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Vignelli was born in Milan in 1931, and he studied architecture at the Politecnico di Milano Università di Architettura and later at the Università di Architettura, Venice. Though he spent his childhood enduring the threats and bomb alarms of World War II, Vignelli believes this period helped him become a designer, because if he had been born before this time, he wouldn’t have been part of the war or the rebuilding efforts.

Vignelli then met his wife, Lella, and married in 1957. Later, they opened a design and architecture company that created designs for European clients such as Rank Xerox and Olivetti. In 1965, they moved to New York and established Vignelli Associates.

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Massimo Vignelli and his wife Lella in front of Vignelli Center for Design Studies

As a modernist designer, Vignelli helped reform design in the 20th century through his work and experience in different disciplines, including graphic design, product design, interior design, and others. His design philosophy was focused on simplicity and the use of basic geometric shapes within the design.

“If you can design one thing, you can design everything.” Massimo Vignelli

Vignelli won many design prizes and acknowledgments, including the Gran Premio Triennale di Milano, Industrial Arts Medal, New York Directors Club Hall of Fame, honorary doctorate degree in fine arts from Parsons School of Design, AIGA Gold Medal, honorary doctorate degree in architecture from the University of Venice, and more.

His clients at Vignelli Associates included top companies such as IBM, Knoll, Bloomingdale’s, and American Airlines. He also designed the signage for the New York City subway system. The clear lines and color codes to identify different lines made the maps more usable and easy to follow by thousands of users. In 2008, Vignelli and his wife donated their work to the Rochester Institute of Technology. A whole building is now dedicated to showcase his work, which is know as the Vignelli Center for Design Studies. The design for the building was created by him and his wife.

If you do it right, it will last forever.Massimo Vignelli

Vignelli publications focus on transferring his vision and understanding of design to future generations, such as “Vignelli Canon” (2009) and “Vignelli A to Z” (2007). Also, he contributed the definition of design in Debbie Millman’s book, “How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer,” as follows:

“It is to decrease the amount of vulgarity in the world. It is to make the world a better place to be. But everything is relative. There is a certain amount of latitude between what is good, what is elegant, and what is refined that can take many, many manifestations. It doesn’t have to be one style. We’re not talking about style, we’re talking about quality. Style is tangible, quality is intangible. I am talking about creating for everything that surrounds us a level of quality.”

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New York City subway signage design by Vignelli

In his article for the Design Observer, Michael Bierut, who worked for Vignelli Associates for 10 years, describes what he learned from Vignelli:

“Finally, from Massimo I learned never to give up. He was able to bring enthusiasm, joy, and intensity to the smallest design challenge. Even after 50 years, he could delight in designing something like a business card as if he had never done one before.”

Based on the Creative Review, Vignelli’s son, Luca, asked Vignelli followers, students, and everyone influenced by his art to write him a letter. Luca received huge mail bags full of letters.

The life of Massimo Vignelli teaches us all the real secret behind a successful designer and beautiful design. It is very simple and straightforward, unlike the ways we used to learn. That simplicity and directness can solve people’s problems and achieve their needs in a way that can last forever and attract the appreciation of everyone. If you would like to become a good designer, you have to live as a designer, fill your life with the passion to design, and dedicate your hard work to creating good and high-quality workmanship that will eventually bring you more and more good work and clients.

Many of the new digital designers do not know much about the design masters and how they worked in an age of non-digitized design. Learning about Vignelli’s life will help them bridge the gap between the old university rules of design and the new digital media, as well as how they can implement these rules to produce creative design that can last forever. We have learned much from Massimo Vignelli’s life, and we will keep learning from his long-lasting, creative ideas and philosophies.