The Vignelli Canon

Read Time: 6.5 minutes

Published in 2010 and again in 2017 by Lars Müller Publishers, but ultimately timeless, “The Vignelli Canon” is an easy-to-read, handheld guide to good graphic design and typography by the late legend and SEGD Fellow Massimo Vignelli, split into two parts: “The Intangibles” and “The Tangibles.” 

The Vignelli Canon isn’t new, but it’s worth a read (or re-read), especially if you’re new to his work, or graphic design in general: Vignelli’s brevity and clarity are remarkable, which is unsurprising, yet still refreshing. “At the request of the publisher of this book I started to look into the meaning of such a publication and recognized it could become a useful instrument for a better understanding of typography in graphic design. This little book reveals our guidelines—those set for ourselves by ourselves.” He continues by expressing the hope that students can use it to improve their skills, concluding, “Creativity needs the support of knowledge to be able to perform at its best. It is not the intention of this little book to stifle creativity or to reduce it to a bunch of rules. It is not the formula that prevents good design from happening but lack of knowledge of the complexity of the design profession.”

From the publisher: “The famous Italian designer Massimo Vignelli allows us a glimpse of his understanding of good design in this book, its rules and criteria. He uses numerous examples to convey applications in practice—from product design via signaletics and graphic design to corporate design. By doing this he is making an important manual available to young designers that in its clarity both in terms of subject matter and visually is entirely committed to Vignelli’s modern design.”

The following are selections from both sections of The Vignelli Canon.



P. 34


Many times we have been asked to design a logo or a symbol for a company—often at the request of the marketing department to refresh the company’s position in the marketplace. Although this may be a legitimate request, very
often it is motivated by the desire for change merely for the sake of change, and that is a very wrong motivation.

A real corporate identity is based on an overall system approach, not just a logo. A logo gradually becomes part of our collective culture; in its modest way it becomes part of all of us. Think of Coca-Cola, think of Shell, or, why
not, AmericanAirlines. When a logo has been in the public domain for more than fifty years it becomes a classic, a landmark, a respectable entity and there is no reason to throw it away and substitute a new concoction, regardless of how well it has been designed. Perhaps because I grew up in a country where history and vernacular architecture were part of the culture of the territory and were protected, I consider established logos as something to be equally protected.

The notion of a logo equity has been with us from the very beginning of time. When we were asked to design a new logo for the FORD Motor Company, we proposed a light retouch of the old one which could be adjusted for contemporary applications. We did the same for CIGA HOTELS, CINZANO, LANCIA Cars and others. There was no reason to dispose of logos that had seventy years of exposure and were rooted in people’s consciousness with a set of respectable connotations. What is new is NOT a graphic form but a way of thinking, a way of showing respect for history in a context that usually has zero understanding for these values.


P. 62

Grids for Books

For the design of a book the grid provides again structure and continuity from cover to cover. In a picture book, according to the content, the grid could have a number of columns and subcolumns to organize the information accordingly. In agreement with the content the size of the book will be the first thing to be determined. A book with square pictures will be square, a book with rectangular pictures will be rectangular or oblong, in accord with the most appropriate way to exhibit the material. The content determines the container—a basic truth also in book design. It is a good practice to relate the grid to the proportion of the majority of pictures, so that there will be the least need for cropping their images. Today photographers are more careful about the composition of their images, so the grid should be devised to take that in proper consideration. By structuring the grid accordingly the book will have a higher level of integrity than otherwise.

The illustrations provide several examples of grids for several kinds of books.



Type Size Relationship

We have some basic rules for typesetting. Choose the proper size of type in relation to the width of the column:

  • 8/9 pt, 9/10 pt, 10/11 pt for columns up to 70 mm.
  • 12/13 pt, 14/16 pt for columns up to 140 mm.
  • 16/18 pt, 18/20 pt for larger columns.

Naturally every situation may require a different ratio. For display reasons we like to set the type much larger or increase the leading to achieve a particular effect.

Basically we stick to no more then two type sizes on a printed page, but there are exceptions. We like to play off small type with larger type—usually twice as big ( for instance, 10 pt text and 20 pt headings ). I prefer to keep the same size for
heads and subheads in a text, and just make them in bold, with a line space above and none below, or two line spaces above and one below according to the context. We love type size consistency in a book, which is also more economical since you can set a style page and stick to it.

We try to achieve a typographic composition that expresses intellectual elegance as opposed to blatant vulgarity by using typographic devices: a proper amount of leading for the context, a proper use of roman or italic type, a regular spacing, a tight kerning, using rules when appropriate (to separate different parts of the message), and a logical use of bold, regular and light type weights. We do not like the use of type as a decorative element, and we are horrified by any type deformation. There are situations, however, as in packaging design, where a more flexible attitude could provide better results. But even there, it should be done with great moderation.


p. 92


Most of the time we use color as a signifier, or as an identifier. Generally speaking we do not use color in a pictorial manner. Therefore, we tend to prefer a primary palette of red, blue and yellow. This may seem restrictive. This doesn’t mean that we do not like colors or that we are not sensitive to them. It merely means that most of the time we like to use color to convey a specific message, therefore, we tend to use it more as symbol or as an identifier. This is particularly true in corporate identity programs where chromotype becomes the identifier along with the logotype or other devices (morphotypes, phonotypes etc.).

We have used the entire spectrum of colors to express moods, feelings, passions, connotations and more. Color is a very important element in the formulation of our projects, but, as we do with typefaces, we have limited and articulated our palette to express the message in the clearest and most understandable way. There are times for strong primary colors and times for subtle pastel colors; there are times for just black and white; and times where rich browns and hearty colors work more appropriately to the task at hand. Appropriateness is one of the rules we use in choosing colors, knowing how effective it can be to use the right color at the right time.



Find The Vignelli Canon at Lars Müller Publishers

More about Massimo Vignelli, FSEGD