Massimo Vignelli dies aged 83


Massimo Vignelli by John Madere

News: Massimo Vignelli – the prolific Modernist designer who created New York's subway signage and the American Airlines identity – has died in New York.

Born in Milan in 1931, Vignelli trained as an architect in Milan and Venice. He met his wife, Lella, at an architects' convention and the pair married in 1957 – they would go on to become design and business partners.

Vignelli visited America in the 1950s first on a fellowship and then to teach, before returning to Milan to start his first design and architecture business with his wife.

Massimo Vignelli Manhattan Subway
The New York Subway Map was designed by Vignelli in 1972

In the mid-1960s the couple moved to New York and Massimo Vignelli became a founding member of Unimark International in 1966, which quickly became one of the world's biggest design companies.

He was responsible for some of the company's most recognisable and significant work including the corporate identity for American Airlines. Together with Unimark partner Bob Noorda, Vignelli designed the distinctive signage for the New York subway – still in use today – followed by Vignelli's subway map, which was loosely based on the principals of Harry Beck's London Underground map. He also designed the signage and way finding for the Washington DC Metro.

Writing about Vignelli's New York subway map on the occasion of its digital relaunch in 2011, New Yorker critic Paul Goldberger described it as "a nearly canonical piece of abstract graphic design".

Massimo Vignelli Manhattan Subway
Subway panels using graphics designed by Vignelli at Times Square Station

Vignelli became frustrated with the company and left to set up Vignelli Associates in 1971 with Lella, followed by Vignelli Designs in 1978.

In 1982 they were awarded the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) gold medal.

"Not only do the Vignellis design exceedingly well, they also think about design," said the AIGA citation. "It is not enough that something — a chair, an exhibition, a book, a magazine — looks good and is well designed. The 'why' and the 'how', the very process of design itself, must be equally evident and quite beyond the tyranny of individual taste."

Massimo Vignelli Washington DC Metro
Vignelli's signage for the Washington Metro made use of freestanding outdoor pylons in response to a brief from the architect Harry Weese that nothing should interfere with the architectural statement

Other awards have included the American Institute of Architects' industrial design medal (1973), and the first US Presidential Design Award, presented by Ronald Reagan in 1985 for Vignelli's work on the American National Park Service Publications Program.

In 2003, he was given the National Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Museum of Design at Cooper-Hewitt, New York.

Vignelli's work has been exhibited and added to the collections of major art institutions including New York's Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Cooper-Hewitt design museum.

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Pentagram partner and former Vignelli employee Michael Beirut paid tribute to the designer.

"He was able to bring enthusiasm, joy and intensity to the smallest design challenge," wrote Beirut in Design Observer. "Even after fifty years, he could delight in designing something like a business card as if he had never done one before.

"It was Massimo who taught me one of the simplest things in the world: that if you do good work, you get more good work to do, and conversely bad work brings more bad work. It sounds simple, but it's remarkable, in a lifetime of pragmatics and compromises, how easy it is to forget: the only way to do good work is simply to do good work. Massimo did good work."

Massimo Vignelli American Airlines
The American Airlines logo designed by Vignelli in 1967

Vignelli's family announced he was gravely ill earlier this month, when his son Luca issued a public invitation to anyone who had been inspired by Vignelli and his work to write him a letter.

Vignelli died at his home in Manhattan on Tuesday morning and is survived by his wife, his son and daughter, and three grandchildren.

Portrait of Massimo Vignelli is by John Madere.

  • dan

    A sad day for graphic design – what an amazing inspiration. Few people convey such intense passion in their work. If you’ve never listened to him talk, you should look it up – or watch Helvetica.

  • Danny Molt

    Vignelli’s work is timeless. The typography used on the New York subway is as cool today as it was 40 years ago.

  • Robert Hageman

    His taste, dignity and style will be sorely missed by the remaining few still able to fully perceive and appreciate it. A gentle, cultivated, civilised and hugely sensitive man from an age when beauty was still a value worth our understanding and respect.

  • Robert Hageman

    Please be aware that expressing an intelligent opinion here will not be posted by the Dutch weasels moderating this website so if you actually have something to say, it will not be respected here.

  • Hi Robert,

    We deal with lots of comments and moderate them before they are published online. We endeavour to publish comments in a timely fashion.

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  • Many years ago, as a student, I had the unique opportunity to sit down with Massimo and share a meal. I asked him what it was like to ride the subway in New York, seeing your work each day, and knowing its impact on the world.

    He looked at me and corrected me on the word “work”. He said, “I have never worked a day in my life. When you are doing what you love, you are not working. This is my love.”

    Massimo, you changed my perspective on design, and have greatly impacted my practice and my life.

    Thank you.