A word is so much better,” Massimo Vignelli once told Businessweek. “Fifty years ago there were very few logos in general. Somebody started to do logos and people started thinking that logos were important… It’s ridiculous.”
Such a comment might seem strange at first, coming from someone who gave the world such a number of instantly familiar corporate marks: Bloomingdale’s, Knoll and American Airlines, to name three.
To most people, these are logos. To Vignelli, they were words; special words because they were names, but words all the same. No superfluous symbols or illustration or tricksy type. Just words. Companies didn’t need anything else to identify them, as American Airlines were famously told when they asked Vignelli to insert an eagle between the two ‘A’s of the AA monogram he’d designed. Vignelli, whose death has been widely mourned in the design community, made words memorable with the minimum of means.
Look at Bloomingdale’s. The name is the kind of long, stringy word logo designers hate. Vignelli set it in something very similar to Herb Lubalin’s Avant Garde Gothic and trimmed off the stems. The repeated circular letterforms had the effect of visually shortening the word, and made what would have been quite a chic little logo for its time, 1972. But by looping together the twin ‘o’s (and placing the word on functional brown bags), Vignelli turned it into something that fashion-followers (not to mention any self-respecting souvenir-seeker in New York) would want to be seen with decades later.
It is exactly the kind of achievement that validated his central ethos. Fashion had no place in design, according to Vignelli. Styling and design fads, and the obsolescence that inevitably accompanies them, were anathema to him – something he put down to being brought up surrounded by beautiful ancient history in Italy. Design was about creating timelessness; changing an identity for the sake of change was lunacy. “Why spend all that money on something that doesn’t last?” he would ask.
His legendarily finite palette of well-proven typefaces served him (and his clients) well in this respect. His utilisation of Helvetica in logotypes from the mid-1960s (for Knoll, American Airlines, Heller, Target, Kroin and others) had nothing to do with fashion and everything to do with function: legibility, elegance, and the establishment of design systems that could endure. Starting at Unimark in the 1960s, Vignelli was one of the first to develop graphic programmes that branded every conceivable item, from price tags to factories, and brought order to communications. And, to that end, the simpler the logo, the better, in Vignelli’s book.
And who could argue? Bloomingdale’s: designed 1972, still in use. Knoll: designed 1967, still in use. Target: designed early 1970s, still in use. American Airlines: designed 1967, retired 2013. Later identities, too, for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (1999), Corpgroup (2007), BK Italia (2006) are clocking up the years.
Whenever he was asked to review identities that were already rooted in the popular consciousness, such as Ford, Cinzano and Lancia, his response was limited to minor tweaks. His only change for United Colors of Benetton was to move the name from centred on a green rectangle to ranged top left.
Massimo Vignelli valued meaning, culture, simplicity and restraint. That his identities, or words, lasted so long in a world that bores easily is the true mark of his achievement as a designer.