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Massimo Vignelli: If You Can Design One Thing, You Can Design Everything

Massimo Vignelli (1931 – 2014) was a luminary of 20th century design and the Swiss style in particular. His influence on the visual language of our culture is hard to overstate, creating some of the most beloved and effective motifs — some of which are still used today.

Below are only a few of the highlights from his long career, but his accomplishments range from houseware to environmental design.

Ford Motor Company

In 1966, Ford went looking for a new logo. Vignelli’s design company Unimark won the contract and set about finding the perfect way to describe the legacy and heritage of the Ford name in a way that would present well for decades to come

Vignelli created the now famous blue oval design — more of a fine-tuning update than a complete overhaul. Unlike much of his work, which featured sans serif fonts and Helvetica in particular, he chose a script typeface — in continuity with the company’s history. But the simple geometric shape gave the design a certain je ne sais quoi. To this day, the logo has persisted more or less unchanged.

American Airlines

When American Airlines chose Unimark to redo their logo in 1967, they were looking for a sure thing. When an airline changes their logo, they are making an enormous investment — the cost of updating the fleet’s look creates an outsized risk.

Vignelli, in his trademark fashion, went simple. Two A’s, one red and one blue (both in Helvetica, of course), sufficed. The company asked for something with an “American” flair, so he returned with the well known X-shaped eagle that matched the converging contours of the A’s.

The New York Subway System

But it was Vignelli’s work with the New York Subway System that may be his most lasting contribution. In the ‘60s, NYC’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) inherited a subway made up of several privately owned lines. The all-over-the-place signage was almost impossible to navigate, so they set out to find a solution.

Unimark proposed replacing all wayfinding signs with one, clean system. Their design used white on black lettering in striking Helvetica. Unimark also limited the amount of information shown at any given time, reducing the visual load. Vignelli coordinate lines with color, allowing people to easily see if a station had access to the line they were looking for.

Vignelli also created the 1972 New York Subway Map. His prevailing theory was called dot-to-dot, simplifying the map to color coded lines and station names. But the map did not perfectly conform to the real geography of the city. The decision was controversial, and the map was later replaced by a design that looked more like the NYC we know and love. But in the years since, designers have looked back at the map as an unappreciated masterpiece.

Lasting Legacy

The vignettes above show just how much of our world was designed by Vignelli. For the millions of people who travel the New York Subway every day, to the countless owners of Ford cars or people flying with American Airlines, these designs have become indelible images in our collective consciousness.

He dispatched information efficiently, allowing the purpose of a design to inspire both precision and elegance. He is a master of the Swiss style and a titan of visual communication whose work will continue to influence our culture long into the future.


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