Reflecting on Graphic Designer Vignelli

If one were to think of design, what kinds of images pop into your mind? For me, I think of electronic devices. Every single one has to have been designed by someone for a specific purpose, such as switches, buttons, televisions and remotes, and more. In this post however, I will be talking more about graphic design and one of the most influential people in recent memory who impacted the direction of graphic design even today. His name was Massimo Vignelli.

Massimo Vignelli was a successful Italian graphic designer in the 1900’s. He was born on January 10, 1931, and he died on May 27, 2014 as was stated on this site: Vignelli – All about Massimo Vignelli. Also on that site is a brief collection of things he worked on, such as the New York Subway Map, and the Helvetica font. You might also want to be aware that it is written all in Spanish, so it will be a lot easier to understand if you have Google translate the page for you. Being a graphic designer means he made things which were able to be seen and read by others in a meaningful way. Web page designing is a sub category of that, as well as written text and how it is formatted in how it is seen. Graphic design is everywhere, which is why Vignelli has had such a wide impact on the world even before the internet existed. He also made an eBook which contains his design philosophies.

When I read the Vignelli Canon eBook, I was surprised by how many of the Massimo Vignelli design guidelines are applicable and useful to the design of today’s web pages. Vignelli was a graphic designer mostly pre-internet. While he discusses the importance of paper size and texture which may not translate well to browsers, I found the key concepts of information organization, layout, use of color, and typography very applicable.

Vignelli stated that good design expresses concepts clearly, beautifully, and forcefully. He indicates this is “visually powerful” design. I think this applies to web pages as well. When you first browse to a site, I think you should be able to quickly assess the intent of the site and how to get the information you want. It is easy to give up on a site that is cluttered, disorganized, and boring. The message should be instantly recognizable to attract viewers to linger.

It is interesting that Vignelli stated that he restricted his use of color in is designs to “convey a specific message”  and often more as an identifier. He primarily used red, blue, and yellow. Good web site design should use color for intent as well – and while color can be used to set mood, I believe it is not a bad idea to limit colors used so that they do not overwhelm the user.

Grid layouts are also a key design tool for publications that also apply to website and software user interfaces. The grid layout allows both graphic and web designers to organize information. Vignelli goes on to say however that “… that if you see the layout, it is probably a bad layout!” With software web tools, it may be more challenging to hide some of the layout features, but I do think that a well-designed site should not look like a set of disjointed boxes.

Amusingly, Vignelli felt that the computer aided capability to design new typefaces caused, “one of the biggest visual pollution of all times.” He made an entire design exhibition where he used only four fonts to show that you can have impactful design with an “economy of type.” I agree that using many different or crazy fonts is distracting at best and can be very off-putting.

Overall, I liked the Vignelli viewpoint that design could be simple and still powerful. There is an abundance of additional design guidance in the eBook, for example: use of contrast, scale, texture, and whitespace. Vignelli had a phrase to live by: “if you can design one thing, you can design everything. You can design everything.” This quote is very motivational and shows how important design was in Vignelli’s life. Personally, I agree with his sentiment, and I hope to apply myself to follow the guidelines Vignelli and others have set to create good designs.

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