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

“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.

Massimo Vignelli by Jessica Helfand
Massimo Vignelli by Jessica Helfand

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.


Chu’s Day: Neil Gaiman’s Charming Children’s Book

“It’s the shortest book I’ve ever written and, right now, I think it might be the one I’m most proud of.”

In March of 2011, author Neil Gaimandisciplined storyteller, champion of the arts — journeyed to China to write the English scripts for a 3D feature film adaptation of the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West. There, he had a baby giant panda sit on his lap and eat bamboo — an experience just as irresistibly adorable as you’d imagine, and one that inspired Gaiman to write his shortest book yet, a children’s story about a sneezing baby panda. Titled Chu’s Day (UK; public library) and tenderly illustrated by artist Adam Rex, the little gem is out this week as a delightful contemporary addition to other children’s books by famous authors of grown-up literature.


Sherwood Anderson on Art and Life: A Letter of Advice to His Teenage Son

“The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.”

The quest to find one’s purpose and live the creative life boldly is neither simple nor easy, especially for a young person trying to make sense of the world and his place in it.

In the spring of 1926, Sherwood Anderson (September 13, 1876–March 8, 1941) sent his seventeen-year-old son John a beautiful addition to history’s greatest letters of fatherly advice. Found in Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children (public library), the missive offers insight on everything from knowing whose advice not to take to the false allure of money to the joy of making things with your hands:

The best thing, I dare say, is first to learn something well so you can always make a living. Bob seems to be catching on at the newspaper business and has had another raise. He is getting a good training by working in a smaller city. As for the scientific fields, any of them require a long schooling and intense application. If you are made for it nothing could be better. In the long run you will have to come to your own conclusion.

The arts, which probably offer a man more satisfaction, are uncertain. It is difficult to make a living.

If I had my own life to lead over I presume I would still be a writer but I am sure I would give my first attention to learning how to do things directly with my hands. Nothing gives quite the satisfaction that doing things brings.

Above all avoid taking the advice of men who have no brains and do not know what they are talking about. Most small businessmen say simply — ‘Look at me.’ They fancy that if they have accumulated a little money and have got a position in a small circle they are competent to give advice to anyone.

Next to occupation is the building up of good taste. That is difficult, slow work. Few achieve it. It means all the difference in the world in the end.

I am constantly amazed at how little painters know about painting, writers about writing, merchants about business, manufacturers about manufacturing. Most men just drift.

There is a kind of shrewdness many men have that enables them to get money. It is the shrewdness of the fox after the chicken. A low order of mentality often goes with it.

Above all I would like you to see many kinds of men at first hand. That would help you more than anything. Just how it is to be accomplished I do not know. Perhaps a way may be found. Anyway, I’ll see you this summer. We begin to pack for the country this week.

With love,


The following year, after Anderson and his wife took eighteen-year-old John and his sister Marion to Europe, the boy remained in Paris to study painting. Drawing on his own artistic experience and the parallels between writing and painting, Sherwood sent John another poignant letter of advice in April of 1927, adding to history’s finest definitions of art and stressing the importance of discipline in cultivating “talent”:

In relation to painting.

Don’t be carried off your feet by anything because it is modern — the latest thing.

Go to the Louvre often and spend a good deal of time before the Rembrandts, the Delacroixs.

Learn to draw. Try to make your hand so unconsciously adept that it will put down what you feel without your having to think of your hands.

Then you can think of the thing before you.

Draw things that have some meaning to you. An apple, what does it mean? The object drawn doesn’t matter so much.

It’s what you feel about it, what it means to you.

A masterpiece could be made of a dish of turnips.

Draw, draw, hundreds of drawings.

Try to remain humble. Smartness kills everything.

The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.

Any cleanness I have in my own life is due to my feeling for words.

The fools who write articles about me think that one morning I suddenly decided to write and began to produce masterpieces.

There is no special trick about writing or painting either. I wrote constantly for 15 years before I produced anything with any solidity to it.


The thing of course, is to make yourself alive. Most people remain all of their lives in a stupor.

The point of being an artist is that you may live.


You won’t arrive. It is an endless search.

I write as though you were a man. Well, you must know my heart is set on you. It isn’t your success I want.

There is a possibility of your having a decent attitude toward people and work. That alone may make a man of you.

Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children is a delicious read in its entirety. Couple this particular excerpt with Georgia O’Keeffe’s spectacular letter to Sherwood Anderson, three years earlier, on success and what it really means to be an artist.


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