It’s still going on, now in UX design

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Detail of New York City Subway Map designed by Massimo Vignelli, 1972

When I began writing about graphic design, the profession was polarized by an ever-intensifying debate between legibility and creativity. The battle was between the Modernists, personified by the late Massimo Vignelli (1931–2014), and the so-called Anti-Modernists who experimented with deconstruction and unpredictability, especially David Carson and the designers of Emigre magazine and Emigre fonts (which Vignelli had famously called “garbage” ). From the late 1980s the to the early ’90s you could hardly open a design magazine without reading about “the prison of the grid” vs. “the chaos of the new aesthetics.”

Because the legibility debate has been re-opened on Medium with various stories about web design’s lack of creativity and usability I thought it would be a opportune time to revisit this debate. Why, for example, can’t we appreciate both approaches, both schools of thought? As in painting or music, shouldn’t there be room for many styles, all of which are valid?

Following are excerpts from conversations that took place in the offices of Massimo Vignelli in 1996. They might be just as applicable to UX designers today as they were to publication designers back then.

Me: Ever since you called Emigre “an aberration of culture,” you’ve gotten a reputation as someone who makes dogmatic judgments about good and bad design based on style. Why can’t all of us appreciate many styles of design, just like we can enjoy listening to both Mozart and Coltraine?

Vignelli: Those are both good music. Then there is junk music, like radio jingles. And there is junk design. It is not a matter of style or taste. It is a matter of quality and non-quality.

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Massimo Vignelli and is “Five Phrases to Live By” poster.

How do you define “quality?”

Things that are done with knowledge. I am interested in work that is grounded in semiotics, the science or philosophy of communications. Semiotics has three levels: semantics, syntactics, and pragmatics. Semantics relates to how information is expressed. Syntactics relates to the structure, discipline, the coherence of elements, the continuity. We are also pragmatic. Can the reader retrieve the information in the proper way?

Isn’t that beyond the grasp of the average designer or viewer of design?

No. It shouldn’t be. The solution is always in the problem itself. We’re always asking ourselves how we can solve the problem in the way that is the most clear, most beautiful, most timeless, most elegant.

To me, everything has a meaning. Typography is made of minor things, and unless you master the meanings of those things, you are illiterate. In one of the books I designed, the client tampered with the typography in ways that changed the visual language of the book. For example, they indented paragraphs that began with an initial cap. That is not the way these things should be. The initial cap should be flush left.

Why do you say these aren’t matters of style or taste? Don’t many fine designers put initial caps in places that aren’t flush left?

Yes, but if they are fine designers they do it in a masterly way. With a sense of scale, a sense of appropriateness. Everything is perfect. The difference is knowledge. Knowledge shows.

Good design has to be logical. The information itself provides the graphics. This is what we call civilized graphics. The content, not the designer, is what is screaming for attention. Still, there is a lot of personal expression. My solution is my interpretation of the problem filtered through my culture, my education, my understanding, my sensibility.

Publications for the Guggenheim Museum designed by Massimo Vignelli and Vignelli Associates, c. 1994

The people who criticize your work say you give the same design to every client. For example, it seems as if in almost every publication you’ve designed there’s a spread filled with very large Garamond Italic going over the gutter.

All of them are getting the fruit of my garden. It’s my handwriting, my language, my interpretation. I am interested in achieving a certain effect, such as words becoming images. Every time I do that layout, it may look the same, but it’s a little bit different, a little bit better. The scale may be different, the leading, the thicks and thins, exactly how the words break across the gutter.

I’m not interested in change for the sake of change or novelty. I’m only interested in a projection of intelligence that comes through refinement.

American culture is young. It’s fascinated by diversity and novelty. European culture is fascinated by refinement. Obviously, I belong to European culture. We are continually refining language and the expression of it. I am very interested in the projection of intelligence that comes through refinement.

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Stendig Calendar by Massimo Vignelli (in Helvetica Medium). The only calendar in the Design Collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Still being sold on Amazon.

You are known for doing everything with five type families: Bodoni, Century, Futura, Garamond…

and Helvetica.

The five-family type mafia.

That’s a good one! Those are the ones with value. In the last ten or fifteen years, in order to generate a new direction the young people threw away things that were good. If architecture had done this we would have gone back to stilts and caves. The people who like Emigre say it’s great because they have no education or sense.

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Emigre #10, designed by Zuzano Licko and Rudy VanderLans, 1988.

Does it matter to you that Emigre fonts were originally designed for output on a dot-matrix printer, pre-PostScript?

No, I don’t want to hear any rationalizations. It’s all baloney. You measure these things by the end result. The Emigre typefaces have zero refinement, zero grace. I suppose they’re trying to come out with new expressions. But there is no need for any of them. This is cartoonish, with overtones of graffiti, an irresponsible manifestation of our time. People who make graffiti do not respect the rights of others and they pollute the environment.None of these fonts have made any contribution to typography. They are commercial and irresponsible.

Do you use the word irresponsible because you think these fonts are cynically being foisted on a public that’s merely hungry for novelty?

No, these people are sincere in what they’re doing. They know their business very well. They do what they do for precise reasons. In the same way the writer of radio jingles is sincere about what he does.

A whole generation of students and followers is being influenced by this kind of thing. Students today need more respect for the past. Many of them know nothing about philosophy, about European history before the French Revolution or after. They know nothing of the major events of the century. They have no early training, such as the Montessori system, in building structures and using color. Instead, their finger-paintings are put up on the refrigerator, and they’re led to believe that these smearings are great works of art, like abstract expressionism. In high school they make scrapbooks. In college or art school they start working on computers on day one and stay glued to the screen. We shouldn’t be surprised at what we see today: glorified infantilism. Look in Vogue and Vanity Fair and you see those scrapbook layouts everywhere. This is symptomatic of a culture in which everything, the whole environment, is falling apart.

You said that the people who like Emigre do so because they have no education. But Emigre is a publication for the highly educated. Its readers are literate — and passionate. The letters to the editor make me think it’s 1968 when students were trying to burn the barricades, tear down the walls of the establishment.

The renegades got organized, they have a voice, it becomes a culture. Like the beat generation, they have destroyed more than they built.

Emigre is an expression of an attempt to find a new direction. Some of the covers and layouts are not bad. But rather than come up with something of real complexity, elegance, and power — it could be something very provocative, which I would love to see — they came up with something shallow.

If this is what graphic design is, then I’m not a graphic designer any more. For years I’ve been obsessed and offended by these people. I felt they were demeaning my profession. I have recently realized that they do not belong to my profession. And I do not belong to their profession. Everything they do is an accident, happenstance.

April Greiman has said that she built her career on accidents, that she’s subscribed creatively to the chance principle, like recapturing images that were created by accident on the computer or on video. She told me how she enlarged an airbrush gradation on the graphic paintbox in order to see its deeper structure, which she said was like discovering the DNA code.

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“The Modern Poster,” designed by April Greiman for The Museum of Modern Art, 1988.

Right. Her work is not like mine at all, but it is always exciting, always stimulating. Never gross or vulgar. She is into deeper understanding. A methodology and a discipline. She doesn’t massacre type. Her work is the expression of her intelligence. You can never see ugly intelligence. Or, if it’s ugly, it’s not intelligence. Even the most controversial pictures by Mapplethorpe are extremely beautiful, although the subject matter can be offensive. You can tell quality by measuring it against things that have been done in the past.

Let’s say I showed you a piece of 18th century furniture, full of gold leaf and so forth. It’s not to your taste. Is it beautiful?

Beauty could include the rejection of established values.

Certain paintings of Manet were rejected by the Academy because only paintings such as those done by Ingres and David, which reflected a certain type of classical idealism or moral platitudes, were valued at the time.

Yes, Impressionism could have been considered ugly by people who had not developed the ability to look at Manet and see it as beautiful.

It’s true that I might not have developed an ability to look at some things that have designed today. I understand that these overlappings communicate to the generation that grew up with MTV. I don’t see it. For me it is a mess. But the kids might be more comfortable.

Then are we talking about a generation gap or an absolute definition of intrinsic beauty?

We are talking about a schism rocking our profession. On the one side are the information architects, a term devised by Richard Saul Wurman, rooted in history and semiotics. On the other side are graphic designers rooted in advertising, pictorial arts, and trends. Personally I feel I no longer have anything to share with the so-called graphic designers of today like David Carson who use letterforms like a painter, as found objects, not as typography. He could never do something like a price list.

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Ray Gun #58, designed by David Carson, August 1998.

Which you enjoy designing.

Yes. Price lists, train schedules, I’m not ashamed at all. In addition to semiotics, I am interested in ambiguity. These things tell you what something costs, when the train leaves. Then you look at them again and see what is happening on another level.

You are saying that you appreciate the innovators, not the imitators.

The innovators are few. The imitators are few. All they do is look at design annuals and copy.

For several years now I’ve been fighting the vulgarity, the sloppiness, the confusion. Now I’m taking a step to clarify the issue. The dictionary says an architect is one who plans and achieves a difficult objective, such as the architect of a military victory. I applaud the person who designed the Nutrition Facts label that’s on every food package being sold in the U.S. That is a masterpiece of information architecture, and quite a victory for social responsibility. It has nothing to do with painting or self-expression.

Are you going to start a new organization for information architects?

Maybe. Let’s see what happens.


To read my many stories about the graphic design business, education, trends, personalities, go to:

My career is designing and writing about design. Here, I can write about lots of things. My short fiction attempts to capture and evoke past moments in time.

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