Typography I – Typographer of Week 3: Massimo Vignelli


An Italian, Massimo Vignelli was born in Milan in 1931. There, he first studied art and architecture, until he came to America in 1957. He was the co-founder of Vignelli Associates, with his wife, Lella. in 1971 they formed Vignelli Associates, and in 1978, Vignelli Designs. Vignelli worked in a number of areas ranging from package design through houseware design and furniture design to public signage and showroom design.


Vignelli believes that a designer needs only 6 typefaces and his six preferred typefaces are Garamond, Bodoni, Century Expanded, Futura, Times, Helvetica (shown below):

Here are some of the typographic works he did:

    • Official redesign of 1972 map of the New York subway system
    • Poster and graphics programme for Milan’s Piccolo Teatro, 1964 and 1965
    • the “AA” logo used by American Airlines up until 2013


  • The 1972 map of the New York subway system

Around 1965, Vignelli and his business partner Bob Noorda established Unimark International, a new design consultancy, in New York. They worked with Mildred Constantine, an influential design curator at the Museum of Modern Art, who is well connected in the New York City’s social scene.

There was a desperate need for a transformation of the city’s nightmarish subway navigation system, hence Vignelli helped to redesign the subway map. Following the Beck London Underground diagram, Vignelli produced a diagram of subway lines. Although the map is widely admired for its beauty and utility, it was rejected by commuters as the New Yorkers disliked its indifference to above-ground geography. They felt that it looked too abstract and it did not accurately represent the subway routes and cities.

  • Poster and graphic programme for Milan’s Piccolo Teatro, 1964 and 1965

The Piccolo Teatro di Milano posters such as the one above illustrate the powerful philosophical connection between Zurich and Milan in the 1960s. Vignelli’s uses closely set Helvetica in two sizes and strong horizontal rules. His effortless ordering of information has been echoed in print, blog themes and app design right up to the present day.


In his interview with Big Think, he mentioned how it’s important for graphic designers to stay away from trends and think more about the quality of the typographic design where “a timeless design is powerful”. I agree with him, how when it comes to designing things, I would still want it to be looked in respect in 100 years time and not laughed about. This is reflected in some of his works that are still present up to this day such as the ones mentioned above (Piccolo Teatro di Milano posters and American Airlines logo (1967 till 2013)”. There needs to be “guts, expression, intellectually elegant”.

In most projects he has done, he has this same design: “..the heavy black rules, the red, black and yellow, the large Garamond Italic or Bodoni type going over the gutter..” (like the picture above). He explained that he wanted to achieve an effect and clarity. When comparing his works with Jan Tschihold, both of them are similar as clarity seems to be their focal point for these designers. To create assets that would help people to navigate their daily lives, both of them stand by the idea of limited type fonts and design as well and apply these similar styles to most of the work they do even for different companies.

Vignelli’s work is recognizable, even when working with different companies. Hence, we see that design is a voice, and for him, making a design that is timeless is important. That is his core set of beliefs, and similarly, with other designers, they have their own set of beliefs. And this is something that is incapable of being replicated.

Vignelli is the “fearless critic of junk” and that is a constant reminder for me whenever I feel like my work is junk. He emphasizes the coherence of elements, clarity, discipline and continuity. There’s a certain discipline we must put into our work, and we ought to put pride in it. There is always a way to make our own typography work look better than it is before.






Massimo Vignelli: Creator of Timeless Design and Fearless Critic of “Junk”


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