Almost everyone reading this article will, knowingly or unknowingly, be familiar with Massimo Vignelli’s volume of work. Famously exclaiming that “if you can design one thing, you can design everything”, he was a true Michelangelo of the design world, with a prolific career spanning over six decades and several areas of design. A modernist at heart, Vignelli “helped shape the visual and cultural landscape of the 20th century”, with a simple, clean, and above all, timeless approach to design. So what lessons can he give to designers today; and how can he help us, as consumers, distinguish between ‘good’ design, and ‘bad’ design?
Born in pre-War Italy, Vignelli became obsessed with design from an early age. He attributes his ‘eureka moment’ to a meeting with one of his mother’s interior design friends; where he realised for the first time that his environment was the product of human intention – “someone had ‘made it so’”. From there, he attended architectural college in Venice, where he studied under a professor who instilled in his students the notion that good architects “should be able to design everything from a spoon to a city”. Vignelli took this mantra and ran with it. Describing himself as a “design groupie”, he became fast friends with a number of eminent designers of the time – Charles Eames (furniture designer) and Le Corbusier (architect) to name but a few.
In the 1960’s he moved to America, where he was responsible for designing the New York City subway map. A triumph of modernist design, he managed to translate the tangle of subway lines into a coherent, minimalist masterpiece – a distillation of which is still in use today. After setting up Vignelli Associates with his wife (fellow designer Lella), he turned his attention to branding; giving the Midas touch to American Airlines, Bloomingdales and IBM – all of which still use the logos that he designed today.
Vignelli was known as much for his opinions on design as the designs themselves. A staunch advocate of the font Helvetica, Vignelli believed that there was no need for more than 5 fonts in graphic design; you could express all you needed to in Helvetica, Times Roman, Bodoni, Futura or Century (“There are people that think that type should be expressive. They have a different point of view from mine.”).
He also believed that good design is rooted in responsibility:
“People are fascinated with trends; everybody likes to be ‘trendy’, to be ‘up to date’ – but it’s ‘up to date’ today, and gone tomorrow. If you are a responsible kind of designer, you cannot design things that tomorrow are no good anymore. You are cheating your client, your public, your user.”
So what message does he have for young designers? Firstly; learn from the greats – study the work of successful designers, and know the theories and development of design. Secondly; continually process and assess the world around you – be critical of it; think of ways to improve it. Thirdly; possess integrity – “remember that the word aesthetics contains the word ethics; without this one the first one no longer exists!”
And what about us mere mortals: the client, the customer, the consumer? According to Vignelli, “you must train yourself to be disciplined; to stay away from trends. In that way, you get automatically involved with the notion of timelessness.” As a designer who’s work is a testament to timeless design, Vignelli’s advocacy for responsibility of design – and consumption of design – is also a message of sustainability; buying great design diminishes the need (or want) to dispose of it.
This notion of design based upon simplicity and integrity formed the cornerstone of Icon By Design’s foundation. We wanted to offer a range of solid timber furniture that was as beautiful and current today, as it will be in 20 years. We achieved this in a number of ways; elegant design, using sustainably-sourced solid timbers, built to last with traditional carpentry techniques. But we also value the importance of making good design accessible. That’s why we streamlined our supply chain to be able to offer the Australian public great design, at affordable prices. We think Vignelli would approve.