Massimo '6 typeface' Vignelli

dux's picture

So, I went to a talk in London recently by the diminutive italian Massimo Vignelli and his lovely wife Lella. I'm by no means a modernist in the vignelli sense, but nonetheless enjoy some of their furniture and product design. I've never been the biggest fan of his graphic design -- it always feels a bit sterile -- like the humanity has been intentionally stripped away. It could be argued that this is a necessary part of facilitating clear communication -- something I don't agree with however.

So Vignelli says that all we need as typographic designers are 6 typefaces, and no more. I got a little offended by this, and felt that he, well, missed the point of variety in type design. I find this quasi-utilitarian position a little strange. One typeface could theoretically function suitably (ie we could read it), but 6 is apparently the precise number that will cover the gamut of human emotion in the present, and oddly, in the future too. He claims to detest 'sameness' in design, but he contradicts his own polemic when his typographic designs are the very epitomy of this. They all borrow from a specific and unchanging box of modernist visual language. Heavy horizontal bars, grotesk types, a blind allegiance to the grid etc etc. It's not even as if he is using these 6 typefaces in a variety of ways either. Furthermore, despite hundreds of years of type design, he finds it suitable to include one of his own creations -- our bodoni -- in this elite club. I just don't get it.

Rant over.

fontplayer's picture

Does he only need 6 songs? 6 books? 6 meals? - Well, you know what they say, "Six is the spice of life." or something like that.

dan_reynolds's picture

Well of course he sees his own typeface as one of only six that should ever be used by anyone. All demagogues tend to act like this…

(Even Paul Renner, late in his life, said that Futura was one of about four varieties of type that every printer should keep in stock…).

dezcom's picture

My family and I occasionally attend "International Fairs" where food from many countries are sold to raise money for charities. When you ask anyone behind the tables what the best dish to choose might be, it comes as no surprise that their own is most often mentioned :-)

Now if Massimo were to have only my fonts to his list, he may be on the right track :-)

ChrisL

Norbert Florendo's picture

We did a long Vignelli rant last summer.

hrant's picture

I bash Vignelli every chance I get.
Oh, and his font sucks too.

> it always feels a bit sterile

Huh, I wonder why.

hhp

dan_reynolds's picture

Oh, and his font sucks too.

Aww, it ain't that bad… its just display only font (but I don't think he has realized that yet).

hrant's picture

I just thought of a great t-shirt:
"Your favorite type designer sucks."

hhp

dezcom's picture

"Bouma-lacka, "Bouma-lacka, "Bouma-lacka, Boum, Boum, Boum"

ChrisL

pattyfab's picture

Far as I can tell he only uses two: Bodoni and Helvetica (plus his own I guess). Which is why his designs all look exactly the same. And totally dated.

I do agree that the current plethora of fonts is a double-edged sword. I had a boss early in my career who was of Vignelli's generation and he used to force us to use one typeface per design as an exercise. I still hear his voice in my head when I find myself throwing more fonts at a design rather than really trying to solve the design problem.

Back to Vignelli it's his disrespect for white space that I have the biggest problem with.

dux's picture

his font's not bad -- i even quite liked it once. it's just the arrogant assumption that his way is the right and only way that bothers. i don't have a problem with people going down their own paths, but let's just accept there are other paths. the bumping all x-heights up was a particularly funny, and sweeping comment. as hrant noted, the total blindness to future possibilities is something unacceptably closed-minded for a designer.

BrooklynRob's picture

I think designers with dogmatic manifestos are charming, even when I don't agree with them. Kind of like the eccentric uncle who adds spice to every family reunion. It's part of what makes the world of design and art fascinating. I wouldn't want to live in a primary-colored world, but Mondrian and the DeStijl crowd nevertheless had a cool new way of expressing themselves.

While Vignelli's work operates within a consistent vocabulary, I don't agree that it looks dated. In fact, when you go through design history books, his designs from the 1950s and 60s look startlingly contemporary, which can't be said about much from that period.

(Also -- why refer to him as "diminutive?" Does his physical stature have any relevance? Would you point out that someone else was fat or bald? What matters?)

pattyfab's picture

I'm referring mostly to his book design (which is what I'm most familiar with) when I say it looks dated.

Norbert Florendo's picture

Very much UNLIKE problem solving methodologies of Bucky Fuller, Mr. Vignelli adheres close to what he feels are "classic proportions"... like those who retrict themselves to Golden Section.

Basically, WTC Our Bodoni is based directly on Helvetica:

We consider the ratio between upper- and lower-case Helvetica letters to be the best there is. We wanted to redesign Bodoni using a similar ratio between the cases, with short ascenders and descenders -- Massimo Vignelli

pattyfab's picture

Oh Bucky Fuller! Whoever doesn't have "I Seem to Be a Verb" should buy it. Long out of print but available sometimes used at Amazon. Such a great little book!

crossgrove's picture

"We consider the ratio between upper- and lower-case Helvetica letters to be the best there is."

HA HA!

I suppose that is the Royal We.

Consider that Vignelli's career bloomed in one of the most miserable periods in typography.

pattyfab's picture

Maybe that's why it was a miserable period.

dezcom's picture

I don't think the period was miserable at all. Massimo's typography hardly represents "The Period" anyway. The period also had diversity like Herb Lubaln Symor Chwast vs. Emil Ruder and Muller-Brockman. Throw in Ben Shawn, Rudy DeHarek, Saul Bass, Paul Rand and countless others and tell me how miserable this period was.

ChrisL

canderson's picture

There's no such thing as bad publicity. There is bad typography, however.

crossgrove's picture

Chris,

I don't say that there were no good graphic designers then. I'm referring to the degradation that type manufacturing processes brought to typographic practice. Phototype for setting books in the 70's seems like a bad dream now. The absence of size-specific designs, new, klunky typesetting technology, the limitations to character sets, badly-converted "classics", all contributed to a measly palette for designers to work with. Vignelli wisely constrained himself well within this limited range. But his attitude now is simply eccentric and ossified. His comment about Helvetica's proportions also indicates his focus on display typography.

I also have similar queasy feelings about some of the designers you mention. It isn't necessarily their work or their impulses. The modernism bug was still going around, mutating and breeding with the Art Deco and Art Nouveau bugs, and I can't make myself like it. I suppose it was a trend, like everything.

I also don't say we have oodles of terrific graphic designers now, compared to then. Though there's a wealth of well-made type now, very few people operating as graphic designers actually understand how to use it. I imagine Shahn, Rand, et al could run circles around newer designers in their understanding of how type works.

"If youth but knew, and age but could"

dezcom's picture

"...There is bad typography, however."

There always was, there is now, and there always will be. The only difference is that the older bad stuff gets trashed but todays greets us daily.

ChrisL

hrant's picture

> his focus on display typography.

Or just display.

hhp

dezcom's picture

His focus was on system design as opposed to one-at-a-time stuff. nobody ever called him a typographer.

ChrisL

hrant's picture

Hopefully we can also stop calling him a designer.

hhp

jupiterboy's picture

Maybe a persona designer. Provacative statements work really well for that.

Rob O. Font's picture

"it always feels a bit sterile — like the humanity has been intentionally stripped away"

Isn't that, by definition, "the European Modern Style"?

dezcom's picture

He is a designer. You don't have to like his stuff and I am not saying you should but he is a designer anyway.
I guess our biannual Vignelli bashing is again in full swing. Taking potshots is so easy and so useless. Maybe we should just make an MPEG of the worst Massimo bashing imaginable and sell the downloads with all proceeds going to charity. That would at least give it some value.

ChrisL

Nick Shinn's picture

Art directors, in any era, like to experiment with different typefaces.
Graphic designers tend to restrict their choice.
This was particularly so in Vignelli's heyday.

Miss Tiffany's picture

Short of typeface selection -- which I don't altogether agree with -- I believe that Vignelli's use of the grid is on par with some of the best. I think bashing his work is a waste of time. If you don't have anything nice to say ...

Look at the work. If you don't think it offers anything to you, move on. Save the energy for something constructive.

The dishes designed by Vignelli Associates are still among my favorite.

v-six's picture

At least he picked a good number :)

tomdonahue's picture

>Vignelli’s use of the grid

I happen to work for an architecture magazine that he (or his office) designed, and we use his Bodoni for everything. Personally it's by far the most beautiful design I've ever had anything to do with, and I think the type works very well.
The photos are so spectacular that the type really needs presence to keep from being overwhelmed. Note this is text, not just display. Two solid columns opposite a full page photo of some spectacular building, say the OMA library in Seattle. Both sides are beautiful. If you like you can even read it :).

SuperUltraFabulous's picture

v-six> heheheeh very cute.

Has Vignelli designed anything else (publicly purchasable) besides Our Bodoni?

Mikey

Norbert Florendo's picture

> Has Vignelli designed anything else (publicly purchasable) besides Our Bodoni?

I wouldn't say that Vignelli actually designed WTC Our Bodoni, more like brooded over it, which must have drove Tom Carnase mad during the development.

Originally Vignelli was to "help" guide development for other "WTC Our ___" type families -- Our Century, Our Garamond, but I can't remember if they were ever released.

Basically, having Massimo Vignelli's "endorsement" and "typographic guidance" was Bert Di Pamphilis' marketing attempt to boost the image of the World Typeface Corporation, which was trying to gain marketshare from ITC. No small task, as history laid WTC to dust ... come to think of it, where is ITC these days? ;-)

negativespace's picture

I don't agree with his views on typefaces for the most part but I really enjoy and think highly of much of his work, as I do about other modernist works before and of that time period. I definitely agree with Tiffany regarding Vignelli's use of the grid.

I try to approach his views on typeface selection in a not so dogmatic way, rather I try to take from it the importance of knowing a few select type-families really in depth and learning to use them well. I think sometimes it can take some time to warm up to and learn to use a typeface beautifully. So I try not to see it as 6 being some sort of magic number, or the 6 he chooses, but more so about being able to use some of the 'few' well designed typefaces effectively (not that I think there is only a few, but the number is small in the grand scheme of all the badly designed ones imo). I still think taking the time to choose the most appropriate typeface is really important as well.

Last fall I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Vignelli while he was in Toronto; picked him up from where he was speaking to take him to our school. During the ride we talked about typefaces and I had explained that I was interested in designing my own typefaces and asked him if he thought new typefaces should be designed to accomodate new mediums or to improve functionality in existing mediums/applications rather than just modifying the old types to work. To my suprise he supported the idea of a new typefaces providing that its improvement over the old was significant. This was good to hear but I suppose this also puts forth the question of how you measure the functional aspects of one typeface over the other, not always so easy; it could very well become a subjective decision resulting in Helvetica again. Nevertheless, it was a really fun and inspiring talk that he gave to us!

John Hudson's picture

I don't know much about Vignelli's graphic design work, and in general I'm not terribly interested in graphic design. But I don't have a problem with someone saying that he believes only six typefaces are necessary. In order to be even internally consistent, the statement presumes the context of a particular kind of design -- presumably the kind Vignelli practices and advocates -- since it is easy enough to conceive of a kind of design that would require seven typefaces, and another that requires eight typefaces...

There is a very find book designer and publisher in Germany, whose work I have admired, who has used only the Janson for many years. If he were to tell me that only one typeface is necessary, I wouldn't argue with him, since he has demonstrated this to be true in the kind of design he practices.

There is an aspect of Vignelli's statement that I find quite refreshing: it suggests that he views typefaces as tools to be used in design, rather than considering the design of the typeface to become integral to the design. This is a legitimate view, usually indicating an understanding of design focused on spacial arrangement rather than stylistic evocation. Often, a distinctive typeface is used as a kind of stylistic shortcut by lazy designers. Limiting the typographic palette forces one to work harder at other aspects of design.

William Berkson's picture

>Limiting the typographic palette forces one to work harder at other aspects of design.

That may be a useful educational exercise, but as a general principle it seems to me to put an ideology ahead of the needs of the text. It seems to me that graphic design should communicate the text in the most effective way possible, where that 'effectiveness' will vary greatly with the text and the purpose of the author and publisher. For example telephone address and number listings will call for a different approach than an advertisment for a pop star's new record. Yes, you can use Helvetica for both, but I really doubt that today this is the best solution for either one.

>book designer ...whose work I have admired ... has used only the Janson for many years

Note that they are publishing books, and probably of a similar genre. Also, generally speaking book faces are quieter and less differentiated than display faces. Further, many books don't need to be trendy or fashionable in their text, which some magazines and many advertisments will want. So I don't doubt that a book publisher could use the same typeface very effectively for years. But this doesn't make Vignelli's principle valid.

I think that the '6 faces' thing is narrow minded, and I don't like Vignelli's work on the NY subway. However, in the thread last year someone posted a link for the guidelines for the National Park brochures that Vignelli designed. And these were excellent. And here a designer notes how good his lay-out guideliness for his magazine are.

So it seems to me that here is a guy that is both talented and dogmatic, and the result is a mixture of good and bad work, but in any case there is probably a lot to be learned from him.

dux's picture

For the record, I certainly wouldn't suggest vignelli not be a designer -- in fact I have a lot of respect for him, and admire many things that he has done, just generally speaking, not his graphic design. To say that the nature of a clean modernist aesthetic creates cold, inhumane graphics is probably true of most, but I don't see it as an absolute. I suppose it depends on what you personally consider constitutes humanity in graphic design -- for me, modernism can still make an emotional connection and warm the cockles of your heart. I am not looking to bash anyone, just start a little discussion, and to try and understand the situation better.

Considered font selection only improves good layout and concept beyond stylistic trivialities (in my mind at least) -- I suppose this is the crux of it -- he doesn't seem to believe that to be true. (well only if he's designed the font himself). Don't worry, I'm certainly not gonna lose any sleep over someone else living their life how they want to -- just trying to understand -- but if ever the term zombie modernist should be used, it is here. Typographic auto-pilot. Dare I say it, lazy.

tiffany -- those dishes are delicious

brooklyn rob -- why 'diminutive'? just painting a picture of the lecture. of course it's nothing to do with a napoleon complex.

pattyfab's picture

It is my experience that designers tend to fall (loosely) into two categories - those who have a 'signature' look like Mr. Vignelli (or Louise Fili, in earlier days Fred Marcellino, I could come up with more examples but I'm running out the door) that they apply to nearly every project and those who are more chameleon-like, trying to adapt the design to the specifics of the project. The two are vastly different approaches to design, and you need to know a designer's approach before you hire them. I'm in the latter category for sure and it has backfired on me from time to time - people saying my 'look' isn't right for them when I really don't think I have a 'look' and in fact think I could probably do nearly any type of design except perhaps the David Carson illegible look. I could certainly do 'Vignelli' with my eyes closed.

hrant's picture

> The two are vastly different approaches to design

I would say that the former is in fact an approach to art.
Because it's more about the creator than the created.

The only other explanation for severly limiting type choice (outside of "education") is a complete lack of understanding of how humans use type (like how the idea of a "golden x-height" is so retarded). In any case, it don't look good, doc.

hhp

Norbert Florendo's picture

> I really don’t think I have a ‘look’

Patty, I also felt the same way. I am a very strong proponent of facing design problems without resorting to habitual solutions.

Though I have a few "favorite" typefaces, preferred color schemes and personal preferences on text color/texture, I consider them all to be only "affections" and avoid using "taste" when seeking solutions.

But several years ago I contracted a freelance copywriter I knew (who didn't know I moved to a new company) and he said he thought I was working there since he recognized my style from the corportate ad campaigns running in magazines. Disconcerting, but enlightening.

I do know there are strong "marketing" reasons in establishing a house "style", since many clients gravitate towards what they can recognize, or what they are told by others to recognize. There are plus and minuses to "style" and one of the biggest pluses is increased and continual (as long as you remain "in style") business.

Type and graphic designers are no different in this than song writers and performers. Some write the songs you like to hear, some sing the songs the way you like it.

I guess that's why I keep scratching around looking for project opportunities :-\

hrant's picture

Every single human has his own look - that's as pleasurable
as it is inescapable. But what makes good design is when the
look comes through in spite of you.

hhp

pattyfab's picture

Well yes, Hrant, I agree with you. But that's not the same as imposing your look on the project whether it's suitable or not. That's the particular genius of the art director I suppose, making sure to give the project to the right designer. Square peg into square hole.

It can be disappointing when a designer falls back on the same old same old out of either laziness or lack of inspiration, but I guess we all do that from time to time.

Don McCahill's picture

As for the concept of having only one face as a book designer: well and good for the text of the book, but surely one will use other fonts for the chapter titles and especially the cover. (Unless this is like the old Penquins, with one design and all the books squeezed into it.)

negativespace's picture

Much of the modernist work of that period has a very distinct look but it seems to come from a very strong philosophy on what was considered to be straight forward, functional and objective. Rather than the designers trying to conform to a certain aesthetic or to leave their visual mark on a project. I respect that, and this is what I like about many of the past modernist designers.

Listening to Massimo talk he brought up an interesting point. I don't necessarily agree with it since I don't feel it is relevant for every project be said he felt that here was no target audience. As soon as you determine or direct your design to a specific audience you are already starting to narrow down its effectiveness, and when you have something being implemented that will be viewed by people of many different cultures like the material for the national parks, you need to keep it as universal as possible. So I think when your have a firm view on visual communication like that, there is bound to be a strong continuity between your work.

In terms of aesthetics I see a lot of designers today I think trying to emulate that "swiss style" and often very poorly, just seems to come off like faux modernism; very shallow and not based on strong principals that they have a firm understanding of. One of the few studios that I think pulls it off quite nicely is Experimental Jetset. They recently contributed a very interesting article about modernism today for our school magazine called Verso. (email me if you are interested)

I find graphic designers like David Carson have more of a look, he’s obsessed with himself, and does whatever the heck he wants which is why all of his work usually ends up looking the same, and at the same time I can’t really see what the ideas behind his work is in the same way I see it with Massimo, aside from the fact that he wants to make it one way so he does.

John Hudson's picture

Much of the modernist work of that period has a very distinct look but it seems to come from a very strong philosophy on what was considered to be straight forward, functional and objective.

...and utopian. The progressive social utopianism of the modernist movement mustn't be overlooked.

Hrant comments that the modernist design approach is about art -- as he puts it 'more about the creator than the created' --, but this ignores the social programme of modernism, which is concerned with neither the creator nor the created object, but about the role of both in a new aesthetic and social creation.

I write this with very little sympathy for such a programme: I'm not a modernist and I'm suspicious of utopianism. But I think it is important to understand the motivations of modernism, and not to misrepresent them.

George Horton's picture

Yes. But of the major arts only architecture's modernists fit this characterisation. In literature and music almost all were cultural conservatives intent on reimagining a European tradition from within the mass culture they despised. The tone was lower in architecture largely because the arbiters of taste were lightly educated socialist politicians with limited budgets. Historians of the visual arts have tended to remake all modernism in the image of architecture's holy fools, but Gill and van Krimpen were more representative of the main stream of modernism than early Tschichold or Vignelli.

Nick Shinn's picture

Gill a modernist? You jest.

hrant's picture

I see both Modernism and Medievalism in Gill.
He was a man of contradictions on so many fronts.

hhp

dezcom's picture

If you lived through modernism, you would see that it was an attempt at utopian design that tried to grasp the new mass-production world of the time and create design which was more system and process oriented rather than the single item as work of art theory which it rebelled against. Vignelli was a man of system design and he was good at it. His critics look at his single works and compare them to others' single works rather than the production system that they were. Hindsight is easy but modernism did a great service to the design profession. It brought it out of the "Just make it pretty" artiste school and into the "just make it communicate" school. This elevated the profession in the corporate world and brought about what we now call branding. You can debate the success or failure of the aesthetic that now remains of modernism in retrospect but the truth is, modernists were trying to make design devoid of style. Sadly, its major critics complain about it because of style!

ChrisL

George Horton's picture

Well, there were two modernisms, as nearly opposite as two movements can be: following the conventions of impartial history, we can call them "Good Modernism" (The Waste Land is to Oedipos Tyrannos and the Divine Comedy as Perpetua's, Joanna's and Gill Sans' capitals are to those of Trajan and the early Renaissance) and "Bad Modernism" (which is what modernism means in design circles).

William Berkson's picture

Actually it would be great to have a good, relatively impartial history of modernism in type design. There are the wonderful Heller-Filli books, but these are about the look of advertising and display. I would be interested to see the differences in design and typography, as seen first by those in the movement, and then from a current perspective.

My feeling is that modernism in archicture was mainly a disaster, but in type some good products and ideas came out of it. I would like to read more about the conflicts and changes within modernism--such as Nick has pointed out--and its real accomplishments and failures.

The ideal of being devoid of style, which Chris interestingly points out, is obviously naive in hindsight. I do think as Chris notes, they were in the later phase on to something in their thoughts about 'system', which photo type enabled them to think about in a new way.

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