Standing on Shoulders:
Lella and Massimo Vignelli
October 11, 2015
By Dan Donovan
The September 15, 2015 Standing on Shoulders event hosted by our chapter’s Expert Designers was the latest installment in the ongoing series examining the lives and careers of historic graphic designers.
Guest lecturer/author Jan Conradi’s presentation was a personal reflection on the lives and work of Massimo and Lella Vignelli. Jan interviewed Massimo in the 1980s while she was still a student at Iowa State University, and kept in contact with Massimo and Lella until his death in 2014. Her insights into the working relationship between the two and their staff are the basis for her recent book, “Lella and Massimo Vignelli: Two Lives, One Vision.” Jan is Professor of Graphic Design at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey.
“Modernism was never a style, it was an attitude.”
The Vignellis lived the Modernist ideal that people can create, improve, and reshape their environment through the “resourceful use of space and materials, clear communication, lasting quality, and logical functionality.” In their work, this meant using a minimal aesthetic, design systems (grids), and a narrow range of typefaces* to create sophisticated systems that are filled with color, variation, and invention. This resulted in bright, approachable design for clients such as Knoll Furniture, Alcoa, American Airlines, Bloomingdales, and the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
*Massimo was a man with strong opinions. He wrote that, “In the new computer age, the proliferation of typefaces and type manipulations represents a new level of visual pollution threatening our culture. Out of thousands of typefaces, all we need are a few basic ones, and trash the rest.”
“Design is not decoration; design solves problems.”
The Vignellis introduced design concepts to corporate and government clients that were revolutionary and often met with resistance. For Alcoa, they designed a structured format for their advertising that helped establish a common branding platform. At first, the agency art directors resisted the format, but accepted it when they saw how flexible and visually brilliant it was. The design staff at the National Parks Service also resisted the Unigrid format that was designed in 1977 to unify communications materials across a wide variety of formats. Once they began using it, they found that it not only yielded great designs, it also improved production efficiency. You can still see the Vignelli design today in the maps for many National Parks.
The design of the 1972 New York City Subway map was also a ground-breaking piece of infographics that has influenced graphic designers to the present day. It was an early example of how to condense complex information into an understandable format. (I shared examples of two of the original subway maps during Jan’s presentation.)
“We like design to be visually powerful, intellectually elegant, and above all timeless.”
For all of their cool rationality, Massimo and Lella Vignelli radiated a sense of warmth and good humor. Jan’s experiences in their home in New York, surrounded by their own home furnishings designs, were revealing in their intimacy. Jan’s presentation was thoughtful and engaging and showed us a unique viewpoint into the personal and professional lives of two influential graphic designers.
Vignelli book discount
Jan has arranged for a discounted price for her book,“Lella and Massimo Vignelli: Two Lives, One Vision,” through RIT Press. If you are interested, go to the RIT website and enter “AIGA2015” as the discount code with your order to receive 20% off the price (which is better than Amazon).
We want to thank Carmichael Lynch for opening their offices for our event, and the Expert Designers committee members who produced the event.
Photos by Jay Larson (to come)