Massimo Vignelli, who died this week aged 83

Work / Graphic Design

The List: Our look at some of the best tributes to the late, great Massimo Vignelli

The sad death of Massimo Vignelli this week was greeted with the kind of tributes as befitting one of the design world’s most important figures. From posters to publications, brand identities to buildings and products to public signage, Massimo brought European modernism firmly into the mainstream.

On his website he summed up his design philosophy as “semantically correct, syntactically consistent and pragmatically understandable. I like it to be visually powerful, intellectually elegant and above all timeless.”

Whether you’re a Vignelli aficionado who knows his work inside out or someone who knows the name but is keen to find out a little more, here’s a collection of some of the best articles and videos we came across this week.

The Obit


Massimo Vignelli: American Airlines identity

There were of course lots of glowing obituaries this week but this one from The New York Times is arguably the best place to start. Not only did Massimo live and work in Manhattan but his design for the city’s subway system is arguably the single piece of work with which he is most associated.

This piece is comprehensive, adds a useful New York context and finishes off with my favourite single quote of the week which recounts what the great man said when he was asked how he would approach a new identity for The Vatican. “I would go to the pope and say, ‘Your holiness, the logo is O.K.,’ ” he said, referring to the cross, “but everything else has to go.”

The New York Subway Map


Massimo Vignelli: The 1972 New York subway map

Massimo Vignelli’s subway map was officially released by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in 1972 and met with a mixed reaction; while some embraced the way it simplified the underground network others felt it went too far in paring-back the real city above. The TIME obituary includes an interactive version of the map so you can really immerse yourself in it and see what all the fuss was about, while Paul Goldberger wrote an excellent piece on Vignelli’s design in The New Yorker when it was partially re-introduced a few years ago. The map “wasn’t just lovely to look at,” he wrote. “Its obsessive clarity turns out to be the perfect basis for digital information. It’s more modern looking than any of the maps that followed it.”

The map even inspired this super video below which turns the subway into an interactive sting instrument.

The Personal Memories


Massimo Vignelli: Knoll International poster

Pentagram partner Michael Bierut worked for Massimo Vignelli for ten years and his article on Design Observer is an articulate and moving tribute to Vignelli’s life and work, as well as an insight into what kind of man he was. “I learned how to design at design school. But I learned how to be a designer from Massimo Vignelli,” Michael writes; he also wrote a good homage on the subway map a few years ago.

The Impact


Massimo Vignelli: United Colors of Benetton identity

When it was announced Massimo was very ill a few weeks ago, his son Luca asked for people to write him letters to read during what would turn out to be his last days. The response was overwhelming – this New York Times piece features some good examples – but the tributes weren’t confined to the written correspondence. On the Creative Review article relaying Luca’s request, the comments give a wonderful insight into how much Massimo’s work meant to so many people.


Massimo Vignelli: USA Bicentennial poster

The Video (short)

There’s quite a few videos featuring Massimo floating about on the internet but here’s a couple of our favourites. The folks over at Design Indaba filmed this studio visit a few years ago which is a good quick introduction to the man and some of his key ideas. But if you’re craving something a little more in-depth…

The Video (Longer)

Debbie Millman is one of the leading design interviewers working today so it’s no great surprise that bringing her together with a designer of Massimo’s stature produced such an interesting, insightful and in-depth film.