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Remembering Massimo Vignelli: Design Is One

Massimo Vignelli, the deeply influential designer and teacher, passed away today at age 83. Emilia Naberezny, a designer for Shutterstock’s Offset brand, worked with Vignelli and offers this reflection on his life.

Today is a sad day for the design community, but Massimo Vignelli wouldn’t have wanted it that way.

Most of us know Massimo as a monumental leader of modernist design. He was known for his iconic work for American Airlines, Bloomingdale's, and the New York City Subway System and Map. He was an influential member of the global design community and never stopped spreading his knowledge and love of design. He always said, “Design is one,” and thought that if you were a true designer, you could design anything from a fork to an identity system.

Massimo wasn’t a designer — he was design. He lived his life the same way.

Vignelli's designs for the American Airlines logo and branding.

Vignelli's designs for the American Airlines logo and branding.

I worked with Massimo and Lella Vignelli for just under two years. During that time, Massimo would always give me these short life lessons. He would even cook meals for us during the day. I remember one morning getting to the office and seeing him leave out a carefully drawn visual calendar of the meals we would have together for lunch.

During Massimo’s last days, his family invited admirers to send him letters. I visited Massimo last Friday as he was opening some of these letters, and it was clear he valued each and every one. While I was there, he also visited with students he had taught. I overheard him say, “One of the greatest things you can do is teach.” Even in his last days, he wanted to give back to future generations of designers.

It's difficult to summarize the life and accomplishments of someone who contributed so much to the world of design. But what inspires me most is that Massimo’s influence has changed design forever. Even though he’s no longer with us, his designs live on.

A page from Vignelli's guide for the New York City subway system.

A page from Vignelli's guide for the New York City subway system.

Tonight, on my subway ride home, I will see elements of his initial Graphic Standards Manual from 1970. I will always remember Massimo as someone who fought for what he believed was right and never accepted any less. I will also remember his kindness, generosity, and great sense of humor. 

In my letter to Massimo, I wrote, “You taught me not only the fundamentals of design, but what set good design from bad. You taught me about design passion – what it really meant to live, breathe, and be design.”

Emilia visiting with Massimo in his studio. Photo by Michael Gagliano

Emilia visiting with Massimo in his studio. Photo by Michael Gagliano

Top image: Massimo Vignelli celebrating his 80th birthday. Photo by Emilia Naberezny.

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