made the decision to pursue quality, even if it was less profitable…

To work for quality requires discipline and determination, from both the designer and the client. It is important that the client understand that your efforts are aimed to achieve the best possible quality for the product, company, or institution. Quantity often follows quality; rarely does the opposite happen. In other terms, quantity almost always follows success. To strive for quality is an attitude that demands tremendous rigor toward ourselves and toward the entire process of a project.

Vignelli considers the notion of “intellectual elegance,” which he discussed with exquisite eloquence in his fantastic interview with Debbie Millman, at the root of quality:

Quality stems from intellectual elegance, and is precluded from the vulgar mind. The great utopia is to have quality in great quantity. To some extent, industrialization can multiply an object of quality in great quantity and make it accessible to large numbers of people. This is the aim of our profession. This is the responsibility of the designers and their clients. This is the ethical commitment that every designer should make and follow. The moral imperative should be to reduce the ugliness around us, the vulgarity that surrounds us, and replace it with decent, unselfish designs. Every day we face this opportunity and we should not lose the chance to take it.

In the section headed S, for “Style,” Vignelli echoes Schopenhauer and returns to this notion of intellectual elegance vs. vulgarity:

Style is a byproduct of a person’s being. It reflects a way of thinking; behavioral patterns, attitudes and, above all, a culture… A person can be primitive and illiterate, but still have a lot of style, because style (or intellectual elegance) is the projection of a person’s intelligence. Lack of intelligence generates vulgarity. We could say that an object has style if the intelligence that generated it had style, had intellectual elegance. Very humble objects, like old tools, had the direct elegance generated by a culture sensitive to the requirements of that tool and its user. Style is the way things, ideas, attitudes take form. Style is the tangible aspect of intangible things.

Vignelli: From A to Z, though presently hard to find, is a spectacular read and well worth the hunt. For a deeper dive into Vignelli’s expansive mind and spirit, see Debbie Millman’s interview with him on intellectual elegance, education, and love, then bid one final farewell with their live conversation, filmed by the late and great Hillman Curtis:

You are missed, Massimo, and thank you for everything.

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