Massimo Vignelli is a designer who has done work in a number of areas ranging from package design to houseware design to furniture design to public signage to showroom design through Vignelli Associates, which he co-founded with his wife, Lella. He has said, "If you can design one thing, you can design everything," and this is reflected in his broad range of work.
Vignelli works firmly within the Modernist tradition, and focuses on simplicity through the use of basic geometric forms in all his work.
As a teenager, he became enthralled with design and befriended many of the great architects of his day. (He sometimes says his youth was spent as an "architecture groupie.") He went on to study architecture at the Politecnico di Milano and later at the Università di Architettura, Venice.
From 1957 to 1960, Vignelli visited America on a fellowship, and returned to New York in 1966 to start the New York branch of a new company, Unimark International, which quickly became, in scope and personnel, one of the largest design firms in the world. The firm went on to design many of the world's most recognizable corporate identities, including that of American Airlines (which forced him to incorporate the eagle, Massimo is always quick to point out). Vignelli designed the iconic signage for the New York City Subway system during this period, and the intriguing but controversial 1970s-80s map of the system. Contrary to news reports and lore, Vignelli did not design the Washington, DC Metro Map, which was designed by Lance Wyman and Bill Cannan. Vignelli designed the simple signage and wayfinding system for the DC Metro and was the one to suggest that it be named "Metro" like many other capital city subways. Its original name was a mishmash of various states and transportation groups.
In 1971, Massimo resigned from Unimark, in part because the design vision which he supported became diluted as the company diversified and increasingly stressed marketing, rather than design. Soon after, Massimo and Lella Vignelli founded Vignelli Associates. He and his wife continue to work from their New York office.
Vignelli was involved with filmmaker Gary Hustwit in the documentary Helvetica, about the typeface of the same name. Vignelli also recently updated his 1972 New York City subway map.
Massimo Vignelli has worked in a wide variety of areas, including interior design, environmental design, package design, graphic design, furniture design, and product design. His clients at Vignelli Associates have included high-profile companies such as IBM, Knoll, Bloomingdale's and American Airlines.
Vignelli participated in the Stock Exchange of Visions project in 2007, as well as publishing the book, Vignelli: From A to Z, which contains a series of essays describing the principles and concepts behind "all good design". It is alphabetically organized by topic, roughly approximating a similar course he has taught at Harvard's School of Design and Architecture.
In January 2009, Vignelli released The Vignelli Canon as a free e-book; an expanded version was printed in September 2010, but the original remains available for download on the Vignelli Associates website. In the introduction Vignelli writes, "I thought that it might be useful to pass some of my professional knowledge around, with the hope of improving [young designers'] design skills. Creativity needs the support of knowledge to be able to perform at its best."
Vignelli worked with the National Park Service and the design staff at the Harpers Ferry Center in creation of the "Unigrid System." The system has been used since 1977 in creation of park brochures in all national parks locations.
Vignelli Center for Design Studies
Massimo and Lella Vignelli agreed to donate the entire archive of their design work in 2008 to the Rochester Institute of Technology, near Rochester, New York. The archive will be exhibited in a new building designed by Lella and Massimo Vignelli, to be known as The Vignelli Center For Design Studies. The building, which opened in September 2010, includes among its many offerings exhibition spaces, classrooms, and offices.
“The Vignelli Center for Design Studies will house our comprehensive archive of graphic design, furniture and objects,” said Vignelli. “Under the direction of R. Roger Remington, the Vignelli Distinguished Professor of Design at RIT, the center will foster studies related to Modernist design with programs and exhibitions on our work as well as other related subjects. The first one of its kind and size, The Vignelli Center will position RIT on the international forefront of design studies. Lella and I are delighted to see our dream taking shape.”