The Vignelli Canon: a Modernist design classic
The Vignelli Canon is the little red book where Italian designer Massimo Vignelli presents his life’s work through his design philosophy and a wealth of examples.
“I don’t believe that when you write dog, the type should bark!”
Massimo Vignelli could be dogmatic, but then he was a utilitarian, a modernist and a vocal critic of bad design. He could be too dogmatic at times and held views that could be surprisingly reactionary, and I’ll touch on this later.
There are many opinions in The Vignelli Canon, the little red book where Italian designer Massimo Vignelli presents his life’s work through his design philosophy and a wealth of classic examples. It’s an amazing achievement having the wealth of his experience compressed into 110 A5 pages.
It’s a swift read and as with Vignelli, there is always going to be a lot of white space. That doesn’t imply that it’s skimpy and insignificant. It is an insightful and highly practical read.
His socialist sounding diatribes were a by-product of his Bauhaus inspired design education, not some Marxist-tinged ideology. As Quentin Newark says “I think Vignelli was a non-doctrinaire instinctive follower of Utilitarianism.”  He came from and was inspired by a long line of 20th-century designers who thought they could change society fundamentally through design. Like another inspiration of mine, Dieter Rams, they wanted to strip products of artifice and waste in favour of usability and function. Design is not about how something looks, it’s about how it works.
The Vignelli Canon is not a dry academic book. His spirit and charisma shine through. Michael Bierut in tribute to his generosity said that he was, “warm, emotional, generous [ . . . ] and for me, there would only be one: my teacher, my mentor, my boss, my hero, my friend, Massimo Vignelli.”  He is someone that would make a very entertaining dinner guest.
I first discovered Vignelli through a visit to The Museum of Modern Art in New York. I was immediately struck by the beautiful minimalism of his work, which has been a powerful influence on me. He’s an ever-present mentor whatever the design fashion dictates.
Even when designing for the web, his process and examples are still relevant and can be adapted to anything that needs to be designed and manufactured.
The Canon is divided into two parts elegantly named The Intangibles and The Tangibles.
The Intangibles outlines his philosophy of design.
The three terms that form the backbone of his philosophy are Semantics, Syntactics and Pragmatics.
Semantics is understanding the object in all aspects, and to “design something that has meaning, that is not arbitrary.” He goes on to say that “there are designers and marketing people who intentionally looks down on the consumer with the notion that vulgarity has a definite appeal to the masses.”
Syntactics is the syntax of design, that provides “many components [ . . . ], overall structure, the grid, the typefaces, the text and headlines, the illustrations.”
Pragmatics is the usefulness of the object. “Any artefact should stand by itself in all its clarity.”
He writes in a spare and pithy style, full of aphorisms: “Design is one – it is not many different ones” or “Modernism is not a style but the projection of an ideology encompassing awareness of the production process plus final destination of its products. Styles are just the opposite.”
Le Corbusier was his first formative influence, then Mies van der Rohe becoming his greatest teacher and this gives a clue to Vignelli’s taste. He reserves the phrase ‘elegant mind’ for describing people and designers who bring excellence to their work. “Visual strength is an expression of intellectual elegance.” It is specifically the word ‘elegance’, which he uses many times throughout the book, becoming a defining keyword for great design.
In the last section of Intangibles, he becomes very critical of marketing research. “To protect industries investments, they ask what they want instead of what they need. Market research reduces the fear of failure a common ‘disease’ of companies.” He could be contentious. Vignelli was always against focus groups and consumer research. He argued that focus groups with ‘housewives’ leads to devalued and uninspired products. I do disagree with him when he says things like ‘Good design needs courage not focus groups”.
The main argument that emerges from The Intangibles is that a designer should be able to create anything, be it kitchen appliances, posters or signage. A designer uses a process that can be focused on any solution.
Part Two is a more practical discourse on design methodology and there is some surprisingly practical advice on the craft of design.
He goes into remarkable detail, even going as far as explaining how he styles rules and borders on a page. It’s a small but fascinating glimpse into his everyday methodology.
On the section on Paper sizes, he states in a wonderfully combative way, “The US uses a basic letter size. It is the by-product of free enterprise, competition and waste.”
Grids were the bedrock of all design for Vignelli and the introduction of the ‘grid’ to American design is attributed to him.
“The grid represents the basic structure of our graphic design, it helps to organise the content, it provides consistency, it gives an orderly look and it projects a level of intellectual elegance that we like to express.”
There are some superb examples of his grid being used in designing many variations of one basic company letterhead.
His editorial layout sketches are stunning, laying out entire storyboards for book and magazines with enormous fidelity, reminding me of Ridley Scott’s perfectly realised film storyboards.
One of my favourite quotes is of contrasting type size when he says, “in a world where everybody screams, silence is noticeable”. Elegantly put. Vignelli in a sentence.
A modern reactionary
On the subject of typography, Vignelli was uncompromising. Typography is not “intended as an expression of the self, as a pretext for pictorial exercises”. There are only four typefaces that he sought to use; Century Expanded, Bodoni, Garamond, Helvetica, and believed the number of good typefaces to be limited. Without doubt, Helvetica was his signature face.
This exactness feels like it was bordering on mania, and it was an impressive commitment to his vocation. He was more akin to a monk in his refusal to give into temptations of cheap commercialism.
Yet at times he was extremely dismissive of those designers he saw as not following the tenants of Modernism down to the perfectly spaced letter. This can be a surprising aspect of Vignelli’s personality.
In an essay called Kicking up a Little Dust, Michael Dooley talks about Vignelli’s criticism of the controversial design magazine, Emigre, in which he accused the magazine and in turn, its creator, VanderLans, of “being an irresponsible aberration of culture.” That’s tough stuff and feels very personal. As VanderLans said, “the problem I have is when people talk about our work as being incorrect as if there was never a place for it anywhere, I believe that is wrong… To me it looks like the world of young designers, what they are thinking and what they are feeling, is passing Massimo Vignelli by.”
Vignelli openly disliked typographic experiments of designers like David Carson and Carlos Segura in the early 90s. Gary Hewitt retells a story of him being asked by a journalist what he thought of Carson. “Oh, I love him, he’s fantastic!” Massimo replied. Then the journalist asked him what he thought of Carson’s design work. “I love it, it’s fantastic. It’s not graphic design, but it’s fantastic!” Vignelli might have been opinionated, but at least he could show a sense of humour at times.
Wasn’t his criticism of this progressive younger generation unjust, especially since he had started out as a revolutionary of sorts? April Greiman, the pioneering digital designer said, “I think the reason Vignelli would be outraged is that the whole International Style represents a dinosaur that definitely wagging its tail for the last time.” That was written over 25 years ago and still, modernism continues to have a huge influence for better or worse.
With so much criticism back and forth, it’s hard to square the image of a genteel and elegant man who could assault works of a younger generation. I’d like to feel that this doesn’t colour my view of his legacy, and it shouldn’t. Do we still see designers as some moral guardian like the modernist ideology had earnestly sought to create early in the 20th century?
In the late 90s, as a surprise to many, he produced a direct-mail promotion for the typeface Filosofia. Zuzana Licko co-creator of Emigre wondered whether “Massimo’s willingness to collaborate on our announcement reflects Emigre’s ability to bridge different approaches.” Maybe he was mellowing.
The last of the Modernists
Massimo Vignelli died in 2014 and it feels like he was one of the last of the great modernists that stretched from the beginnings of modern design to the digital age.
The Canon is a stimulating read and an essential book for all designers to sit alongside Elements of Style and Universal Principles of Design. It’s a wonderfully inspiring book and one I return to when I need a shot of motivation.
Book photography by David Hall.