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Posts Tagged ‘Massimo Vignelli’

28 MAY, 2014

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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07 MAY, 2013

Massimo Vignelli on the Secret of Great Book Design

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“The grid is the underwear of the book.”

Massimo Vignelli, mastermind of the iconic New York City subway map, is one of today’s most celebrated graphic designers and a fierce champion of intellectual elegance. My friends at Pentagram have put together this lovely short documentary, which takes us inside Vignelli’s book-design process with equal measures practical insight and witty inspiration:

The grid is an integral part of the book design. It’s not something that you see, physically. It’s just like underwear: You wear it, but it’s not to be exposed. So the grid is the underwear of the book.

Pair with this fantastic, wide-ranging interview with Vignelli.

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10 JANUARY, 2013

Iconic Designer Massimo Vignelli on Intellectual Elegance, Education, and Love

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“Intellectual elegance [is] a mind that is continually refining itself with education and knowledge. Intellectual elegance is the opposite of intellectual vulgarity.”

Besides the iconic New York City subway map, for which he remains best-known, the great Massimo Vignelli has worked on some of the twentieth century’s most memorable packaging, identity, and public signage for clients like IBM, American Airlines, and Bloomingdale’s, and has earned some of the creative industry’s most prestigious awards, including the AIGA Gold Medal (1983), the New York State Governor’s Award for Excellence (1993), the National Arts Club Gold Medal for Design (2004), and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum (2005). But nowhere do Vignelli’s eloquence, wisdom, earnestness, and sensitivity shine more brilliantly than in How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer (public library) — the same fantastic anthology of Debbie Millman‘s interviews with creative icons that gave us Paula Scher’s slot machine metaphor for creativity.

A champion of “intellectual elegance,” Vignelli explains his lifelong crusade against vulgarity:

MV: When I talk about elegance, I mean intellectual elegance. Elegance of the mind.

DM: How would you define elegance of the mind?

MV: I would define intellectual elegance as a mind that is continually refining itself with education and knowledge. Intellectual elegance is the opposite of intellectual vulgarity. We all know vulgarity very well. Elegance is the opposite.

DM: I have to ask: What would you consider to be vulgar?

MV: Vulgarity is something underneath culture and education. Anything that is not refined.

[…]

DM: Why do you think people are fascinated by vulgarity?

MV: Because it is easier to absorb. Elegance is about education and refinement, and it is a by-product of a continual search for the best and for the sublime. And it is a continuous refusal of indulging in anything that is vulgar. It’s a job.

He offers an articulate definition of what design is really about:

It is to decrease the amount of vulgarity in the world. It is to make the world a better place to be. But everything is relative. There is a certain amount of latitude between what is good, what is elegant, and what is refined that can take many, many manifestations. It doesn’t have to be one style. We’re not talking about style, we’re talking about quality. Style is tangible, quality is intangible. I am talking about creating for everything that surrounds us a level of quality.

Like Steve Jobs famously did, Vignelli has profound disdain for focus groups and, like Millman herself, advocates for not letting limited imagination shrink the boundaries of the possible:

I don’t believe in market research. I don’t believe in marketing the way it’s done in America. The American way of marketing is to answer to the wants of the customer instead of answering to the needs of the customer. The purpose of marketing should be to find needs — not to find wants.

People do not know what they want. They barely know what they need, but they definitely do not know what they want. They’re conditioned by the limited imagination of what is possible. … Most of the time, focus groups are built on the pressure of ignorance.

Vignelli adds to history’s most beautiful definitions of love:

MV: Love is a cake that comes in layers. The top layer is the most appealing one. This is the one you see first. Then you cut into it and you see many different layers. They’re all beautiful, but some are sweeter than others.

How do I define love? I define it as a very intense passion on the one hand, and a very steady level on the other. The first layer, the one of passion, is the most troublesome. God, it’s a pain.

DM: Why?

MV: Because the more you love, the more jealous you get. You become jealous of everything, the air around the person, the people, a look, even the way they look at something. Then there is the extreme pleasure of writing about love, as well. This is fascinating to me. The layer of correspondence — and the anxiety to receive answers. That is great.

Finally you come to the physical layer. The emotion of receiving and conveying pleasure is sensational. It’s unbelievable how your entire body becomes a messenger. Your fingers, lips, eyes, smells. Your whole body becomes involved.

Then there is the layer of suffering. Distance, remoteness, no presence, horror. The suffering of not seeing who you want to see, and not being with whom you love. This is another painful aspect of love. We are talking about pain. All these layers define love. I think that is why it’s so great and so extremely complex.

Like other great creators, including Paula Scher, William Gibson, and Henry Miller, Vignelli recognizes the combinatorial quality of creative work as a sum-total of one’s lived experience:

One of the great advantages of being so concentrated on your work is that it is all there is. Everything I do comes into this and enriches me. Everything, even every book I read, enriches me.

On the life of purpose:

DM: Do you think that there’s a common denominator to people who can make a great contribution? Do you think that there’s something that–

MV: Unites them? Yes. What in Greek is called sympathy, the synchronization of pathos. You feel this incredible level of connection with these people. To a certain extent, it is equally comparable to love.

On the poetics of New York, echoing Anaïs Nin:

New York is a fabulous city. It’s like a magnet. I can’t leave anymore. There is nothing that can compare to New York. And it is not even beautiful. There are hundreds, thousands of other cities that are much more beautiful. But there is only one New York.

On design vs. art:

DM: How do you generally start a project?

MV: By listening as much as I can. I am convinced the solution is always in the problem. You could do a design that you like, but it doesn’t solve the problem. Design must solve a problem. Then, the design is exciting. But I find it extremely difficult. This is why I respect artists. Without a problem, I don’t exist. Artists are lucky; they can work by themselves. They don’t need a problem.

Three years after the publication of How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer, Vignelli joined Millman on her inimitable Design Matters podcast, which was recently awarded the People’s Design Award from the Cooper Hewitt National Design Awards. The interview is well worth a listen in its entirety, but here are some of the most stimulating bits:

On the designer’s responsibility to elevate people rather than lower them down, echoing E. B. White on the responsibility of the writer:

Marketing people look down to people. Instead, a good designer or a good, responsible client looks up to people. … One has to believe in the redeeming factor of education, in the redeeming factor of not spreading vulgarity. … Commercial things are done by people that want to exploit other people and couldn’t care less about quality. We are interested [in] quality. … Nobility is our life — isn’t that great?

On combating vulgarity with intellectual refinement and education as a filtration tool:

Knowledge brings you sifting ability.

On print vs. digital books:

Good things will have permanence. Good books will probably stay as a printed form.

A superb definition of “junk”:

Something which is trendy, which is not lasting value, something which is just phony, something which is just insensitive in the details, something which is not elegant, something which is not strong…

On the three pillars of the future of design education:

A designer without a sense of history is worth nothing.

Two years later, in 2012, Millman interviewed Vignelli in this beautiful short film directed by the late and great Hillman Curtis:

Good design is ubiquitous and forever. Bad design is localized and temporary, ephemeral.

You can subscribe to Design Matters on iTunes, download The Vignelli Canon as a free PDF or grab a proper print beauty, and treat yourself to How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer.

IMAGE: Painting of Massimo Vignelli by Jessica Helfand via Design Observer

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