Thinking about Massimo Vignelli

A few days ago I read the very sad news of Massimo Vignelli’s death. This past winter I attended a viewing of his documentary, “Design Is One” at the Denver Art Museum which was followed by a long Q&A session with Massimo over Skype. After hearing that he died, I looked back at my notes from that night and thought it might be nice to post some of them here.

Todd Berger of Berger & Föhr asking Massimo Vignelli a question over Skype at the Denver Art Museum

Todd Berger of Berger & Föhr asking Massimo Vignelli a question over Skype at the Denver Art Museum

I remember that it was below 0° F, and the roads were more fit for ice skates than cars, but I don’t regret braving it all to see the documentary and hear him speak. We were a fairly large audience for a week night plagued by bad weather, and yet he showed no signs of impatience as we asked question after question.

I wrote in my journal that night a cluster of words that I felt described his demeanor – friendly, happy, glowing, open, genuine, at peace. Question topics ranged from opinions on design principles to what he eats for lunch and dinner. He took them all eagerly.

Every few sentences he’d say something that made me feel like I’d had a sudden revelation.

Below are some of the things discussed during the session that really resonated with me.
On Design:

  1. Good design is not art, good art is not design.
    The closer they get to a hybrid the poorer they are.
  2. Design shouldn’t be noticed. (Quality design provides solutions; it does not draw attention to itself, but quietly functions as intended.)
  3. Good design will go on to help people make even better design.
  4. There is a difference between complex and complicated, and there is nothing more complex than simplicity.
    “A complex relationship is wonderful. A complicated relationship is a disaster.”
  5. Pay attention to the white space. It’s the pauses that count. (In design and life.)

On Work:

  1. If you bend to your clients wants you are doing them a disservice.
    (Fight instead for their needs.)
  2. Don’t work on stuff you don’t like.
  3. Don’t get too big – the quality will suffer.
    Don’t be too small – doctors want to help as many people as possible, and they need a team. (In response to a question about business growth from Todd Berger of the very notable, Boulder-based Berger & Föhr)
  4. A reasonable living is all you need.
    Designers do bad work when they do it solely for money.
    Designers who do good work make a modest living, and that’s all you need.
  5. “The price of being rich is too high.”

On Life And Profession:

  1. Be curious. Have passion.
    Passion is the reason a person curates his or herself.
  2. Connect. Be bright.
    “Nobody wants to connect with someone who isn’t bright. A natural talent helps.”
  3. Forget your failures.
    Learn from your mistakes, but forget your failures.”

I am saddened by his death, but I will continue to be inspired by his life and work. He contributed a great deal to design and the betterment of society’s daily experiences, and that is something worthy of continued celebration.


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