I learned how to design at design school. But I learned how to be a designer from Massimo Vignelli.
How to be a designer: what a massive assignation.
As Vignelli tributes (and links to his New York City subway map) clustered in my inbox this week, I’ve thought a lot about how I learned how to be a designer. I sometimes think I know how to be a designer because, like Bierut, I developed a taste for raw meat.
And as I reflect, I’m pretty sure I arrived at my present professional modus operandi through a non-repeatable formula of haphazardly undertaken coursework, a scarce bit of mentorship, and quite a lot of luck in choosing the things I’ve done repeatedly. Among the activities I’d consider directly responsible for my success, I’d include coding, Photoshop, and a lot of time articulating my (often un)solicited opinions about design and typography. Indirectly, I’m pretty sure my hobbies of cooking, looking at urban spaces, and finding dress shirts that fit led me to some of the same conclusions as Bierut about taste and the recognition of my own blind spots.
However much I consciously did not count Vignelli as a design influence (or a personal mentor), I have to acknowledge his stature in the field and credit him for forcing me as a young designer to respond and re-respond to his six-typeface standard. While I still disagree with such an arbitrary limit, my response has evolved over the last 10 years: whereas I was once appalled by its restrictiveness, I am now more appreciative of what it represents as a manifestation of a set of principles.
My hobbies are not unique among professionals in my field. I’d like to think they’ve helped me thrive in my field because of my approach to them, one informed by the six-typeface standard: I’ve learned to prioritize competence over novelty.
As for Vignelli’s principles: I’d recommend The Vignelli Canon to young designers, outsiders, and humans at-large. It’s written and designed with lots of heart (it’s also a quick read, available as a free PDF).
Its conclusion is also a fitting piece of text to quote this week. Printed on the last page of the book and set in Century Expanded, it feels like a poem:
Throughout our creative lives we have sifted
through everything to select what we thought best.
We sifted through materials to find those for which
we have the closest affinity. We sifted through
colors, textures, typefaces, images, and gradually
we built a vocabulary of materials and experiences
that enable us to express our solutions to given
problems – our interpretations of reality.
It is imperative to develop your own vocabulary of
your own language – a language that attempts to
be as objective as possible, knowing very well that
even objectivity is subjective.
I love systems and despise happenstance.
I love ambiguity because, for me, ambiguity means
plurality of meanings. I love contradiction
because it keeps things moving, preventing them
from assuming a frozen meaning, or becoming a
monument to immobility.
As much as I love things in flux, I love them
within a frame of reference – a consistent
reassurance that at least and at last I am the one
responsible for every detail.
And that is why I love Design.