Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘design’

10 JANUARY, 2013

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

By:

“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

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

31 DECEMBER, 2012

Creativity Is Like a Slot Machine

By:

“To invent, you have to take the odd and the strange combination of the years of knowledge and experience.”

In How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer (UK; public library), Debbie Millman (previously) sits down with 20 of today’s most celebrated graphic designers to unravel the secrets of their creative process, work ethic, and general philosophy on life. The result is a kind of modern-day equivalent of the 1942 gem Anatomy of Inspiration, presenting a rare glimpse of the creative machinery behind some of today’s most talented and influential designers through conversations that reveal in equal measure their purposeful brilliance and tender humanity.

One of the most stimulating interviews is with the inimitable Paula Scher — identity and branding goddess, Pentagram partner, maker of magnificent hand-drawn maps, tireless champion of combinatorial creativity — who echoes Thoreau in this beautiful, poetic definition of success:

If I get up every day with the optimism that I have the capacity for growth, then that’s success for me.

Like many of history’s greatest scientists, Scher speaks to the power of intuition and additive knowledge in sparking those creative Eureka! moments, stressing the importance of what novelist William Gibson has termed “personal micro-culture.” She illustrates the point with an exquisite metaphor:

There’s a certain amount of intuitive thinking that goes into everything. It’s so hard to describe how things happen intuitively. I can describe it as a computer and a slot machine. I have a pile of stuff in my brain, a pile of stuff from all the books I’ve read and all the movies I’ve seen. Every piece of artwork I’ve ever looked at. Every conversation that’s inspired me, every piece of street art I’ve seen along the way. Anything I’ve purchased, rejected, loved, hated. It’s all in there. It’s all on one side of the brain.

And on the other side of the brain is a specific brief that comes from my understanding of the project and says, okay, this solution is made up of A, B, C, and D. And if you pull the handle on the slot machine, they sort of run around in a circle, and what you hope is that those three cherries line up, and the cash comes out.

But rather than willing the cherries into alignment, the essence of creative alchemy, says Scher, is in allowing for unconscious processing — that intuitive incubation period, to use T.S. Eliot’s term, that allows for all the combinatorial pieces gathered over years of being alive and awake to the world to click into place, to congeal into what we call “invention”:

I am conscious of resolving the brief, but I don’t think about it too hard. I allow the subconscious part of my brain to work. That’s the accumulation of my whole life. That is what’s going on in the other side of my brain, trying to align with this very logical brief.

And I’m allowing that to flow freely, so that the cherries can line up in the slot machine. I don’t know when that’s going to happen. I’ve had periods of time when the cherries never line up, and that’s scary, because then you have to rely on tricks you already have up your sleeve — the tricks in your knowledge from other jobs. And very often you rely on this.

But mostly what you want to do is invent. And to invent, you have to take the odd and the strange combination of the years of knowledge and experience on one side of the brain, and on the other side, the necessity for the brief to make sense. And you’re drawing from that knowledge to make an analogy and to find a way to solve a problem, to find a means of moving forward — in a new way — things you’ve already done.

When you succeed, it’s fantastic. It doesn’t always happen. But every so often, you take a bunch of stuff from one side of your head, and a very logical list of stuff from the other side, and through that osmosis you’re finding a new way to look at a problem and resolve a situation.

Perhaps George Lois was right, after all, when he stated that creativity is discovering ideas rather than “creating” them and John Cleese correctly defined it as “a way of operating” rather than a mystical talent.

How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer is fantastic in its entirety — highly recommended.

Photograph via AIGA

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

31 DECEMBER, 2012

British vs. American Politics in Minimalist Vintage Infographics

By:

A visual time-capsule of political parallels and contrasts.

This month marked the 130th birthday of pioneering Austrian sociologist, philosopher, and curator Otto Neurath, who in the 1930s, together with his wife Marie, invented ISOTYPE — the vintage visual language of pictograms that gave rise to modern infographics. After recently coming upon some fantastic mid-century ISOTYPE infographics comparing and contrasting Great Britain and the United States, I embarked upon a quest to hunt down one of the last surviving copies of the book from which they came — America and Britain: Three Volumes in One (UK; public library), originally published in 1946 and long out of print.

With 53 ISOTYPE charts in color created by Neurath himself and 97 black-and-white photographs from various government archives, the book “brings together all the more important aspects of America and Britain” in three different sections: Only an Ocean Between explores “how Britain and America are alike or are different in their climate, their geography, their natural and human resources, their transport facilities, and other basic conditions of life and work”; Our Private Lives contrasts family life in both countries — “domestic habits and customs, how the British and Americans court and get married, build and furnish homes, shop, cook and eat, work and play, go to church and school”; Our Two Democracies at Work examines political structures in Britain and America.

This having been an election year in the U.S. and thus a boon for political design, I was particularly intrigued by the infographics in the third part of the book. More than a mere treasure trove of vintage graphic design, however, these charts present not only a parallel time-capsule of mid-century politics in Britain and the United States, but also a fascinating and rather visceral reminder of how much has changed over the past half-century — and how much has remained nearly the same.

D. W. Brogan writes in the foreword to the section:

Luck has played its part in the history of Britain and of the United States. Much of their success is explicable in terms of geography, natural resources, the happy conjunction of time and place. But there remains an element that it is and was easy to underrate, especially when a bogus realism and a naive materialism led to a depreciation of the traditional importance given to politics.

It is the basic merit of this book that it calls our attention to the role of political institutions and American and British life. It is made plain here that much of the success of the British and American peoples has been made possible because they found or made institutions that not only suited them at the beginning, but continued to suit them — with necessary and sometimes very expensive adaptations. But a consequence of this process of continuous adaptation is that as each system of government has been modified by historical experience — and has affected the historical development of the country concerned — the political habits of the British and American peoples have diverged more and more.

For a nitpicky observation of the era’s characteristic gender bias, note that all the Senators and Representatives are depicted using the male-figure pictogram — a choice that would be particularly anachronistic today, in the year of binders full of political diversity:

As a lover of famous city grids, I was also delighted by these two maps of London and New York’s growth:

Complement these vintage gems with the story of ISOTYPE’s birth.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.