Vignelli works it out.

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Last night’s AIGA event started off with a Bob Noorda tribute by Jan Conradi (author of Unimark International: The Business of Design and the Design of Business), but then Massimo Vignelli took the stage and the show really began.
As reported: “he’s jaded, bitter and hilarious — all important ingredients for a modernist maestro.” Apparently Vignelli suggested the conversation, upon publication of Paul Shaw’s impressive book Helvetica and the New York City Subway System, which documents the evolution of the system’s graphics from the mid-1960s on. I bought both books at the event — each meticulously designed, beautiful, full of juicy detail.
Vignelli began the conversation, moderated by Shaw and Conradi, with an overview of the Unimark design process. The highlights:

  • Put the signs at the point of decision, not before or after
  • Standardize the support (the black bar at the top of the white signs)
  • Standardize the graphic modules (1 x 1 for arrows, 1 x 2 for information, 1 x 4 for directionals, 1 x 8 for station ID) — “You could make any message by putting these panels together.”
  • Three type sizes only
  • “Design is not embellishment — it’s about solving the problem.”
  • “Non-visual people panic when they see a map, so we have to take care of them too.” (the never-realized “Directory”)
  • “When working with a huge organization like the transit authority, how brilliantly you make your design is not as important as how brilliantly you master the implementation. The huge client will destroy it — they’re huge destroyers.”

So at this point I realized that Vignelli’s got a bone to pick.
Next up on stage is Michael Hertz and colleagues. Hertz was awarded the subway work in 1979 when the MTA decided not to work with Vignelli any longer. Hertz is responsible for the NYC subway map we use today. Until last night, the two had never met. Hertz began by saying that Vignelli’s famous 1972 map is immortal, and beautiful. So how did the current mess happen? During the next hour it was battled out — reasons ranging from ADA requirements, the expansion of the system, “giant client” problems and MTA gems like “Marketing was high on the list of things to do” and “There was a lot of thinking going on” (??)
But Vignelli really said it best — with MTA decision-makers on stage and in the audience:

  • “The transit authority was never aware of what it meant as a system, which is why it could never be implemented properly. When there’s a problem, why not go back to the original consultant? That’s not the way intelligent people solve problems.”
  • “A diagram is a diagram — don’t cheat me. The current map is a by-product of someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.”

At the end of the discussion the tension between Vignelli and Hertz was as clear as the differences between their respective maps. By the time an MTA guy stood up in the audience to plea his defense (to laughter and applause), I realized that so much more was happening. We were getting a taste of:

  • Design vs. operational bureaucracy
  • Abstraction vs. literalness
  • Clarity vs. clutter
  • Systemic change vs. incremental tinkering
  • European elitism vs. American pragmatism, etc.

As enthused as I was leaving Bierut’s client talk a few weeks ago, I walked home from this talk kind of down. I was looking for inspiration but found discouragement — big clients who don’t “get it” are bad, smart design legends are good. I guess in the end everyone’s happy: we’ve got a subway system we (sometimes) love and Massimo is still worshipped and Michael Hertz still has a client who keeps him busy. Life goes on.

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