Massimo Vignelli on Design

When Massimo Vignelli and his Wife Lella came to New York in the 1960’s, it wasn’t as beautiful as it is today. In the 1960’s there were very few designers, there was not any sense of quality. Vignelli was aware that when he started in New York that design could not change the world, but it could make it better. He believed that design could make a significant contribution to make the environment better. It was this belief that drove Vignelli all his life.

Born in Milan, Italy in 1931, he left school at sixteen to work as an architectural draftsman, then studied architecture in Milan and Venice between 1950 and 1953. He was inspired by Swiss Modernists such as Max Huber and Antonio Boggeri. However, his primary interest was in graphic design.

Lella and Massimo Vignelli’s designs include the American Airlines logo, New York City subway signs, Fodor travel guides, as well as architectural designs.


Vignelli stated that he was a ‘modernist’. He said that a modernist is connected to society in a certain way. He said he was seeking to improve the situation. He said that a designer is committed, he is responsible that he has a responsible attitude. It is this sense of responsibility that makes a designer want to make things better. It was this European Modernist point of view that he gets the credit for introducing to American Graphic Design.

"You have to train yourself to have vision, courage and determination."


In 1972 he created a diagram for the New York subway. The map was a geometric design praised by some for its look and criticised by others because it didn’t help with understanding the street-level geography of the city. “It was not a map,” Vignelli said in a 2012 interview, according to the New York Times. “It was a diagram.” That subway design was in use until 1979. It has since become the basis of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority online map outlining service changes.


He solved the problem of stacking dishes when he designed the now famous Heller plastic contemporary stackable plates and mugs.


Typesetting used to be a trade in which the typesetter was taught the importance of type on a printed page, he said. “Now it is in the hands of anybody.” Typography is like a gun, he says. It’s there. If you give it indiscriminately to any kid, it would be a disaster.” Just a few basic typestyles are needed.


He believed creating beauty required a good quantity of education and culture. Ugliness does not need that. He said that it is vital that there is so much ugliness in the world because it provokes us to make improvements.

He said that beauty is the opposite of vulgarity.

A sophisticated mind will know how to design things that are complex but are not complicated. He said if you cannot find it design it. Vignelli wanted to create things that last forever. It was important to him to design things that last. All my life I have tried to teach designers to be responsible professionals. Good design is about responsibility.

Creativity can make the world better in any field.

See our New York City Subway Map Poster

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