The discipline of design: Massimo Vignelli’s monastic modernism

This post was first published on Creative Bloq as What Massimo Vignelli can teach designers today.

Massimo Vignelli (1931-2014), who died last week, was one of the great designers of the 20th century. The principles he applied to his work tell us a lot about what design is and isn’t.

Vignelli, his wife and lifelong business partner Lella, and the many designers who learned their trade at his New York agency Vignelli Associates (including luminaries such as Michael Bierut) produced many of the most iconic designs of the past 50 years, defining visual identities for the New York City subway, IBM, American Airlines and the US National Parks Service. As well as the graphic design with which he is most often associated Vignelli’s range extended to consumer products, furniture, clothing and architecture (even church interiors.)

The internet emerged too late in Vignelli’s career to allow him to do much design for the web, though he was fascinated by the new medium and its possibilities. But he was one of the pioneers of the principles and techniques that shaped much of the design of the 20th century and which have had a profound impact on the processes and aesthetics of digital design.

Vignelli developed his craft during the golden age of 20th century modernist design, the post-war era when the systematic approach to graphic design pioneered during the 1920s and 30s by movements such as the Bauhaus, the Constructivists and de Stilj was refined into a rigorous set of maxims and processes suitable for day-to-day commercial work. The body of design theory and best practice formulated during the 1950s, 60s and 70s continues to serve as bedrock knowledge for today’s designers.

Vignelli, along with other leading 20th century designers including Josef Müller-Brockmann and Paul Rand, made a significant contribution to that process of professionalisation, applying modernist design principles with uncompromising rigour. Though he was a man of great personal warmth and humour, Vignelli’s understanding of the nature and practice of design was austere: a severe, ascetic discipline, demanding self-denial and humility. His ideal designer is more monk than artist, guided not by the pursuit of beauty or a desire for self-expression but by the forensic application of objective design principles to every project, large or small.

Vignelli outlined his design methodology in many interviews and articles, but it is summarised with particular clarity in The Vignelli Canon, a short book he wrote towards the end of his career now available as a free PDF download. The first half of the Canon, setting out Vignelli’s fundamental design principles in no more than 40 pages, is one of the clearest guides to the modernist design aesthetic available anywhere.

The designer’s first objective when beginning a new project is to attain a clear understanding of what he called the ‘semantics’ of the task: the nature of the client and their audience, and how the subject of the design will relate to sender and receiver in such as way as to make sense to both. Once these are understood the it is possible to develop the design’s ‘syntax’, the visual grammar most suitable for the task at hand. As Vignelli puts it:

The consistency of a design is provided by the appropriate relationship of the various syntactical elements of the project: how type relates to grids and images from page to page throughout the whole project. Or, how type sizes relate to each other. Or, how pictures relate to each other and how the parts relate to the whole. There are ways to achieve all this that are correct, as there are others that are incorrect, and should be avoided.

The project’s semantics and syntax establish the bounds within which the designer’s imagination should be exercised. For the professional designer creativity only comes into play within the grid of possibilities established through completion of the first two stages in the design process. These principles – semantics, syntax and appropriateness – should be applied to all projects across every field of ‘Design’ (a word Vignelli often capitalised) whether the subject be the layout of a business card or the structure of a skyscraper:

The discipline of Design is one and can be applied to many different subjects, regardless of style. Design discipline is above and beyond any style. All style requires discipline in order to be expressed. Very often people think that Design is a particular style. Nothing could be more wrong! Design is a discipline, a creative process with its own rules, controlling the consistency of its output toward its objective in the most direct and expressive way.

‘Intellectual elegance’

For Vignelli design should exhibit ‘intellectual elegance’, a painstaking clarity of thought his Canon describes in the most exalted tones:

We often talk about Intellectual Elegance, not to be confused with the elegance of manners and mores. For me, intellectual elegance is the sublime level of intelligence which has produced all the masterpieces in the history of mankind.

It is the elegance we find in Greek statues, in Renaissance paintings, in the sublime writings of Goethe, and many great creative minds.

It is the elegance of Architecture of any period, the Music of all times, the clarity of Science through the ages. It is the thread that guides us to the best solution of whatever we do. It is the definitive goal of our minds – the one beyond compromises.

It elevates the most humble artefact to a noble stand. Intellectual elegance is also our civic consciousness, our social responsibility, our sense of decency, our way of conceiving Design, our moral imperative. Again, it is not a design style, but the deepest meaning and the essence of Design.

Intellectual elegance gives a design an eternal quality:

We are for a Design that lasts, that responds to people’s needs and to people’s wants. We are for a Design that is committed to a society that demands long lasting values. A society that earns the benefit of commodities and deserves respect and integrity.

Vignelli’s exhortations, particularly in the appropriately named Canon, have a religious intensity. Design is his ineffable, austere deity, intellectual elegance a sacrament. Like many designers of his generation he dressed simply, often in black, an austere uniform somewhat evocative of the monk’s habit. For 20th century modernists in every field – design, literature, art, music and architecture – the collapse of traditional religious belief left a vacuum that human culture had to fill. The pursuit of excellence took the place of the worship of God.

Certainly, Vignelli’s best work has a profound simplicity, evoking something of the ambience of religious symbolism: think Orthodox icons, severe Reformed church architecture and the austere spaces of Gothic cathedrals. His graphic design, with its rigorous application of modernist typographic principles, is of particular interest for digital designers.

All of his designs make disciplined use of the grid, organising content into the modules created by the interplay of rows and columns, his use of asymmetry and whitespace investing his layouts with tension and dynamism. The use of horizontal rules to underline the visual hierarchy of content was a particular characteristic of his work. For Vignelli whitespace evokes the great open spaces of the American landscape, and gridlines are redolent of musical notation:

It is just like in music, where five lines and seven notes allow one to make infinite compositions. That is the magic of the grid.

He liked strong imagery and bold colour schemes, often restricting himself to the use of the primary colours, blue, red and yellow to give his designs clarity and directness:

Visual strength is an expression of intellectual elegance and should never be confused with just visual impact – which, most of the time, is just an expression of visual vulgarity and obtrusiveness.

He employed type sparingly, often using just one typeface for each design and even then avoiding italics and bold, relying instead on gradations of scale to establish typographic hierarchy. He used no more than half a dozen classic typefaces through his entire career – making repeated use of Garamond, Bodoni, Century Expanded and Helvetica – allowing him a deep understanding of their particular characteristics. Vignelli welcomed the new design possibilities opened up by digital software but was wary of the endless options it made available:

The advent of the computer generated the phenomena called desktop publishing. This enabled anyone who could type the freedom of using any available typeface and do any kind of distortion. It was a disaster of mega proportions. A cultural pollution of incomparable dimension. As I said, at the time, if all people doing desktop publishing were doctors we would all be dead! Typefaces experienced an incredible explosion. The computer allowed anybody to design new typefaces and that became one of the biggest visual pollution of all times.

A deceptive simplicity

Vignelli’s graphic design work has a deceptive simplicity. Simple grids. Simple use of whitespace. Simple photography. Simple typography. Any designer might think: ‘I could do that.’

And they would be right. Vignelli’s work is eminently accessible. There is nothing mysterious about it. Everything is transparent, out in the open. His designs were created in the full light of well established design principles that anyone can learn and implement. That is the whole point of the modernist design process: to move design from the cloudy subjective realm of inspiration to the well-lit objective world of documented repeatable process.

But the peculiar intensity of Vignelli’s life and work indicates that knowledge of sound design principles is not enough. Design is not merely an intellectual process, it is a moral discipline. The obsessive, exalted terms in which Vignelli refers to ‘Design’ demonstrates his acute understanding of the self-sacrifice that good work requires. The designer committed to intellectual elegance must overcome the perennial temptation to adopt design as a channel for self-expression, to follow fashion, to try out new techniques unsuitable for the task at hand. For Vignelli, all of that is ‘vulgarity’:

We are definitively against any fashion of design and any design fashion. We despise the culture of obsolescence, the culture of waste, the cult of the ephemeral. We detest the demand of temporary solutions, the waste of energies and capital for the sake of novelty.

Good design has a moral dimension. Its function is to meet the common interest of all parties: the client, their audience, and wider society. The designer should find satisfaction in the conscientious realisation of the project’s objectives, not the expression of a personal vision.

For Vignelli this austere discipline was an absorbing life-long pursuit: even the most humdrum project is fulfilling if it follows the correct process:

I strongly believe that design should never be boring, but I don’t think it should be a form of entertainment. Good design is never boring, only bad design is.

Some designers, like Vignelli, will find design an all-consuming passion. Like him, they will be entranced precisely because of the discipline it demands, the purity of intention it requires.

But others will find that design, as conceived by Vignelli, is not a sufficiently broad channel for all that they might want to express. And there is nothing wrong with that. Designers are often frustrated by the limitations that professional design for clients imposes on their scope for free expression. But Vignelli’s understanding of the nature of design is surely right: it is a pragmatic, technical pursuit, not an artistic one. The very nature of design means it cannot serve as a vehicle for subjective expression. That would be to misunderstand the kind of discipline it is.

Designers for whom design, so to speak, is not enough, need not give it up, but make sure they have other creative outlets, such as art, illustration, painting, music, or writing. It is unfortunate that design is so often represented as a ‘creative’ field without qualification of what the word ‘creative’ means in this context. Understood correctly, the creativity that designers exercise is constrained, channelled within the parameters set by the task at hand. The designer, unlike the artist, does not begin with a blank canvas.

Vignelli was a great designer because he understood the ascetic nature of design, and loved it for that very reason. In that sense, perhaps, he was rather unusual. For many of us design will provide professional satisfaction, but no more – and no less – than that. Vignelli’s example teaches us what we should expect from design, and what we should not, and the satisfaction and sacrifice involved in doing it well.