The Vignelli Canon is a collection of typographic design guidelines followed by the Vignellis in their work. It covers a broad swath of topics including company letterheads, grids, texture, identity, diversity, and more.
The Canon is split in two parts: “Intangibles”, such as semantics, discipline, and intellectual elegance, and “Tangibles”, like whitespace, layouts, and color.
Some of my favorite takeaways are below.
Design artifacts have equity. An artifact can be a product, brand, or even any representative design element, such as the signature kidney grille on a BMW.
To make a radical change to a product is to throw away that equity.
As such, all major changes should have benefits that outweigh or add to the equity that has accumulated over time.
“When we were asked to design a new logo for the FORD Motor Company, we proposed a light retouch of the old one which could be adjusted for contemporary applications. We did the same for CIGA HOTELS, CINZANO, LANCIA Cars and others. There was no reason to dispose of logos that had seventy years of exposure, and were rooted in people’s consciousness with a set of respectable connotations.”
A lot of design is novelty for novelty’s sake, which prevents recent products from building equity and eliminates equity of established products.
Vignelli discusses this in the context of graphic design, but the concept of equity can apply to anything that is designed.
If BMW were to abandon their signature kidney grille overnight, no matter how nice the replacement, it would lose the equity it’s predecessor had built up over time.
Semantics is the search for meaning in what you design.
It demands the designer to fully understand the subject and to design something that is deliberate and meaningful.
“It is extremely important for a satisfactory result of any design to spend time on the search of accurate and essential meanings, investigate their complexities, learn about their ambiguities, understand the context of use to better define the parameters within which we will have to operate.”
If a design is not understood, it is a wasted effort.
Sometimes explanation is necessary, but it’s better when the artifact “stand[s] by itself in all its clarity”.
In my experience this happens often when designers design for each other instead of for the user (consider Dribbble), which results in beautiful designs with a compromised user experience.
Relevant quote from a later section on Responsibility: “Too often we see printed works produced in a lavish manner just to satisfy the ego of designers or clients.”
Another area where pragmatics are often forgotten is when products compensate for poor design with extensive onboarding or usability tooltips.
Of course, if increasing a product’s capabilities in turn introduces some complexity, then some user education is acceptable. This is fine only as long as it is not used as a crutch for a poorly designed product. Improving product design should come first.
“We despise the culture of obsolescence. We feel the moral imperative of designing things that will last for a long time…We are definitively against any fashion of design and any design fashion.”
This resonated not only because I hate it when products I’ve purchased are clearly designed to fail after some time, but also because the problem appears in more places than I originally expected.
Physical products are the culprit that comes to mind first—consider products that are falling apart after a short time.
This can happen in software too. Latching on to fad design patterns means the product will appear compromised or outdated and must be revisited.
Vignelli provides guidelines for timelessness in typography:
“We say all the time that we like Design to be visually powerful. We cannot stand Design that is weak in concept, form, color, texture, or any or all of them.”
This is where I’ve fallen short, in my view. I’ve treated designing something functional and pragmatic as a practice that can be accomplished through diligent research and iteration.
Visual power I’ve approached as an outcome determined mostly by the quality of a designer’s taste. While I’m sure that plays a role, experience—ie: diligence, experimentation, and iteration—can probably get you there.
Assuming the product of your design will be used, read, touched, or otherwise put into the world, it is important.
Thus, the designer has responsibility to design well. Vignelli describes it as three levels of responsibility.
Using a grid is not enough. It must be the right grid for the job. A coarse grid is restrictive, but a small grid doesn’t provide enough structure.
Grids used in books must be appropriate to the content. Further, the overall shape of the book should be in agreement with the shape of the content. For example: a picture book of square photos should be a square book.
Small page margins create a nice tension between the content and the edge of the page.
Desktop publishing allows designers to pick from a litany of typefaces. Vignelli viewed this development unfavorably.
“It was a disaster of mega proportions. A cultural pollution of incomparable dimension… The computer allowed anybody to design new typefaces and that became one of the biggest visual pollution of all times.”
Vignelli reflects that in their work, they largely used four typefaces:
He also gave a special shout-out to:
Vignelli used rulers—a horizontal line across the page—to indicate section breaks.
“Type should always hang from the ruler, regardless of the size. This is another little but important detail of my Canon.”
“Scale is the most appropriate size of an object in its natural context. However, it can be manipulated to achieve particular expression in a particular context – actually by being purposely out of scale…
…Scale applies to everything. It can be right or it can be wrong; it can be appropriate or inappropriate; too big or too small for the task at hand…
…The choice of the proper material, its thickness, its texture, its color, its weight, its sound, its temperature – every detail assails our senses and provokes a response. Therefore, we must be in control of it because by choosing the most appropriate one to convey our message we succeed in our intent. Design means to be in control of every detail and scale is one of the most relevant ones. “
This was more interesting than practical. I’d never thought about paper size before, as I don’t do much print work and for what I have done, I have largely taken American paper sizes for granted.
It appears the Vignellis were not a fan of American paper sizes.
“The international Standard paper sizes, called the A series, is based on a golden rectangle, the divine proportion. It is extremely handsome and practical as well. It is adopted by many countries around the world and is based on the German DIN metric Standards. The United States uses a basic letter size (8 1/2 x 11”) of ugly proportions, and results in complete chaos with an endless amount of paper sizes. It is a by-product of the culture of free enterprise, competition and waste. Just another example of the misinterpretations of freedom.“