A Memorable Identity: Massimo Vignelli

Among America’s greatest-ever graphic designers, the name Massimo Vignelli looms large. Although he was born in Milan, Italy, Vignelli lived more than half a century in the United States and produced his most beloved and greatest work in his adopted land.

Blue-Chip Clients

Vignelli was one of the nation’s most famous designers of corporate identities, producing branding and logos for Ford Motor Company, American Airlines, Xerox Corporation, Aetna Insurance, Berkshire Hathaway, JC Penney, Knoll International, McGraw-Hill Publishing, Memorex and Bloomingdale’s department stores, among others. His most celebrated work, however, was the creation of an official map, signage and design guidelines for the New York City subway system, known locally as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).

Throughout much of his long career, Vignelli collaborated with his wife Lella, who was also a trained architect. The two formed the Massimo and Lella Vignelli Office of Design and Architecture in Milan before creating the firm Unimark International in Chicago in 1965 with partners Ralph Eckerstrom, Bob Noorda, Wally Gutches, James Fogelman and Larry Klein. Later, the pair went back to working exclusively with each other as Vignelli Associates in 1971 and adding a product design partnership, Vignelli Designs, in 1978. They were inseparable until Massimo’s death in 2014. Their long list of blue-chip clients rivaled those of the greatest graphic identity talents of the 1960s and 1970s, including Chermayeff & Geismar, Pentagram, Saul Bass and Milton Glaser. Although many of their clients were among America’s more conservative corporations, their work was renowned for its wit, stylishness, elegance and simplicity. As Vignelli put it, “If you can design one thing, you can design anything.”

From Architect in Italy to Designer in America

Vignelli was born in 1931 and studied architecture in Milan and Venice. While in his 20s, he worked as a draftsman for the legendary architect and product designer Achille Castiglioni. Vignelli slowly transitioned into a designer of interiors, exhibitions, products and furniture. As Vignelli saw it, architects inherently “should be able to design everything from a spoon to a city.”

In 1957, Vignelli came to America for teaching fellowships at the Illinois Institute of Technology and Towle Silversmiths in Massachusetts. In 1960, he returned to Italy to teach in Venice and Milan, but only briefly. Corporate identity became a mainstay of Vignelli’s interest, and he honed this discipline and built a venerable reputation in this craft. In 1965, he and his wife founded Unimark, which quickly ramped up to 11 offices handling American and international clients in Chicago, New York, Cleveland, Detroit, Denver, San Francisco, London, Milan, Melbourne, Johannesburg and Copenhagen. In Europe, the firm took on assignments from Cassina Furniture and Pirelli Tires. In America, Ford, American Airlines, JC Penney, Gillette and Knoll formed an early stable of the firm’s accounts. Unimark eventually employed more designers than any other business of its type by about 1970.

One key member of Unimark’s board of directors was former Bauhaus design wizard Herbert Bayer. By the 1960s, Bayer had not been associated with the Bauhaus for at least 25 years, but his reputation as a typographic expert and creative veteran was nearly unparalleled. Attracting him to the firm was a coup, and Bayer was able to give the company formidable design leverage when the organization was referred by a design curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art to a contact at the city’s MTA.

Groundbreaking Signage

In 1965, the MTA bureaucracy realized that its previous hodgepodge of out-of-date and inconsistent labeling for subway stations, entrances and exits were confusing for both residents and visitors, especially the crowds of up to 50 million expected for the 1964 World’s Fair. The legacy of three different historical subway networks needed to be merged not just physically, but aesthetically, so riders would have a consistent transit experience no matter what train they were riding or what destination they were traveling to. The MTA actually had to create the position of Director of Public Information in order to manage the overhaul of its disparate signage. The man who took the job, Len Ingalls, got along very well with Vignelli, who he slowly gave more and more responsibility to, culminating in the landmark redesign of the MTA’s system map.

But prior to the map, the transit system’s signage needed drastic work. Unimark’s Vignelli and Bob Noorda decided on an overriding principle for their signs: give the information that was necessary at the immediate point of journey decisions — not before, and not after. Noorda and Vignelli wanted to use the sans-serif typeface Helvetica for all of the signs, which at that time was a forward-thinking decision. After some convincing, the MTA used the closest variant they had to the type, which wasn’t regulation Helvetica but was closer to what is today referred to as Akzidenz-Grotesk.

Because subway signage was designed to be semi-permanent, graffiti was beginning to be a big problem. The decision was made to use white type on a black background rather than the reverse, so graffiti would be less noticeable. The stratagem ended up making the signs much more readable. Through a misinterpretation of Noorda and Vignelli’s directions, the MTA painted a single bold stripe across the top of each sign; the mistake soon grew on everyone involved, and it stuck. In addition to the signage, Vignelli and Noorda came up with a set of graphic standards for the MTA, which was published in 1970 and reissued in 2014.

New York’s Greatest Subway Map

While finishing work on the MTA signage, Ingalls asked Vignelli if he could work on the subway system’s map. But instead of calling the document a “map,” Vignelli preferred to call it a diagram, because, like most subway maps, the proportions, outlines and distances between geographic points don’t bear a resemblance to the sizes, shapes and proximities of land masses, bodies of water and subway stations of real-life New York City.

The genius of Vignelli’s map was to strip the existing subway map down to its simplest possible core, with all lines running at either 45-degree or 90-degree angles (something the city of London had implemented nearly a century ago), different colors to represent the different subway lines and separate paths to signify local versus express trains. The typography was rigidly uniform, and like Unimark’s MTA signage guidelines, the map used Helvetica exclusively. From a graphical point of view, Vignelli’s creation was a revelation compared with previous MTA maps, which were a mishmash of different styles, influences, typographic standards and proportions, dating back to when the different subway lines were run by separate companies that were entirely independent of one another. For many people — especially out-of-town visitors, the New York subway system — which contains over 400 unique stations and 22 lines — suddenly became comprehensible for the first time. So clear was the representation of junctions, interchanges and relationships between the lines that films such as 1979’s The Warriors used the map in various segues to connote the movement of characters underground. The map practically became a collector’s item for its cleanliness and clarity at a time when the actual MTA subway trains were known for anything but those qualities (most were covered with graffiti inside and out).

After his map was published, Vignelli critiqued it by saying he could have made it simpler still by completely eliminating all geographical information and leaving only labels that were related to the subway itself. But as it stands, the inclusion of the names of a few key places such as Central Park and the five New York City boroughs help newcomers to the city (and even longtime residents) orient themselves as far as what line and what station is located where in the city.

Vignelli’s map was in use for almost the entirety of the 1970s. As opposed to the maps that came after it, it remains a landmark of intelligent, readable and simplified design. The Museum of Modern Art added it to its postwar design collection, and commemorative editions of the map were published by Men’s Vogue magazine (a limited edition of 500 signed copies for $299 each sold out within hours) and by the MTA itself. The MTA later had Vignelli create an update of his work for an online version that guides riders through weekend service changes on the system.

Visionary Design Principles

The man who coined the phrase “information architect” — Richard Saul Wurman (who also conceived today’s globally popular TED Talks) — was highly influenced by Vignelli. His design principles of using color as a primary differentiator of information and sizes and weights of type as secondary differentiators were solidified with Vignelli’s map and went on to feature prominently in Wurman’s bestselling books on information architecture, which themselves went on to influence a generation of user interface and user experience designers for the World Wide Web.

Within his lifetime, Vignelli was anything but a resistor of technology; on the contrary, he embraced it and saw it as a driving force of humanity. If Vignelli’s work can be characterized in any way, it would be referred to as relentlessly modern. Even today, much of Vignelli’s work stands the test of time and still retains a sharpness and a relevance that few of his peers’ output can boast. Vignelli himself was an avid adopter of new tools, software, techniques and methods right up until the end of his career. Part of that came from living in New York City. But another part of it was Vignelli himself. Before computers, Vignelli said, localized context was extremely important for design. But once people all over the world began using the same tools and software, Vignelli believed, there was less of a reason for localized tradition or vernacular to influence or limit design. As Vignelli said, “Good design is ubiquitous and forever.”

Vignelli was a believer in design bearing a responsibility to society. Like his disciple Richard Saul Wurman, Vignelli believed that the best designs would make life simpler, easier, more understandable and more refined. Vignelli largely employed just a handful of typefaces for the bulk of his work: Helvetica, Bodoni, Garamond, Akzidenz-Grotesk and Century. For Vignelli, reducing his options to these timeless standbys meant that his work would be less about stylistic choices and more about intelligent layout.

National and International Recognition

Vignelli was the recipient of many awards in his lifetime, including two Compassos d’Oro from the Italian Association for Industrial Design, the Industrial Arts Medal from the American Institute of Architects, a Lifetime Achievement Award from New York’s Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Design and the first Presidential Design Award presented by President Ronald Reagan for Vignelli’s work on publications for the U.S. National Park Service. He was awarded at least seven honorary doctorate degrees and was inducted into the New York Art Directors Club Hall of Fame. Vignelli served as a president of the American Institute of the Graphic Arts (AIGA) from 1976 to 1977 and of the Alliance Graphique International (AGI) from 1985 to 1988. In 1989, an exhibition of Vignelli’s work toured nine cities around the world, and a number of television documentaries (parts of which can be seen on YouTube) have been made about Vignelli’s creations since then.

In 2010, the Vignelli Center for Design Studies, featuring the full archive of both of the Vignellis’ work, opened at the Rochester Institute of Technology. The Vignellis designed the building it’s housed in, which includes offices, classrooms and exhibition spaces. Of the space, Vignelli said, “The Vignelli Center for Design Studies will house our comprehensive archive of graphic design, furniture and objects… The first one of its kind and size, the Vignelli Center will position RIT on the international forefront of design studies.”

Epilogue

In 2011, the New York City MTA was dealing with constant service disruptions that needed to be communicated to system passengers in an organized, consistent and timely manner. The agency decided to update the version of the Vignelli map that Men’s Vogue had published in 2008. It contracted Vignelli to produce a digital version of the map that would go on an MTA mini-website called “The Weekender,” which announced weekend service changes to riders. The site and map are currently updated by the MTA as often as are necessary (typically weekly). Special printed versions of the Vignelli “Weekender” map are available through the firm SuperWarmRed Designs, founded in 2014 by Vignelli Associates alumni Yoshiki Waterhouse and Beatriz Cifuentes. (Vignelli-autographed copies of the map are also available through the firm’s website).

For early 2014, a unique version of the new Vignelli MTA map was created by Vignelli Associates for Super Bowl XLVIII, played at the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The game brought 400,000 visitors to the city, of whom 80,000 were expected to attend the game itself. For the first time, the Vignelli map showed and labeled the state of New Jersey, as well as topographical features such as the Prudential Center and MetLife Stadium buildings and the Super Bowl Boulevard. Amtrak, the Long Island Railroad, Metro-North Railroad and New Jersey Transit lines were all given equal prominence with the MTA subway lines, and the MTA issued the map on paper as well as in digital format.

Certain vintage furniture items designed by the Vignellis are available online at websites such as 1stDibs and eBay. Amazon sells new productions of the aluminum Lines Side Table, Low Table and Bench produced by Orange22 Design Lab. A limited-edition writing pen designed by Lella and Massimo Vignelli for Hawaii-based ACME Studios — the Zigrinato Phase 3 Roller Ball Pen — featuring a unique serial number, brushed-silver-over-brass finish and laser-engraved clip, is available from Amazon.com and other outlets. The pen is in the permanent design collection of Frankfurt, Germany’s Museum of Decorative Arts. Also available from the same maker is a pair of alphabet cufflinks, a bar pin set and a smaller Candy Stripe pen, all designed by both Vignellis.

In 2009, Vignelli released a free e-book called The Vignelli Canon that remains downloadable on the Vignelli Associates website. “I thought that it might be useful to pass some of my professional knowledge around with the hope of improving [young workers’] design skills. Creativity needs the support of knowledge to be able to perform at its best,” Massimo Vignelli wrote about the book. The Vignelli Canon was also published in print form in 2010 (reprinted in 2015) by Lars Muller.

Other books written and/or designed by Massimo Vignelli include the monograph design: Vignelli, first published by Rizzoli International in 1982 and updated with contributions from Germano Celant and Beatriz Cifuentes in 1990 and 2018, respectively. The book delves into the Vignellis’ products, graphics, packaging, furniture, interiors and architecture. Vignelli from A to Z, published by Images Publishing Group in 2007, covers subjects that Vignelli commented on in a course he taught at Harvard University’s School of Design and Architecture. Vignelli Drawings, published by the Vignelli Center for Design Studies in 2014, features a deconstruction of the layouts of 10 books Vignelli contributed to. Lella and Massimo Vignelli: Design Is One, co-written by Lella Vignelli and published by Images Publishing Group in 2006, is a showcase of the Vignellis’ work in multiple mediums (a 2013 documentary about the Vignellis uses almost the same title). Architecture for Benetton: Works of Afra and Tobia Scarpa and Tadao Ando, designed by Massimo Vignelli and published by Skira in 2005, presents a dissection of buildings designed for retailer Benetton by the architects Afra and Tobia Scarpa and Tadao Ando. Knoll Design, by author Eric Larrabee (Massimo Vignelli designed the book), published by Harry Abrams in 1981 (reprinted 1990), is a history of the décor and products produced by the famous furniture company founded by Hans Knoll. The New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual, co-written by Unimark International’s Bob Noorda and published by the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority in 1970 (lavishly reissued in 2014) is a compilation of design directions for the agency to follow for producing public signage and collateral.

Lella and Massimo Vignelli: Two Lives, One Vision, published by Rochester Institute of Technology Press in 2014, is a profile of the Vignellis and their design practice written by Rowan University Professor of Graphic Design Jan Conradi. Vignelli Transit Maps by Mark Ovendon and Peter Lloyd, published by Rochester Institute of Technology Press in 2012, is an exploration of the history of the Vignelli MTA map, including the politics, differences of opinion and design legacies that went into its creation. Several other books focusing on the New York City subway system’s transit maps have also been published.

In 2012, the 24-minute documentary film The Artist Toolbox — Massimo & Lella Vignelli was released, featuring interviews with both of the Vignellis. In 2013, a longer 79-minute production, entitled Design Is One: Lella and Massimo Vignelli, offered cameo appearances from design notables such as architects Richard Meier and Peter Eisenman and Vignelli art director peers Michael Beirut and Milton Glaser. One or both documentaries may be viewable on YouTube.

Finally, the same year that his firm produced the special-edition Super Bowl MTA map, Massimo Vignelli appeared in the film Helvetica, about the typeface of the same name. As one of the men who unintentionally made Helvetica one of the most widely imitated and utilized typefaces of the 20th century, Vignelli was interviewed and said that the famous sans-serif face helps designers to “fight against the [man-made] ugliness of the world… just like a doctor fights against disease.” Helvetica is available on DVD from outlets such as Amazon and it may be viewed (possibly in its entirety) on YouTube.