Massimo Vignelli: "You Can Design Everything"

Massimo Vignelli, FSEGD, the graphic designer whose Modernist sensibility lent new clarity to signage and information in public spaces, died May 27 at his home in Manhattan. He was 83.

Named an SEGD Fellow in 2001, Vignelli called himself an “information architect,” and he stamped all of his work—from his controversial New York City subway map to books and corporate identities and even church pews—with a signature clarity, simplicity, and rigor.

Born in Milan, Italy, in 1931, Massimo decided at the age of 14 that he wanted to be an architect, and at 16 he began working as an architectural draftsman. After studying art and architecture in Venice and Milan, he worked for a renowned glass manufacturer on the island of Murano. He met his wife, Lella Elena Valle Vignelli, while they were both studying at the University of Venice School of Architecture. They studied in the U.S. before returning to their home country to start a design firm. In the mid-1960s, Vignelli joined six other architects in forming Unimark International, which produced corporate identities for the world’s largest brands of the time; Unimark became one of the world’s largest and most influential design firms. Vignelli opened its New York office, but left the company later as it diversified and placed more emphasis on marketing.

In 1971, the Vignelli’s opened their own design firm, Vignelli Associates, in New York, and in 1978, renamed it Vignelli Designs. Theirs was a famously fruitful and equitable partnership, and in early 2014, Vignelli self-published a book, Designed By: Lella Vignelli as a tribute to her work.

Massimo Vignelli has influenced generations of designers and made an especially significant mark on environmental graphic design, says David Vanden-Eynden, FSEGD, of Calori & Vanden-Eynden / Design Consultants (New York). "The Vignelli office and the work it produced were impeccable in every sense. It set a design standard so high it was intimidating and, oh, so worth striving for. It seemed every project undertaken by the Vignellis had a brilliant solution. At least in my mind, everything that came out of their studio was brilliant--even if the heathen subway riders did not agree," he notes. 

Richard Poulin, FSEGD, co-founder and partner in Poulin + Morris (New York), remembers both the first and last times he spoke with Vignelli:

"I first met Massimo in the early 1980s when I was a staff designer at Rudy deHarak’s office. He had come to one of our Christmas parties and I remember being immediately touched by his warmth, sincerity, and magnetic personality. He lived and breathed design; it permeated his pores.

"The last time Massimo and I spoke was in 2011, when he graciously agreed to be interviewed for my first book, The Language of Graphic Design. While my intent for our meeting was to have him speak in depth about his redesign of The Herald newspaper in 1971, the afternoon quickly became an unforgettable exchange of shared ideas, memories, and passions that will remain with me forever."

In 2008, Massimo and Lella Vignelli donated the entire archive of their design work to the Rochester Institute of Technology. In 2010, The Vignelli Center For Design Studies, designed by the couple, opened. 

Massimo Vignelli's body of work was without boundary, spanning environmental graphic design, interiors, corporate identity, packaging design, product design, and furniture design. No matter the project, Vignelli was guided by the discipline of his beloved Modernist aesthetic and the idea of functional beauty. The Vignelli Designs website states his philosophy in no uncertain terms:

“I like design to be semantically correct, syntactically consistent, and pragmatically understandable. I like it to be visually powerful, intellectually elegant, and above all timeless.”

Vignelli is survived by his wife Lella and their two children, Luca and Valentina.

Read on for more tributes to Vignelli from SEGD Fellows and others in the EGD community.

Dear Massimo,
Thank you for touching every designer who has ever walked the streets of New York City. Your vision will be forever tattooed on the city’s skin. From our frantic morning commute on the subway navigating confidently to the office to a Friday night out at the MoMA drifting through the permanent design collection, you have made your mark on the very basic ways we live our lives here each and every day. What a contribution! You will be missed.

Jill Ayers
Design360 Inc./SEGD President

* * *

Despite a graduate degree from the Institute of Design at IIT, I entered the workforce with precious few design skills to contribute other than a fair sense of what constitutes good design. I was fortunate to get an entry- level job at Unimark, the iconic design firm founded by Massimo.

While Massimo was located in the New York office and I was in Chicago, I remember his frequent visits. He was energetic, affable, enthusiastic (not to mention dogmatic), and above all, the ultimate ambassador for design. In one visit, Massimo had invited a client, Braun, to make available a range of their newly designed products to the Unimark staff. Braun staged a lunch-time presentation in the office and offered some great deals on their small appliances. At that point in my life I had absolutely no need for kitchen appliances but was so caught up in Massimo’s exuberance for the products' great aesthetics that I was moved to purchase a toaster.

For years the elegance and grace of that toaster was a daily reminder of the significance of design and, in retrospect, my personal memento of Massimo’s impact on the world of design.

Richard Burns, FSEGD (SEGD Co-founder)

GNU Group

* * *

The word “Massimo” means “Maximum” in Italian. Massimo Vignelli’s first name says it all regarding his and Lella Vignelli’s impact on design. They, along with their fellow visionary design pioneers, ushered the US into its first truly modern era of design. Their influence was profound and is in the DNA of every designer working or studying today, as well as in the psyche of design’s clients, be they institutions, corporations, or consumers.

Massimo raised the bar for design in all its manifestations, including EGD, and did so with his design elegance, strong convictions, and charming manner. We have all learned so much from him and from Lella.

Massimo will be missed by the design community and by the world at large, but let us take this occasion to contemplate the essence of design and its role in everyone’s lives, be they fellow design practitioners who shape peoples’ lives or those whose lives are shaped by design. It’s a worthy tribute to the Maximum Designer and to those we serve with our skills.

Chris Calori, FSEGD
Calori & Vanden-Eynden / Design Consultants

* * * 

Massimo was a close friend and colleague since his arrival in this country in the mid-1950s.

During the passing decades he has, time and time again, demonstrated that graphic design, at its best, is straightforward and direct, without trends or unnecessary flourishes, but simply to the point, modern, clean, and orderly. Massimo Vignelli was a lesson to all designers about the enduring value of being contemporary and forward-looking. Massimo, with Lella by his side, demonstrated his beliefs about good design consistently and his communications were a commitment that never faltered.

Ivan Chermayeff, FSEGD
Chermayeff & Geisman & Haviv

* * * 

I’ll always remember meeting him in the student rec room underneath Saarinen House during one of the SEGD Cranbrook conferences. Along with an unlimited flow of beer (so it seemed), there was a pool table and a shuffleboard table, the latter of which completely entranced Massimo. He had never encountered the game before and over and over again proclaimed the game totally “elegant,” playing it late into the night. Massimo knew elegant.

Ann Dudrow, FSEGD

* * *

What I remember about Massimo is how FUNNY he was. He came to Philadelphia to speak when I was a very young designer. I expected a formal lecture--calm, cool, and collected. I didn't expect him to be hilarious, but he was. It was a delightful counterpoint to his elegant Italian accent, sleek black suit, and sophisticated work.

Beyond his graphic design achievements I think of him more often as a product designer. I have the complete set of Heller pyrex bakeware and have been using--and enjoying--it for decades. Like so many Vignelli designs, it is a classic.

Virginia Gehshan, FSEGD
Cloud Gehshan Associates

* * * 

As you all know, Massimo was very special, as a designer and as a person. His enthusiasm(s) was infectious, and his work brilliant. Two months ago, after he had become very ill, I, and presumably many of you, received an email from Massimo that contained a digital book he had designed about Lella's work, especially all the showrooms and furniture done over decades. She also has not been well, and I think he wanted to pay tribute to her contribution to the Vignelli legacy. It's a classic Vignelli piece: clear, dramatic, beautifully conceived and carried out.

In his note about the book, he said, "I am sure many women designers will be inspired by her work." I'm sure we're all inspired by the work of both of them.

Tom Geismar, FSEGD
Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv

* * * 

It's awfully sad to think of the passing of Massimo Vignelli. As I reflect on my life and work as a designer, I realize that Massimo is like a beacon, a bright constant presence in the professional world I have inhabited here in New York City for the past three and a half decades. It's hard to imagine that he is no longer with us.

But his vision is all around us on the city's subway signs and on the brightly colored circles that have become the universal language of the New York City subway. Though we don't see it every day, his iconic subway map is omnipresent for many of us, a stroke of genius where he brought order to the chaos of the subway network. I can't think of anyone who embraced a philosophy of design as fully as Massimo. It was reflected in the public and private world he created, from the infrastructure of the city, to the artifacts of home, even to the clothes he designed for himself. It was a grand vision that imagined a beautiful world of gorgeous simple things. In his long career he created so many of them. I particularly remember the guide books he created for Knopf: beautiful typography, simple layouts, such handsome, satisfying, useful books. 

In the end, what made Massimo so special is that he was a giant but also a humble, warm, kind man. When my wayfinding book was published five years ago, I was stunned to receive an enthusiastic fan letter from him--surprising but not out of character. He was one of the gods but very much rooted in our community of design. He loved design, he believed in the power of design. He inspired us to do the best.

David Gibson, FSEGD


* * *

Massimo mostly taught by example. By his actions, the way he responded to things. He was never frustrated and always knew where to go, promoting the now-familiar phrase from proteges, "What would Massimo do?" And his solutions, on the surface, appeared to be quite simple. But when you broke them down and dissected them, they were always remarkably intelligent and full of nuanced complexities. And the complexities were buried in the disciplined logic that underpinned all of his work. So buried that they not only stayed out of the way but added to the ease and interest people found in his work. It was this combination of simplicity and complexity that made his work so unique, timeless, and elegant.

Designers used to come and go from the office based on their ability to pick up on this approach. He would say, "They either get it right away or they never get it at all." He had very little patience for lack of understanding or aptitude. 

We had a blast at the opening of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao back in 1996.  It was a grand affair. People from all over the world were there. Designers, artists, architects, actors, press, etc. Massimo knew them all. My wife and I just stood on the balcony marveling at how Massimo worked the room with his magnetic personality, which he is known for second only to his design skills. He used this personality effectively and convincingly, for good reason, when working with all of his clients over the years. I remember being in client meetings where Massimo was significantly late and the clients were ready to walk out and fire us. But Massimo would eventually show up and everyone would be hugging and laughing together.

Lella's relationship with Massimo was very dramatic but full of love and affection. They would argue with great intensity but they were perfect complements to each other. I worked with them during a period of their lives when they had already accomplished quite a bit, so that they had very little to prove and were very selective in the work they took on. I found them to be unbelievably giving, friendly, and trusting. We had a very family- like studio when I worked there in the mid-1990s.

In the end, Massimo left me with much more than design. He taught me by example that every single person should be given an enthusiastic chance. And that those of us who have been given that chance have a responsibility to pass it on to everyone we meet.

Over time, all of Massimo's work will pass from the public and popular consciousness and into history books and museums. But his unique and inspiring spirit of intelligence, generosity, love, kindness, and selflessness will stay with me all of my years and be passed on by all who knew him...

J Graham Hanson
Graham Hanson Design

SEGD Board of Directors

* * * 

Sometime in the mid-1990s, I was invited to be a juror for an exhibit design competition. As I tried to beg off, the organizer mentioned that Massimo Vignelli would be participating. And, it would be in Las Vegas. Well, I couldn't say yes fast enough. Hanging with my all-time design hero in Sin City was too much to pass up. I had met him a time or two but never really had a conversation. In the late 1960s, Massimo had been the dominant design hero for all of us Chicago-area students and his seminal local/Milan/New York firm Unimark set the standards for dozens of design practices both in Chicago and around the world.

During the long judging day, Massimo kept complaining about the typography he was seeing in the seemingly endless slides. At one point he noted a particularly bad version of Bodoni--a font on his very short list of necessary faces. He grabbed a sheet of hotel note paper and began to show us how Bodoni should be proportioned. There, right across from me was the great graphic designer actually drawing letterforms. This was not lost on the other jurors, especially one Forrest Richardson from Phoenix, who stood up and positioned himself behind Massimo as he put his pencil down.  But as soon as Forrest leaned over to pick up the sketch I reached across the table and grabbed it. I held it up for the others to see and asked Massimo if he would sign it.

And that is how I got my signed original of Vignelli Bodoni on Bally's stationery. (I think Forrest eventually forgave me.)

Wayne Hunt, FSEGD

Hunt Design

* * * 

Thank you Wayne for the reminder of a wonderful day/night in Las Vegas with Massimo Vignelli. I was lucky to be part of the same judging, and vividly remember Wayne being excited and quick to obtain Massimo’s signature.

I also recall driving around the city together and being surprised by Vignelli’s wide-eyed wonder of seeing Las Vegas for the first time!

Vignelli's versatility and amazing range of design will always be an inspiration, as were his gracious demeanor and childlike curiosity and love of life.

Thank you Massimo, for inspiring all of us.

Clifford Selbert, FSEGD

Selbert Perkins Design

* * *

I always admired his design work: crisp and clean, intelligent, functional, beautiful! When my wife Alison and I moved to the U.S. in 1978, Massimo invited us to his studio in New York City, where he introduced his team and graciously shared his work with us. It was an act of sympathy for young fellow design immigrants. Consequently we extended an invitation to visit the University of Cincinnati to conduct a workshop at the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning where we taught. I vividly recall Massimo’s contagious excitement in the classroom and his appreciation for the quality of our education. He thoroughly enjoyed a wonderful time with the students and the faculty, discussing, creating, critiquing, wining, dining, and dancing. Consequently he hired many of our talented students as co-ops and as designers for his company. Over time, some evolved into well known "stars" themselves. Alison and I had Massimo over for breakfast. We introduced him to our landlord Giorgio from Milan. It turned out, much to their delight, they knew each other from high school. …And I will never forget that he spontaneously boxed me in the side once and called me a “pirate,” which I took as a compliment…. Massimo will continue to be an inspiration.

Robert Probst, FSEGD, Dean

College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning

University of Cincinnati

* * *

Massimo’s designs are well known for being classic, restrained, and elegant. But as a personality, except for his well tailored clothing, he was much looser, off the wall and always up for a good time. Deborah and I have had opportunities at conferences and on other occasions to spend some "play" time with Massimo and sometimes Lella.

A few memories:  After presenting the SEGD design award to Massimo and Lella at the Eden Roc Hotel in Miami Beach, I ran into an old friend of Deborah who had wandered into the SEGD space from an event in an adjacent room. I was delighted to see Nick, and it turned out that he also was a friend of Massimo and Lella; we immediately tracked them down in the crowd and after 10 minutes of "catching up" with Nick, Massimo decided that we should all drive down the Dixie Highway to a great barbecue place that he knew. It was 9 p.m., we had all just finished dinner and dessert, and it was a 45-minute drive, but Massimo insisted. “When in my life will I get this opportunity again?” he asked. So we all piled into my rental car and an hour later we were waiting in line to get a seat in this very popular spot. After a half hour in line, and over an hour with the ribs, both Nick and Massimo were still going strong. There was never a dull moment, but Lella and I were exhausted!

In the late 1980s, Deborah, Massimo, and others were asked to jury a show in Las Vegas for the local AIGA. It was Massimo’s first trip to Vegas. We were put up in a small, discreet hotel off the Strip which had no gaming and where they juried the show. After a day's work and dinner, Deborah and I took Massimo on a tour of casinos on the Strip. He was like a boy in a candy store! He was amazed with everything and had no bad comments on the tastelessness of it all; and he was especially interested in the quarter slots. It was still the days of the one-armed bandits with the big lever on the side that you had to pull and after three or four  tries he won a small jackpot. He became addicted. Around midnight Deborah and I were ready for bed, but Massimo wasn’t. “You go back," he said, "I’ll take a cab home.” The next morning at breakfast Massimo looked tired. "How long did you stay last night?" I asked. "I really got into it," he said. "And when I finally looked at my watch it was 4 a.m.!"

Massimo leaves behind a large portfolio of excellent and ground-breaking work, but this warm, joyful, and generous man also leaves a large void in the lives of those who knew him, We love you Massimo!!

Paul Prejza and Deborah Sussman, FSEGD


* * * 

Just being in New York, the same city that the giants of design called home, was a thrill for a young designer in 1980. There were Tom Geismar and Ivan Chermayeff, Milton Glaser, Seymor Chwast, Herb Lubalin, and Stephan Geissbuhler to name but a few. And then there was Massimo Vignelli. Massimo AND Lella Vignelli. Larger than life, and so handsome and beautiful. To be able to hear Massimo give a talk or even better, to exchange a fews words with him, was a joy and an honor. Charming and disarming I used to say, and of course he was so brilliant it made me jealous! On several occasions, I, along with a horde of other young design groupies, were able to visit the Vignelli offices on Tenth Avenue. The temple of design as we called it. The office and the work it produced was impeccable in every sense. It set a design standard so high it was intimidating and, oh, so worth striving for. I wanted to be like the Vignellis! It seemed every project undertaken by the Vignellis had a brilliant solution. At least in my mind every thing that came out of their studio was brilliant even if the heathen subway riders did not agree. Chris and I still have one of the original subway Vignelli subway maps! We picked it up during a New York visit in the 70s. It carefully gets unfolded once in a great while.

When I heard that Massimo passed away, I said to Chris Calori that the Great One had gone to the big design studio in the sky. Look out, the big studio in the sky has a new head designer! Massimo will always be a giant among giants. Peace.

David Vanden-Eynden, FSEGD
Calori & Vanden-Eynden / Design Consultants

* * *

Arriving in New York from England, many years since, Massimo's inspired work (including PMS warm red) was an essential temptation that seduced me from architecture to graphic design. It was with immense pride that I served with him on the board of AIGA, which I believe is when we first met. Since then, every occasion that our paths crossed were infused with his immense charm and generosity. I will never forget, early in my graphic design career, when working with Richard Meier, that I dropped by unannounced to his office on Tenth Avenue a couple of floors above Richard’s. He dropped what he was doing, and locked arm in arm, took me around every corner of the office. Even into the store room. It was then I felt I was really part of the design community. I think my confidence and self-esteem as a graphic designer doubled that day (as did my fees). Later on we (unsuccessfully) pitched the graphics for the British Museum renovation together which was a short but fun collaboration. I am deeply indebted to both his influence, profound humanity, and personal warmth. He shaped the entire image of both 20th Century life and culture. A fitting memorial to a stellar designer who will be sorely missed.

Our thoughts also go out to Lella at this time.

Roger Whitehouse, FSEGD
Whitehouse & Company

* * *

When I had the honor of presenting Massimo with his SEGD Fellow distinction in 2001, I remember visiting his studio to borrow slides for the presentation. We all knew his work so well so I asked him, “What about little Massimo?” He disappeared and came back with a dusty leather-bound album of family pictures and he let me take slides of them. We saw his beautiful work at the conference presentation--we also saw a lot of little Massimo slides--a babe in his Mom’s arms, a teenager on an Italian beach, his early working experiences. They were all charming. Massimo was blessed with enormous charm as well as enormous talent. I really miss him.

Lance Wyman, FSEGD
Lance Wyman Ltd.

How did Massimo Vignelli inspire you? To be a part of SEGD's tribute to Massimo Vignelli, send your thoughts and comments to [email protected]

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