Meeting Massimo Vignelli

I stepped in the door and shook his outstretched hand, addressing him formally and introducing myself. My dad and I took seats next to him in the perfectly round gray chairs that were placed around his perfectly square black table. He was dressed in all black, offset only by white skin, silver hair, and an elegant gold wedding band.

He leaned in gently and placed his crossed arms on the table, perfectly parallel to its edge. A few inches beyond lay a closed, pristine silver laptop—​an Apple of course—​that had also been positioned so its edge was perfectly parallel to that of the table. And in front of and parallel to the computer, lay a metal paper tray. Behind the man was a white wall, interrupted only by a black square fireplace.

But the room was far from austere, revealing a playful, sensual side to this man of order. A beautiful, warm light emanated from the lamp behind him and sunlight hit the desk from the nearby church-style window. His red pencil provided a spot of sharp color and the Greco-Roman bust to his right offered a break from the geometric lines and patterns. All said, the room was stunningly beautiful.

I couldn’t take my eyes off him as he and my dad talked. I took in his gentle voice and caught a boyish smile every so often, even though the conversation was serious.

When he turned to me and said So what do you do, Ethan? my brain drew a blank as I was still processing the “Holy Shit: I’m talking to Massimo Vignelli!” sensation of it all. (Vignelli is one of the all-time great Modernist designers, probably most famous for designing the New York City Subway signage.)

During my momentary silence, my dad jumped in and got the ball rolling, explaining that I’d left high school to pursue design. Massimo was supportive of the move, and I listened as he shared some of his own experiences and advice. We started talking intently about design and his philosophy, and eventually I asked him if he would take a look at a piece of my work. He said yes, but that he only had fifteen minutes.

After an hour and a half of critique and discussion on my design, Massimo and I said goodbye. Despite a number of mentions that I didn’t want to keep him from his work, he seemingly couldn’t stop going. We discussed the site’s typography, grid, logo, and organizational challenges as he sketched solutions effortlessly with his magic hand and trademark pencil (the only one he is willing to use). Every minute we talked, he seemed to grow younger as he became more and more engaged. The work animated him and our respective energies fed off of each other. We agreed that the four of us (Massimo; his wife Lella, a world-renowned designer in her own right; my dad; and me) would meet for dinner later that night.

As my dad and I walked backed to the hotel, I excitedly discussed Vignelli’s suggestions with him, still on a high that wouldn’t wear off for a week. We discussed my frustration with Vignelli’s limited visual language, which aimed for Kantian timelessness and universality over Aristotelian appropriateness, though I had to concede the simultaneous lure that its ordered internal consistency had over me. And Massimo didn’t avoid appropriateness either, as he was able to work that narrow set of components into a unique solution for each client, extracting more from them than a magician can extract from a hat.

He preferred order even when it obstructed functionality, (e.g. making all headlines the same size when it lead to a less-clear visual hierarchy), which drove me insane. But he would occasionally, purposefully, boldly deviate from his order system to create an almost sensual effect, revealing the intuitve, spontaneous side of him that I’d seen on display in his apartment. And his writing, even more dogmatic, proclamatory, and provocative than his designs, left me screaming back at whatever book I happened to be reading.

His design principles were able to evoke in me every emotion from anger to utter admiration, but rarely dismissal: for as contradictory or frustrating as he could be, his work was undeniably beautiful. Combined with a friendly demeanor that made him impossible to dislike, I became magnetized by this man whose work I’d admired for so long.

See Massimo for Yourself