Principles all designers should know: The Vignelli Canon

Massimo Vignelli gave world undeniable legacy, designing the New-York City subway map, American Airlines logo, National Parks, bringing it’s fame to Helvetica Typeface, creating world’s best design books, loads of product designs and many more things that we can use and see every day.

His motto was “If you can design one thing, you can design everything”. The main idea of all his works stands for simplicity and geometric shapes and shows a timeless, pragmatic, rational, and visually forceful design that will work forever. When was asked, what project did he liked the most, Vignelli said “Every project, from the one I did on the very first day to the last one that I made yesterday”. He also believed, that you’ll need just 3 colors to create a masterpiece - black, white and red.

Listening to a late genius of modern design world, you can learn that 12 aspects of design are extremely important to create a good one - Semantic, Syntactic, Pragmatics, Discipline, Appropriateness, Ambiguity, knowing how to Design in one, Visual Power, Intellectual Elegance, Timelessnes, Responsibility and Equity. Let’s have a look at most important ones:


 Semantic stands for the meaning of your future design; start from researching the history of your subject. Depending on the subject - Masimo Vignelli himself can start from looking for more information about the company, the product, destination or final user of it - same as the roots of everything on the first place. Designer advises listening to your intuition and diagnostic ability, try to bring your vision out in the most natural way. This is how semantic can help you relate the message of your design from sender to reciever, so it can make sense to both.


The Syntactic part here stands for the proper construction of elements in your design.  The structure, the grid, the typefaces, the illustrations just like headlines - all these should create holistic and fulfilled picture. It includes everything - how typefaces work with each other, how pictures relate to the grid and everything else. Designer gives an advise to orient on the grids, as they help designer to create a right syntactic picture in the design. 

The main thing is, any design, created by Massimo Vignelli will stand for any of his principles - the poster he created for Knoll International is not an exclusion. It can symbolise Semantics same as Syntactics: the very identity of the brand is shown by overlapping colors over each other (symbolizing Knoll as an inerior paint brand). The Knoll brand is also known for it textille and furniture (and colors here symbolize different interiors and the range of choice). By this, he’s showing perfect representation of all these principles, including Pragmatics


If your design is not understood - then it’s not understood. Pramatics symbolises the harmony of first two principles - where Syntactic and Semantic parts meet each other - Pragmatic part is thriving. Every part of concept should be clear and mean the exact thing you want to show by using it. To make your design work, make sure you translate your intention (formulated by Semantic and Syntactic) correctly. Confused and complicated design will reveal confused and complicated mind. Everything is done right if your design stands out of temporary fads and reaches timeless recognition, elegant. 
When saying about the harmony of the principles, the best example would be Vignelli’s complicated design systems, including Skyline Magazine, American Airlines design and National Parks maps:

Favourite Typefaces of Massimo Vignelli:

The new digital edition of Helvetica, called Neue Haas Grotesk. [Note: It was the original name of Helvetica, when it was first introduced by the Haas Type Foundry in Switzerland in 1957.] It is perfect and with many weights: thin, light, regular, medium, bold, extrabold, etc.
He also used such fonts as Times Roman (1931), Garamond (1532), Bodoni (1788) and Century Expanded (1900).


Massimo Vignelli is one of the most important figures in the history of design, and graphic design in particular. His approach works for millions and millions of people everyday, his projects and reffering to them can be found anywhere in the world. The principles he formulated are going to be actual for the whole design history and so on - this is why he can be called one of the most outstanding figures to model after. 

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