Flying over Omaha at 37,000 feet en route to a conference in Denver, I’m reflecting on the passing of the great Massimo Vignelli this week, and my favorite piece of Vignelli design. Coincidentally, it is a poster about Denver. Designed to promote Denver as a candidate city for the 1976 Winter Olympics, this artifact for me is a telling signature of the man that we are still mourning.
The poster expresses a simple and telegraphic logic, it is coldly precise, yet uplifting. Five rings, three rows, two columns, two colors, two rules, and Helvetica—in two sizes. Designed for a city that ultimately rejected the winter games awarded to it in 1972 amidst contested debates over infrastructure, funding and environmental impact, Vignelli’s poster, in contrast, implies a cool order and uniformity that was his best intention for Denver. It is absent of indecision, friction or noise. The man and his design are inseparable.[more]
To comment on Massimo Vignelli is like talking about the virtues of air or water—his impact is so vast and tangible that it feels embarrassing to speak about. As a New Yorker and frequent flier, it is the Vignelli artifacts that I miss when I have to travel, the reassurance of the subway signage or the whimsical geometry of the Bloomies logotype. As a child, they were also the things I looked forward to—the American Airlines scissor eagle lapel pins that I collected flying roundtrip from New York to Dallas.
Answering the call of Massimo’s son Luca two weeks ago to send letters of appreciation to his father in his final days, our studio here at Interbrand New York created an oversized card that we hand-delivered. It was by normal accounts inappropriately large for the occasion, painfully minimal, unapologetically colorful and optimistic. It was, however, perfect for the man who had given us all so much. I caught many of the card signees practicing their penmanship before committing themselves in ink and potentially offending the master. #dearmassimo was trending soon after.
This week we lost a great force, and the comfort of walking in the shade of a great tree whose stature inspires confidence. I did not know Massimo well, and there are no personal anecdotes to share. Touched by Michael Bierut’s recollection of Massimo the person, I was amazed that these human qualities inhabit his designs. I encourage everyone to read this, then visit the Tumblr page of the Vignelli Center for Design Studies.
For me, the signature Vignelli lexicon is irreducibly concise—a masterful choreography of beautiful yet restrained elements, culturally layered, extensible, durable and visually potent. Unique to his body of work is a beauty in both form and method. A mathematician would call his solutions elegant.
Massimo Vignelli joins the great masters who will influence the processes of generations of designers to come, internalized critics that forbid us from stopping shy of these elegant solutions.
Forest is a Creative Director for Interbrand New York, on the board of directors for AIGA/NY and a critic in the graphic design MFA program at the Yale School of Art. Follow him on Twitter (@ten_ten) and Instagram (@emcray).