Bookshelf: The Vignelli Canon

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Bookshelf posts are a place where I discuss some of the books and magazines I keep on my shelves and what I love about them, in no particular order.

Massimo Vignelli (1931 – 2014) was a Designer who’s work and approach I have admired since I was a young Design student. His effortless versatility was enviable and respect for Modernist principles continues to deeply resonate with me. I am an unapologetic fan of mid-century Modernism and the 60’s (when Vignelli and his Wife opened their Design practice) was a golden age of Design & Culture I lament the passing of. So I jumped with joy when The Vignelli Canon was published – a look into the thought and working process of a remarkable Designer written by the man himself.

Section One: The Intangibles

In the first section, Vignelli addresses the ‘unseen’ elements of design – these are the intellectual and theoretical principles which underpin his work. For many Graphic Designers, I fear these are aspects of the profession which are largely overlooked, or at worst neglected. For me it was the most exciting part of this book – having the guiding principles that have been key to Vignelli’s work discussed in person, so exciting! These cover areas including Semantics, Discipline, History, Theory & Criticism, Modernism, Intellectual Elegance, Responsibility.

The very first thing that I do whenever I start a new assignment in any form of design, graphic, product, exhibition or interior is to search for the meaning of it.

Massimo Vignelli

In short, Massimo lays out a fantastic argument here as to why Designers should really care about what they do. About the work, about effective communication, about history and context and the value of the work we are doing. There are many areas of design & communication where these principles are easily left behind or ignored.

Section Two: The Tangibles

If the first section discussed the principles behind a Designer’s work, the second section gets down to a framework of technical aspects for how. This isn’t by any means a ‘how to be a Designer’ volume, but it is Vignelli’s take on the essential elements of construction – Paper stocks, Grids, Typefaces (and why to limit them!), Sequence, White space and so on. All the elements of Graphic Design I really rather love!

When I was first studying Design, a tutor told me a designer shouldn’t say they’ve developed their ‘own style’, because it implies a limitation on the kind of work one can produce. This is something that stuck with me. It seems to me Vignelli’s work works in a similar way. He’s foremost concerned with the message (Semantics and Pragmatics) and the context, which in turn informs the output. Avoiding what he famously refers to as ‘vulgarity’ and instead focuses on Intellectual Elegance – the informed and considered arrangement and presentation of information, using a graphic/visual language. This approach allows for versatility in the style of the final output. Adaptability and flexibility are attributes I believe make a good Designer.

In a world where everybody screams, silence is noticeable.
White space provides the silence.

Massimo Vignelli

This book sings to me. I love it and it goes to every job with me, like being mentored by the great man himself on every project. It’s not a how-to manual but rather a primer on essential modernist principles when creating work; principles I believe in and aim to apply to my work wherever possible – clarity, simplicity, context and so on.

It may seem as though this way of working is restricted by all manner of rules, but this is not the case. It’s not so much rules, as a “frame of reference.” In the conclusion of this book, Vignelli says this:

“I love contradiction because it keeps things moving, preventing them from assuming a frozen meaning, or becoming a monument to immobility. As much as I love things in flux, I love them within a frame of reference – a consistent reassurance that at least and at last I am the one responsible for every detail.”

I take this as a valuable reminder in my own work that there is always room for variation and play (Vignelli looks a this in his own way in the discussion of Identity and Diversity) – it is, after all a creative process and plenty of space should be left for contradiction, pure expression and ‘just-because’. That is the point where one’s own creativity drives the work, and that combination is, partly, what makes a design successful.




Vignelli Associates –

Design is One Film –

Massimo Vignelli bio –

Vignelli Interview – Design Matters

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