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New Insights From Late Subway Sign Maestro Massimo Vignelli

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Although his may not be a household name, Massimo Vignelli's work has come into contact with every single New Yorker. In 1966, the late graphic designer was tapped by the MTA to redesign the subway system's signage and later, its map. Although Vignelli's design for the map—an abstract New York City covered by angular colored lines and surrounded by pale brown water—never took, his principles of aesthetic clarity can still be seen across the signage of the system's 485 stations. In a previously unpublished 1990 interview excerpted by from Gary Hustwit's Helvetica/Objectified/Urbanized: The Complete Interviews, Vignelli divulges a few of his inner thoughts about the role of good design and his decisions behind the subway signage that directs the city to this day.

1) On his failed map, "One of the problems they had in New York is that the people, they couldn't relate the geography with the station, with the lines, and they were confused by that. But it's just because they shouldn't. There were neighborhood maps in the subway stations, so really there's no reason why this map had to be literal—it could be completely abstract. But I think that it would've been even better if I had pushed the envelope even further and not had anything, just the lines and the stops. Maybe that would have been better. Otherwise, it's perfect—I think it's the most beautiful spaghetti work ever done. It's terrific. And it's so clear, it's unbelievable."

2) On the task of determining where signs should be placed, "[T]he whole thing in signage, the number one rule, is to give information at the point of decision. Never before and never after. When you drive, you find out most of the time that this rule is not followed—you're getting information too early, so by the time you get to the fork, you miss it. Or it's given too late, even after the fork, so you miss it. It's very typical to make this kind of mistake in terms of signage. So to determine where the signs had to be was the first part of the study. Then, of course, it was, for us, obvious to use Helvetica."

3) On his iconic signage, "Your subway signage manual is still in use, right? It's still in use. This was 1966, so it's over 40 years. I mean, the background changed from white to black when they had the graffiti explosion, and somebody had the idea of doing the signs in black with white type. That's okay; it's fine. Not a big difference. I like the white background better, but that's okay. I'm glad the signage was not changed. The map is an easy thing to change—it's fast and inexpensive. The signage is a very expensive thing to change, so it's going to be there for a long time."

4) On the rise of the computer's role in graphic design, "It allows you to do the best typography ever, but it also allows you to do the worst ever. So we have seen, particularly at the beginning when the computer came about, people taking type and doing all kinds of things. Everybody became a designer. They were taking type and squeezing it in, stretching it. It was unbelievable what they were doing. All of a sudden we were facing the greatest amount of vulgarity, or what I call visual pollution, that had ever been done before. But at the same time, we also had some of the best work ever done. Of course, the best work you never see, but vulgarity is very ubiquitous, so it's everywhere."

5) On aesthetics, "The life of a designer is a life of fight, to fight against the ugliness. Just like a doctor fights against disease. For us, visual disease is what we have all around, and what we try to do is to cure it somehow with design, by eliminating, as much as possible, the people who make it. Not physically, but at least limiting their possibility of polluting the world. It's a mission. Is it arrogant? Perhaps. Is it pretension? Perhaps. But so is every other field. You find the same attitude in music; you find the same attitude in literature; you find it in any kind of art, and in architecture. There's a continuous fight against ugliness, a continuous fight against noise instead of music."
· A Rare Interview With Graphic Design Legend Massimo Vignelli []
· Helvetica/Objectified/Urbanized: The Complete Interviews [official]
· The Standards Manual [official]
· 16 Iconic Creations By Architecture and Design Power Couples [Curbed]
· 15 subway-style maps that explan everything but subways [Vox]