Excerpts from The Vignelli Canon


24/03/09 – Excerpts from Massimo Vignelli’s The Vignelli Canon (2008):

This little book reveals our guidelines – those set by ourselves for ourselves. (6)

Creativity needs the support of knowledge to be able to perform at its best. (ibid.)

It is not the formula that prevents good design from happening but lack of knowledge of the complexity of the Design profession. (ibid.)

PART ONE: The Intangibles


Semantics, for me, is the search of the meaning of whatever we have to design. (10)

It is extremely important for a satisfactory result of any design to spend time on the search of the 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. In addition to that it is useful to follow our intuition and our diagnostic ability to funnel the research and arrive to a rather conscious definition of the problem at hand. (ibid.)

However, it is important to distill the essence of the semantic search through a complex process, most of which is intuitive, to infuse the design with all the required cognitive inputs, effortlessly and in the most natural way possible. (10-11)

In our contemporary world it becomes increasingly more difficult to find honest forms of vernacular communication as once existed in the pre-industrial world. (11)


…the discipline that controls the proper use of grammar in the construction of phrases and the articulation of a language, Design. (12)

Grids are one of the several tools helping designers to achieve syntactical consistency in graphic design. (ibid.)


Whatever we do, if not understood, fails to communicate and is wasted effort. (14)

… I must add that we like Design to be forceful. We do not like limpy design.

We like Design to be intellectually elegant – that means elegance of the mind, not one of manners, elegance that is the opposite of vulgarity. We like Design to be beyond fashionable modes and temporary fads. We like Design to be as timeless as possible.

We despise the culture of obsolescence. We feel the moral imperative of designing things that will last for a long time. (ibid.)


Discipline is a set of self imposed rules, parameters within which we operate. (16)

Discipline is also an attitude that provides us with the capacity of controlling our creative work so that it has continuity of intent throughout rather than fragmentation. (ibid.)


…we can say that appropriateness is the search for the specific of any given problem. (18)

Appropriateness directs us to the right kind of media, the right kind of materials, the right kind of scale, the right kind of expression, color and texture. (ibid.)

Appropriateness transcends any issue of style – there are many ways of solving a problem, many ways of doing, but the relevant thing is that, no matter what, the solution must be appropriate. I think that we have to listen to what a thing wants to be, rather then contrive it in to an arbitrary confinement. (ibid.)


Rather than the negative connotation of ambiguity as a form of vagueness, I have a positive interpretation of ambiguity, intended as a plurality of meanings, or the ability of conferring to an object or a design, the possibility of being read in different ways – each one complementary to the other to enrich the subject and give more depth. (20)

Design is One

I discovered that what is important is to master a design discipline to be able to design anything, because that is what is essential and needed on every project. (22)

Design is a discipline, a creative process with its own rules, controlling the consistency of its output toward its objective in the most direct and expressive way. (ibid.)

Visual Power

Visual strength is an expression of intellectual elegance and should never be confused with just visual impact – which, most of the time, is just an expression of visual vulgarity and obtrusiveness. (24)

Intellectual Elegance

… intellectual elegance is the sublime level of intelligence which has produced all the masterpieces in the history of mankind. (26)

Again, it is not a design style, but the deepest meaning and the essence of Design. (ibid.)


We are definitively against any fashion of design and any design fashion. We despise the culture of obsolescence, the culture of waste, the cult of the ephemeral. We detest the demand of temporary solutions, the waste of energies and capital for the sake of novelty. (28)

We like the use of primary shapes and primary colors because their formal values are timeless. (ibid.)

We like a typography that transcends subjectivity and searches for objective values, a typography that is beyond times – that doesn’t follow trends, that reflects its content in an appropriate manner. (ibid.)

We strive for a Design that is centered on the message rather than visual titillation. We like Design that is clear, simple and enduring. And that is what timelessness means in Design. (ibid.)


It is important that an economically appropriate solution is used and is one that takes in proper consideration all the facets of the problem. (30)

As designers, we have three levels of responsibility:

One – to ourselves, the integrity of the project and all its components.

Two – to the Client, to solve the problem in a way that is economically sound and efficient.

Three – to the public at large, the consumer, the user of the final design. (ibid.)

In the end, a design should stand by itself, without excuses, explanations, apologies. (ibid.)


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. (32)

What is new is NOT a graphic form but a way of thinking, a way of showing respect for history in a context that usually has zero understanding for these values. (ibid.)

PART TWO: The Tangibles

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. (36)

Standardizing paper sizes, and consequently publication sizes, is a conscious contribution to the environment, ultimately saving trees, reducing pollution and waste. (38)

We should never forget that our task as designers is to bring dignity to our profession more than luster, and that opportunity is in every detail. (ibid.)

Grids, Margins, Columns, and Modules

For us Graphic Design is “organization of information.” (40)

The basic understanding is that the smaller the module of the grid the least helpful it could be. (ibid.)

A Company Letterhead

After setting the outside margins at 10mm. from the edges of the paper, we will divide the space in three columns, leaving the left one blank for the use of a logo, or names, or just empty space.

The remaining two columns will be for the text. The overall asymmetrical layout conveys a feeling of modernity. (44)

It is just like in music, where five lines and seven notes allow one to make infinite compositions. That is the magic of the grid. (46)

Grids for Books

In agreement with the content the size of the book will be the first thing to be determined. A book with square pictures will be square, a book with rectangular pictures will be rectangular or oblong, in accord with the most appropriate way to exhibit the material. The content determines the container – a basic truth also in book design. (48)

One element of refinement is to plan a grid in such a way that type and illustrations follow the same exact grid. To do thata specific leading should be determined for the type area of each module with the illustration modules coinciding. (52)

Depending on the size of the book we like to keep the space between the columns and the modules rather tight – ideally the size of a line of type – which helps to achieve what I said above. (ibid.)

Typefaces, The Basic Ones

The advent of the computer generated the phenomena called desktop publishing. This enabled anyone who could type the freedom of using any available typeface and do any kind of distortion. It was a disaster of mega proportions. A cultural pollution of incomparable dimension. As I said, at the time, if all people doing desktop publishing were doctors we would all be dead! (54)

In other words, is not the type but what you do with it that counts. The accent was on structure rather than type. (ibid.)

I see typography as a discipline to organize information in the most objective way possible. I do not like typography intended as an expression of the self, as a pretext for pictorial exercises.

I am aware that there is room for that too, but it is not my language and I am not interested in it.

I don’t believe that when you write dog the type should bark! (55)

I prefer a more objective approach: I try to make as clear as possible the different parts of a message by using space, weight, and typographic alignments, such as flush left, centered or justified. (ibid).

I strongly believe that design should never be boring, but I don’t think it should be a form of entertainment.

Good design is never boring, only bad design is. (ibid.)

Flush Left, Centered, Justified

Type Size Relationships

Basically we stick to no more then two type sizes on a printed page, but there are exceptions. (68)

I prefer to keep the same size for heads and subheads in a text, and just make them in bold, with a line space above and none below, or two line spaces above and one below according to the context. (ibid.)


Type should always hang from the ruler, regardless of the size. This is another little but important detail of my Canon. (70)

The basic rules of typography have been set long ago but as beautiful scores they have been played in different ways by many talented artists, all making a mark and opening a new way with their interpretations. (ibid.)

Contrasting Type Sizes

White, in typography, is what space is in Architecture. It is the articulation of space that gives Architecture the perfect pitch. (72)

In a world where everybody screams, silence is noticeable. White space provides the silence.

That is the essence of our typography. (ibid.)


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. To master the notion of scale is a lifelong search that involves interpretation of functions, both tangible and intangible, physical, and psychological. (74)

Design means to be in control of every detail and scale is one of the most relevant ones. (ibid.)


Texture has an infinite range of tactile or visual experiences and it is essential for designers to sharpen their perception in order to articulate and master the media. It is through the choice of materials and their finishes that we articulate the shape of an object to express its content, to celebrate its appropriateness, to reveal its soul. (76)


Most of the time we use color as a Signifier, or as an Identifier. Generally speaking we do not use color in a pictorial manner. (78)

Color is a very important element in the formulation of our projects, but, as we do with typefaces, we have limited and articulated our palette to express the message in the clearest and most understandable way. (ibid.)


An icon is an image that expresses its content in the most memorable way. (80)

The purpose of the grid is to provide consistency to the layouts, but not necessarily excitement – which will be provided by the sum of all the elements in the design. (ibid.)


A publication, whether a magazine, a book, a brochure, or even a tabloid is a cinematic object where turning of the pages is an integral part of the reading experience. A publication is simultaneously the static experience of a spread and the cinematic experience of a sequence of pages. (84)

We would say that if you see the layout, it is probably a bad layout! (ibid.)

The book layout we tend to favor is a very simple format of a page of text beside a picture ona full bleed page, followed by a full bleed picture spread, followed by a page with a full bleed picture facing a white page with a picture – either on the center or upper right corner. (ibid.)


Identity and Diversity

Too much diversity creates fragmentations – a very common disease of badly designed communication. Too much identity generates perceptive redundancy and lack of retention. (90)

Identity and diversity – an essential contraposition to bring life to design. (ibid.)

White Space

A Collection of Experiences

Costly solutions can never be a product of good design because economy is at the essence of the design expression. Economy doesn’t mean cheap design. Economy in design is the most appropriate and lean solution to every problem. (94)

Good design doesn’t cost more than bad design. The opposite is quite true, very often. (ibid.)

Freedom of choice can only happen with knowledge and that is an ongoing process that requires structure and determination, not happenstance. (95)


It is imperative to develop your own vocabulary of your own language – a language that attempts to be as objective as possible, knowing very well that even objectivity is subjective. (96)

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Oliver Tomas

  • Design historian and archivist based in Vancouver, Canada.
  • info[at]olivertomas[dot]com