The Vignelli Canon

The Vignelli Canon

Author
Massimo Vignelli
Year
2010

Review

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Massimo Vignelli was a renowned Italian designer known for his work in graphic design, product design, and furniture design. He believed a good designer could design anything.

He adopted a minimalist aesthetic and had a deep commitment to functionality and simplicity. He is best known for designing the New York City Subway signage system.

The book was published a few years before his death. He distills the essence of design as he sees it. It’s short, opinionated and informative.

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Key Takeaways

The 20% that gave me 80% of the value.

  • Semantics is the search of the meaning. Design should have meaning, avoid arbitrary design.
    • You can choose a direction only once you’ve researched the history of the subject and understood it. Investigate complexity, ambiguity and understand the context of the use.
    • Design without semantics is shallow and meaningless.
    • Semantic test: Is every detail meaningful? Does it have a precise purpose aimed at a precise target?
    • Design without meaning is vulgar (expression that ignores established culture)
  • Syntactics refers to bringing together components appropriately so their relationship to each other creates a consistent whole.
    • God is in the details. That is the essence of syntax.
    • Syntactics refers to the discipline of structuring elements correctly: the grid, the typefaces, the text, the headlines, the illustrations etc.
    • Grids help designers achieve syntactical consistency and coherence.
  • Pragmatics: If your design isn’t understood, it is useless and your effort is wasted.
    • Clarity of intent translates to clarity of result.
  • Discipline in design necessitates attention to detail and a commitment to quality.
    • Every detail is important. The end result is the sum of the details.
    • Quality is binary. It is there or it is not there.
    • Self-impose rules and operate within them.
    • Discipline is key to achieving quality in design, regardless of style.
    • Design without discipline is anarchical and irresponsible.
  • Appropriateness is identifying the specific needs of a project and ensuring solutions are tailored to these specifics. Find solutions that are genuinely suitable and resonate with the client
  • Design is One: Design is a unified discipline applicable across various subjects and styles.An architect should be able to design a spoon.
  • Visual Power: Design should be visually powerful.
    • Bring forward clear concepts and beautiful form.
    • Use techniques like scale and type-weight to create impact.
  • Intellectual Elegance is what’s behind historical masterpieces across various disciplines.
    • It's about achieving a design beyond compromise.
    • Strive to elevate even the simplest of objects.
  • Timelessness. Oppose temporary trends and fashions.
    • Create work that is clear, simple, and enduring.
  • Responsibility is a form of economic awareness and finding the most appropriate solutions for a problem.
    • Be accountable at three levels: to yourself, your client and the public.
    • Designs should stand no their own, without excuses, explanations or apologies.
  • Equity in branding and design respects the history and established value of previous designs.
    • Avoid change for change's sake.
    • Respect and preserve the established identity and cultural significance of designs.
  • Grids, Margins, Columns, and Modules
    • The grid the most important tool in layout design, it provides structure, consistency and elegance to designs.
    • A grid provides structure but allows for flexibility.
    • A coarse grid is too restrictive, but generally the smaller a grid the less helpful it is.
    • After you’ve structured the page, place the information on the grid.
    • Match the grid shape to the content, to reduce cropping.
  • Typefaces, The Basic Ones:
    • Its not the type, but what you do with it that counts.
      • Garamond, Bodini, Century Expanded and Helvetica.
      • Optima, Futura, Univers, Caslon, Baskervile.
    • “I don’t believe that when you write the word dog type should bark”
    • Try to make the content clear by using space, weight and alignment.
  • Type Size Relationships:
    • Choose font size in relation to the width of the column.
    • Stick to no more than 2 type sizes no a printed page.
    • Play off small type with large type (twice as big).
    • Heads and subheads should be the same size but bold, with a line space above and none below, or two above and one below.
  • Contrasting Type Sizes:
    • Contrasting type sizes on a printed page creates excitement
    • Large headlines versus smaller body text, punctuated by appropriate white space, contribute to a compelling graphic composition.
    • Stick to one or two sizes at most.
    • White space stands out. White space provides the silence.
  • Scale:
    • Manipulate scale for expressive purposes.
    • The right scale conveys the intended message effectively.
  • Colour:
    • Colour is primarily used as a signifier or identifier.
    • They use a primary palette of red, blue, and yellow. Use more symbolically than pictorially, colour choice is dictated by appropriateness and the message to be conveyed.
    • The spectrum of colours expresses various moods and feelings, with each colour chosen for its effectiveness in the context.
    • Appropriateness is a key rule when choosing colours.
  • Layouts
    • Management of white space is the most important thing. Bad layouts have no space for breathing.
  • Sequence:
    • Sequencing layouts is critical, creating a cinematic experience of turning pages.
    • The nature of the content guides the sequence, ensuring that the layout is engaging yet not overpowering.
    • “If you see the layout, it’s probably a bad layout.” You want the layout to disappear.
  • Identity and Diversity:
    • There’s a tension between identity and diversity. The two must be balanced in a brand identity.
    • Too much diversity leads to fragmentation, while excessive identity causes sameness.
    • Consistent identifiers with varying elements offer variety without losing the core identity.
  • White Space:
    • “White space is more important than the black of the type”
    • Space helps provide the context and define the hierarchy.
    • It separates components and positions the message within the page.
    • Manipulation of white space, margins, and letter spacing gives character and expression to the composition.
    • Masterful use of white space is a distinctive feature of American graphic design.
  • Conclusion:
    • Design is a process of selection and refinement.
    • Develop your own vocabulary of your own knowledge.
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Deep Summary

Longer form notes, typically condensed, reworded and de-duplicated.

Part One The Intangibles

  • Semantics is the search of the meaning. Design should have meaning, avoid arbitrary design.
    • You can choose a direction only once you’ve researched the history of the subject and understood it.
      • Investigate complexity, ambiguity and understand the context of the use.
      • Then define parameters within which you’ll operate.
    • Design without semantics is shallow and meaningless.
    • Semantic test: Is every detail meaningful? Does it have a precise purpose aimed at a precise target?
    • Design without meaning is vulgar (expression that ignores established culture)
  • Syntactics refers to bringing together components appropriately so their relationship to each other creates a consistent whole.
    • God is in the details. That is the essence of syntax.
    • Syntactics refers to the discipline of structuring elements correctly: the grid, the typefaces, the text, the headlines, the illustrations etc.
    • Syntactic consistency is important.
    • Grids help designers achieve syntactical consistency and coherence.
  • Pragmatics: If your design isn’t understood, it is useless and your effort is wasted.
    • Your design must be understood by it’s audience
    • Any design should stand by itself in all its clarity.
    • The end result is the by-product of how much clarity there is in the design phase.
    • Clarity of intent translates to clarity of result
    • Design should be forceful, and intellectually elegant
    • Aim for timeless design
  • Discipline in design necessitates attention to detail and a commitment to quality
    • Every detail is important. The end result is the sum of the details.
    • Quality is binary. It is there or it is not there.
    • Self-impose rules and operate within them.
    • Discipline is key to achieving quality in design, regardless of style.
    • Design without discipline is anarchical and irresponsible.
  • Appropriateness is identifying the specific needs of a project and ensuring solutions are tailored to these specifics.
    • Choose the right media, materials, scale, and expression, transcending style to find solutions that are genuinely suitable and resonate with the client
  • Ambiguity interpreted positively can introduce multiple meanings and depth to a design, enriching it.
    • Handle ambiguity carefully, excessive use can lead to confusion and loss of control.
  • Design is One: Design is a unified discipline applicable across various subjects and styles.
    • It's not confined to a particular style but is a creative process with its own rules, aiming for consistency and direct expression.
    • An architect should be able to design a spoon.
  • Visual Power: Design should be visually powerful.
    • Design is an expression of creative strength.
    • Bring forward clear concepts and beautiful form.
    • Use techniques like scale and type-weight to create impact.
    • Don’t confuse visual strength (intellectual elegance) with visual impact (expressions of vulgarity).
  • Intellectual Elegance is what’s behind historical masterpieces across various disciplines.
    • It's about achieving a design beyond compromise.
    • Strive to elevate even the simplest of objects.
    • It is the essence of design and a social responsibility
  • Timelessness. Oppose temporary trends and fashions.
    • Focus on long-lasting values and needs.
    • Create work that is clear, simple, and enduring
    • Economy of design avoids wasteful exercises
  • Responsibility is a form of economic awareness and finding the most appropriate solutions for a problem.
    • Be accountable at three levels: to yourself, your client and the public.
    • Designs should stand no their own, without excuses, explanations or apologies.
  • Equity in branding and design respects the history and established value of previous designs.
    • Avoid change for change's sake.
    • Take a system approach (avoid focusing on a single element like a logo).
    • Respect and preserve the established identity and cultural significance of designs.

Part Two The Tangibles

  • Paper Sizes
    • For any printed work, choosing paper size is one of the first decisions.
    • There are two size standards: The international A Series and American sizes.
      • The A series is based on a golden rectangle, the divine proportion. Handsome and practical.
      • The United States letter size has ugly proportions, and the system is chaotic resulting in an endless amount of paper sizes.
      • Use as much as possible the DIN sizes: proportions are great.
    • Limit your choice of paper to the most appropriate and ecologically sound, without compromising the end result.
    • Standardising paper sizes, and publication sizes, is a conscious contribution to the environment, ultimately saving trees, reducing pollution and waste.
  • Grids, Margins, Columns, and Modules
    • Graphic design is about organising information.
    • The grid the most important tool in layout design, it provides structure, consistency and elegance to designs.
    • A grid provides structure but allows for flexibility.
    • Margins, vertical and horizontal divisions are tailored to the publication's nature,
    • A coarse grid is too restrictive, but generally the smaller a grid the less helpful it is.
    • You can quickly create custom grids. Start with margin from the content to the edge. Then divide the page into columns. Then introduce a number of horizontal modules from bottom to top.
    • After you’ve structured the page, place the information on the grid.
    • Square or rectangular grids suit different visual materials, and other devices like outlined images or bold initials enhance the layout's appeal.
      • Match the grid shape to the content, to reduce the need to crop things
  • Typefaces, The Basic Ones:
    • Desktop publishing created an explosion of fonts.
    • The author doesn’t believe that was needed, classifying most fonts as being money making exercises or for brand identity.
    • Its not the type, but what you do with it that counts.
      • The author exhibited designs using just Garamond, Bodini, Century Expanded and Helvetica to prove the point.
    • He also uses Optima, Futura, Univers, Caslon, Baskervile.
    • “I don’t believe that when you write the word dog type should bark”
    • Try to make the content clear by using space, weight and alignment.
    • Design shouldn’t be boring, but it shouldn’t be entertainment either.
  • Flush Left, Centered, Justified:
    • Flush left is the most common alignment, ensuring a clear and logical reading flow.
    • Centred text suits lapidary texts and invitations.
    • Justified is used mostly for text books and is ‘fundamentally contrived’
  • Type Size Relationships:
    • Choose font size in relation to the width of the column.
    • Stick to no more than 2 type sizes no a printed page.
    • Play off small type with large type (twice as big).
    • Heads and subheads should be the same size but bold, with a line space above and none below, or two above and one below.
  • Rulers
    • Rulers create a hierarchy in text, with varying weights clarifying different parts.
    • Bolder rulers distinguish major sections, while lighter rulers differentiate within sections.
    • Type size and placement relative to rulers are essential details in typographic design.
  • Contrasting Type Sizes:
    • Contrasting type sizes on a printed page creates excitement
    • Large headlines versus smaller body text, punctuated by appropriate white space, contribute to a compelling graphic composition.
    • Stick to one or two sizes at most.
    • White space stands out. White space provides the silence.
    • This contrast defines the typographic space and enriches the overall design.
  • Scale:
    • Mastery of scale is vital in design, with the appropriate size of an object in its context being key.
    • Scale can be manipulated for expressive purposes.
    • Understanding scale is a continuous process, involving the choice of material, texture, colour, and other details.
    • The right scale conveys the intended message effectively.
  • Texture:
    • Light is the master of form and texture”
    • Texture is defined by light, affecting the perception and expression of objects. The reflection and absorption qualities of materials define their texture.
  • Colour:
    • Colour is primarily used as a signifier or identifier.
    • They use a primary palette of red, blue, and yellow. Used more symbolically than pictorially, colour choice is dictated by appropriateness and the message to be conveyed.
    • The spectrum of colours expresses various moods and feelings, with each colour chosen for its effectiveness in the context.
    • Appropriateness is a key rule when choosing colours.
  • Layouts:
    • Layouts reflect the designer's interpretation, balancing text, images, and captions.
    • Selecting iconic images and using grids ensure consistency and excitement in the layout.
    • The grid helps define the layout. The narrowness of margins, the number of columns and modular divisions.
    • Square pictures work better with square girds.
    • Management of white space is the most important thing. Bad layouts have no space for breathing.
  • Sequence:
    • Sequencing layouts is critical, creating a cinematic experience of turning pages.
    • Effective layouts are forceful, with a simple format that avoids monotony.
    • The nature of the content guides the sequence, ensuring that the layout is engaging yet not overpowering.
    • “If you see the layout, it’s probably a bad layout.” You want the layout to disappear.
  • Identity and Diversity:
    • There’s a tension between identity and diversity. The two must be balanced in a brand identity.
    • Too much diversity leads to fragmentation, while excessive identity causes sameness.
    • Consistent identifiers with varying elements offer variety without losing the core identity.
  • White Space:
    • “White space is more important than the black of the type”
    • Space helps provide the context and define the hierarchy.
    • It separates components and positions the message within the page.
    • Manipulation of white space, margins, and letter spacing gives character and expression to the composition.
    • Masterful use of white space is a distinctive feature of American graphic design.
  • A Collection of Experiences:
    • Design involves selecting and standardising elements like paper sizes and construction materials, focusing on economical and meaningful solutions. Understanding and applying these principles is part of the design ethic, aiming for cost-effective yet high-quality outcomes. The process involves continuous evaluation and selection, forming a personal design canon.
  • Conclusion:
    • Design is a process of selection and refinement.
    • Develop your own vocabulary of your own knowledge.