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The Art of Design: Massimo Vignelli (Video)

Massimo Vignelli

It was a cool, crisp, New York afternoon. Amidst the quietness inside the taxicab, the air, the city, was full of excitement. An endless amount of cars stood between us and our destination. I checked my watch and read the time: 2:55pm. “Great,” I thought, “We’ll be late.”

I picked up my phone and dialed. Seconds later, a serene and sweet voice answers. “Hello?” “Mr. Vignelli , I mean, Massimo,” I said, as I remembered what he had insisted I should call him, “It’s Maria Elena. Just wanted to tell you I’m on my way. We’ve hit terrible traffic; huge jam on 4th avenue.”  To this, he calmly replies, “No worries, I’ll be here.” His voice was a soothing melody that juxtaposed with undeniable perfection the chaos that was the city.

Minutes - or what seemed as an eternity - later, we pulled up to his apartment. Bags, cameras, tripods and iPad in hand, we quickly made it through the building.

Massimo Vignelli, 83 and Italian-born, answered the door with a warm and endearing smile, wearing his signature color – black. It took us a couple of seconds to fully grasp and process the long- awaited moment. He immediately showed us in, gave us a tour of his beautiful home and led us into his living room office. A brilliantly-lighted double height black-and-white space with nothing but a massive window and a square table, evoked his bona-fide credo consistent through decades.

It seemed as though every corner of his home portrayed that distinctive Vignelli philosophy: simplicity and elegance. As Ernesto, More Than Branding’s beloved video director set up the cameras, I sat down with Massimo and reviewed the questions for the interview. His graceful manner during our conversation reflected the ease in which he, very graciously, obliged for an interview weeks before. I had always dreamed of discussing the world of design with a man responsible for the creation of so many iconic products – a man who has contributed so much to the field of branding and communications. Equipped with my massive notes and questions, we began. 

As a child who grew up in the design-driven city of Milan, Massimo knew he wanted to pursue a life in the field by the young age of 14. After attending the Polytechnic University of Milan, he worked in the Studio of Achille Casteglioni, a world-renowned Italian designer. It was here where Vignelli’s famous maxim started taking its shape. It was here where the concept of applying the fundamentals of design to everything in a minimal, simplistic way, became the essence of his ideology and his craft.

Massimo and Lella Vignelli

The incomparable duo: Massimo and Lella Vignelli in their New York City apartment. (Photo by John Madere)

He and his wife Lella founded Vignelli Associates more than four decades ago after moving from Italy to New York City during the 1960’s. With a vast formation in the field of architecture and design, they set forth on a journey that has resulted in an undisputable stamp on our visual culture. Their profession has encompassed everything from architecture, advertising, corporate identity, graphic design, packaging, interiors, product design, books, magazines (among them AAA), furniture and industrial design, as well as countless other products under their distinguishable and iconic aesthetic.

Within the corporate world, they were responsible for the creation of notorious brands such as American Airlines, Bloomingdale’s, Ford, IBM, United Colors of Benetton, Heller, Knoll and a myriad of others across the globe. During the 70’s, the Vignelli’s developed what became the legendary map and signage for the New York City Metro System.

New York City Metro

In an interview for Design Boom, he described his work as: “Spare, essential, intellectually elegant, strong, and timeless.” The Vignelli brand is the embodiment of the attitude that less is always more - ridding oneself of the unnecessary in pursuit of conciseness and sophistication.

In addition to practicing their profession, Massimo and his wife Lella both taught, wrote, served as jury and board members, lectured and contributed their talent to the field of design. It was this proclivity that led them to Dominican Republic in 2006, as visiting professors in the esteemed Altos de Chavón School of Design

Amongst the Vignellis’ many accomplishments, Massimo and Lella were awarded the AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) Gold Medal in 1982 and were included in the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame in 1988. The AIGA medal —the most distinguished in the field—is awarded to professionals who have have excelled in the field of design and visual communication throughout the actual practice of design, teaching, writing or general leadership.

Perhaps one of the best definitions of the Vignelli design is found in an article written in 1983 by David Brown, Wylie Davis and Rose DeNeve published in AIGA Graphic Design: 

“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. The Vignelli commitment to the correctness of a design has taken their work beyond the mechanical exercise of devising a form best suited to a given function. They've always understood that design itself, in the abstract, could and should be an integral part of function. More than a process and a result, design—good design—is an imperative.”

United Colors of Benetton

Massimo Vignelli is the personification of a commitment to excellence fueled by an undeniable passion for the field of design – “Design that is visually powerful, that is intellectually elegant, and above all, timeless.”  I can’t help but admire this relentless approach to raising the bar of one’s profession, to the establishment of a legacy that interconnects with all areas of our daily lives. My profound respect stems from his infallible pursuit of relevance, to his keenness in observing everything and everyone – to reading life and contributing to it.

After two and a half hours, we were done with the interview. That same night I followed-up with a thank you email, to which he kindly replied including this last comment:

“There is no valid branding without an overall integrity of the company or products - otherwise is just empty styling - reflecting the company’s overall shallowness. And that is the kiss of death for any kind of company. I see this as a fundamental issue in relation to branding. It’s either real or it is phony. There is no middle ground on these issues.”

In a world so concerned with what is said and done, this moment during the video will forever echo in my heart: “The most important thing is to observe, keep track of everything and not miss anything…” accompanied by his enthusiastic smile - contagious and eternal. 


To watch the interview with Spanish subtitles, click here. / Para ver la versión subtitulada al español, haz click aquí.

Photo credits: John Madere / Massimo and Lella Vignelli.

Samsung, Big Mama’s and the brands that shook up this year’s Academy Awards

If there's one thing we've learned in the last 86 years, it's that Oscar night is without a doubt the biggest party in showbiz. As celebrities flocked the Dolby Theater on Sunday night, 2014 proved, yet again, what a powerful platform it can be for brands who want to leverage Hollywood's big night.

Though big names such as Mercedes-Benz, JC Penny, Chevrolet, American Express and Chobani followed a traditional approach when it came to advertising, it was Samsung, Twitter and a pizzeria by the name of Big Mama's & Papa's Pizzeria who stole the show, proving that authentic and spontaneous interactions during the show leave a far more powerful impression on viewers. 

Samsung Galaxy Academy Awards Oscars

Samsung, a big sponsor of the event, was more than present during the live telecast, especially during moments when host Ellen Degeneres took out a Galaxy mobile phone out of her pocket. The golden moment came when she attempted to snap a photo of her and Meryl Streep, which soon turned into the most star-studded group selfie, ever. 

Samsung Galaxy Academy Awards Oscars

The epic picture taken with the phone and posted on Twitter set a new record for the most number of retweets ever - an incredible amount of 2.4 million as of Monday - making it without a doubt the coolest product placement during the Oscars, and the most successful social media moment in modern history. The platform was mentioned several times and stole the show at one point, especially when Ellen announced that the they had accidentally 'broken' Twitter: "We crashed and broke Twitter. We made history." "It's fantastic. See what we did, Meryl?"


But perhaps one of the funniest moments came from Ellen when she offered pizza (with a real delivery guy) from Big Mama's and Papa's to the stars in the audience.


Big Mamas and Papas Pizzeria

Another brand who received a lovely surprise was Miller Lite, mentioned by Matthew McConaughey during his speech towards the end of the show: "To my father, who I know is up there right now with a big pot of gumbo; he's got a lemon meringue pie, probably in his underwear and he's got a cold can of Miller Lite and he's dancing..."

Of course, the brand did not let this historical moment slip through its fingers. It immediately posted:

Miller Lite Oscars

This year proved that interaction and authenticity is monumental and brands need to be ready to make the best of these opportunities - especially when it comes to live events.

Other stars at this year's Oscars:

 Google 


Chevrolet


American Express


Lipton


Pepsi 


Chobani


 JC Penny


 

The Spree of the Season: Black Friday 2013

 Santo Domingo

For this marketer, the chance to experience Black Friday in the flesh is always welcome. It's different, it's fun and it's a great way of witnessing how brands fight it out in the retail battlefield. I mean, what could be a more perfect preamble for the Christmas season?  So just like last year, equipped with my camera and my two cousins, we hit the streets of Miami for a reprise of an unforgettable - and crowded - shopping spree. 

According to the National Retail Federation, consumers spent approximately $59 billion during Black Friday and Cyber Monday in 2012, with an estimated 247 million people who visited stores and websites. As people flocked brick-and-mortar stores, the online platforms exploded. This year was no different.

In 2013, while in-store sales dropped by 2.7%, online sales increased by 15% and 21% on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, respectively. This led many retailers to target mobile and tablets shoppers more than ever before. According to Ron Josey, "This is the first holiday season when mobile is having its mark on overall retail sales. The online frenzy has couriers with higher shipping volumes., with an expected 420 million packages, a 10% increase from last year." The age of online shopping is at an all-time high.

So how did brands compensate? Simple, they started with discounts a lot sooner. By sooner, I mean days -  even weeks - in advance. This substitution effect made us ask ourselves: "Why should I spend the day being shoved, when I can enjoy my discounts beforehand without the masses? Or better yet - in the comfort of my own home?" Is this all still worth the hassle? As Rafi Mohammed from the Harvard Business Reviews points out, retailers are stuck with the "discounting prisoner's dilemma." 

CNN conducted a survey in which they asked people if considered Black Friday to be  worth it, and the result was a resounding "No" by  54%, and comments such as "Online shopping is the way to go" by  37%. True, web deals were hard to beat, but isn't Black Friday supposed to be about the shopping experience? Could online platforms give us that same taste of the holiday season? Is this effort from our part as marketers, to be ahead of the game, to beat the time, eventually killing the purpose of it all in the first place?

On another note, according to the folks of Kenshoo, ad performance was in an all time high. Retailers generated up to 15 times more revenue from Facebook ads on Black Friday and Cyber Monday and saw a growth on its Return on Ad Spend by 93%. But what is really interesting is how Black Friday and Cyber Monday generated triple the average number of conversions with clients.

Will this be an interesting phenomenon to study through the course of the following years? You bet. As far as I can tell, Black Friday is a festivity unlike any other, whose dynamics are transforming before our very eyes. It will be intriguing to see what the next twelve months will bring.

 Check out my pictures from this year's Black Friday:

"Getting ready for the mayhem." Walmart, 4:00pm

Getting ready for the mayhem. - Walmart, 4:00pm

 

50% off

50% off - Michael Kors, 9:00pm

 

All together now

Electronics

 

Get in line

Getting in line at 11:00pm

 

9.99

$9.96 - Walmart

 

Apple

The Red Sea - Apple

 

The best buy?

Best Buy

Meanwhile, in Santo Domingo, my sister snapped this picture of one cute little shopper:

Early adopter

Ms. Panasonic

Source:

"How Thanksgiving lost its Mojo", Rafi Mohammed. Harvard Business Review.

"Cyber Monday Sales at Record as Amazon, eBay win Shoppers", Danielle Kucera. Bloomberg Technology.

"Poll: Do you think Black Friday is worth it?", CNN Money. 

"Infographic: How well did Facebook ads perform during Black Friday, Cyber Monday?", Justin Lafferty. Inside Facebook.

The Thrill of the Bargain: Black Friday

 

As a marketing and advertising freak, it's always interesting to see the lengths brands go through during the holiday season, and recently, even more so during Black Friday. I'd been watching so much being done - campaigns, sales, etc - but never had I experienced it in the flesh.  So this year, I packed my bags and flew to the USA for up-close encounter on what is the most extravagant shopping spree of the season. Of course, I wasn't alone. I was joined by two experienced and enthusiastic Black Friday shoppers, Paola and Carlos.

Our plan of attack was simple: hit the stores at 9pm (on Thursday) and pull an all-nighter. (with some power naps in between.)  Two of Miami's largest shopping centers and then the major retailers... WalMart, Best Buy, Macy's, the list went on. In the end, it was a 20-hour exhilarating shop-a-thon. 

Here's how it all went down: 


Check out my Black Friday photo album.

Getting down to business:

Retailers opened a early as 9pm on Thursday, Thanksgiving night, hence jumpstarting the holiday shopping season hours before. The result was 30% of Americans chosing to buy during Thanksgiving instead of Black Friday, according to polls. "Black Friday is still a huge day for retailers but is losing significance as chains start promotions earlier in the week both in stores and online. ShopperTrak, which measures foot traffic at stores across the country, estimated that sales fell 1.8 percent on Black Friday itself yet rose 2.7 percent for the overall weekend, which included Thanksgiving day." (Source: Reuters.com)

It was a busy, busy day. The top destinations during Black Friday were: department stores, discount chains and last, but not least, electronics store. A record 247 million shoppers visited stores and websites over the Black Friday weekend with the average buyer spending US$423, considerably higher than last year with 226 million shoppers spending an average of US$398. Through both channels - online and in stores- customers felt motivated by brands' super deals and the fact that retail chains got started even sooner.

I do, however, feel it's important to notice how several marketers are becoming concerned about the extension of Black Friday, and its long-term effects. Take strategist Daniel Burrus, for instance: "By extending Black Friday and also having Black Saturday, Black Sunday, Black Monday, Black Tuesday, etc., all of a sudden that special day becomes less special, and consumers do remember. That means next year, and the year after that, Black Friday becomes less of a driver to get people into the stores... it has the potential to dilute this special shopping day’s power next year, which will, in turn, hurt retailers." (Source: Business2Community)

 

The World’s Simplest Brands

 

Simpler is indeed better. According to branding firm Siegel + Gale in its third annual Global Brand Simplicity Index, these are the world's simplest brands. Those who "pass the test and offer experiences mired in complexity." The study was conducted through a survey involving more than 6,000 people across 7 countries and 25 industries in order to evaluate the degree of simplicity and complexity of each brand. 

"Not only are the simplest brands outperforming the major stock indexes, consumers continue to say they’re willing to pay a premium for a simplified experience." (Howard Belk, Co-CEO Chief Creative Officer) 

For the full report, click here.