Thoughts On: The Vignelli Canon Written By Massimo Vignelli

This short booklet, the Vignelli Canon, speaks to some of the aspects of good graphic design. As a past multimedia major, my classes often focused on graphic design for websites, logo design, video game design, video creation, etc. But, in all my classes, I don’t recall ever going into the specifics of design as Vignelli does. While I don’t necessarily agree with all of the principles mentioned in the Vignelli Canon, I recognize them as essential foundations which a graphic designer should build upon.

In the introduction, Vignelli states that this book is supposed to be “a instrument for better understanding of typography in Graphic Design” (Vignelli 2010, 6). I found it to be much more than this. First, this book is clearly a celebration of Vignelli’s standards for graphic design. He uses his own standards of design as instructional for the general public or for those aspiring designers. It is important to note that he comes from a pre-internet perspective, so his design techniques focus on pen and paper versus modern digital design. However, I have seen his same thoughts echoed in other more modern articles and videos about graphic design. So, he surely is knowledgeable in his field.

Vignelli presented several ideas in his book. I will only comment on the ones which had some impact on my thinking about design. First, is pragmatics. The idea is that a design must be understood. If, at the creation of a final product, people don’t understand its purpose or use, then the designer has failed. Bad design exists everywhere, not just on signs, commercials, or advertisements, but also in inventions, architecture, and pretty much every area of life. I found this link on bad designs, provided by my professor, quite informative and comical! As a designer, one must imagine the end product, the message, the use, the audience, the consumer, and then begin to create.

Vignelli had strong ideas such as “Design without discipline is anarchy, an exercise of irresponsibility” (Vignelli 2010, 16). In today’s digital world, I think the idea of “design anarchy” or “design irresponsibility” is often celebrated. Youtube and Tiktok are filled with amateurs who, while not claiming to be graphic designers, are presenting websites, videos, and other forms of media to the world. And, the world seems to love it as these people receive millions of followers. These same content creators would definitely not be hired by companies to create logos, letterhead, websites, or other content. Yet, these amateurs are still successful in their own right as anarchist of design. I might even be one of these vile criminals!

The “discipline is anarchy” ideal is not Vignelli’s only strong opinion. He also speaks on America’s love of waste, using 8 1/2 x 11 paper. Oh no! While other countries use A series paper, which was created according to the design idea of the golden rectangle. He clearly has some bias against America and it is not just because of our paper size. Another questionable view is that “economy is at the essence of design expression” (Vignelli 2010, 94). Vignelli clarifies that he does not refer to cheap design. I think here he is speaking to simplicity of design. Personally, I think that streamlined design has its place. I also believe that chaotic design has its place. Especially in our digital world. Ultimately, the decision on what is good design is purely objective. I’ve encountered many artists who try to present a theory of what is right or wrong with design, but I’ve found that their views are often shaped by a European, colonialist, “I’m right and you’re wrong” kind of mentality. That doesn’t mean that I throw away everything I hear from those more educated than me in the design world. It does mean that I question why. Where did this idea originate from? Who decided that the golden rectangle was a thing of beauty? Which cultures agree with the idea of the color wheel? Is there such a thing as a universal design theory? These same ideas become driving forces for different architectural approaches, preservation practices, and urban design plans. While Vignelli presents some great ideas, I question where his bias lays, as I do with so many rigid artistic “experts.”

Finally, the positive things I gained from this reading. First, the idea of grids for various media types. When creating a document, website, or whatever else, my brain often logically arranges the page how I wish it to be seen. It wasn’t until I read this booklet by Vignelli that I realized I was, in fact, gridding out the page. It was surprising to see that different grid layouts worked better for a book versus a letter, for example. I found this approach useful, so I may be more intentional about gridding my workspace out in the future. Another useful concept was that of typography. While Vignelli presented strong opinions about type face and font which I don’t fully agree with, he did offer some decent suggestions. With the myriad of choices for typefaces, it is best to choose just a couple and become experts with those. All the squiggly lines, bold lettering, and extra fun things people add to create new type faces often causes confusion and muddies that waters. For someone like me, I get overwhelmed when I see 500 different choices. I’m also frustrated when a program only offers five choices. Especially since two of those choices are usually Times New Roman or Arial. I’m tired of using these two and would like something else. Even for this blog, I struggled with choosing a typeface. Anyway, I think it is a good idea to think about why the typeface was created, how it was supposed to be used, and what message it conveys to the user. A video shared by my professor explains this in quite a comical way: Five Fonts to Never Use.

Ultimately, I had some positive takeaways from Vignelli’s work. Putting aside his obvious bias and opinionated stances, there is still much to gain from a critical analysis of his idea of graphic design. I will think more on these principles and concepts, and attempt to implement them on my website in the future.

 Vignelli, Massimo. The Vignelli Canon. N.p.: Lars Müller. 2010

Link to The Vignelli Canon

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