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The legacy of Massimo Vignelli: a great master, a great friend. (By Armando Milani)

The world of design has lost a timeless icon. A bold spirit with a profound, abiding commitment to elegance and simplicity. Massimo Vignelli, known for his work on brands such as American Airlines, Bloomingdale's, IBM, the New York Metro System and many others, passed away at the age of 83. Esteemed designer, Armando Milani, shares a heartfelt memoir on his colleague and friend with More Than Branding. 

Vignelli and Milani oversee a project during a workshop at the Altos de Chavón School of Design.

Vignelli and Milani oversee a project during a workshop at The Altos de Chavón School of Design. (2006)

Massimo Vignelli has flown away with his charge of creativity, passion and dignity. I will always remember him as an extremely professional designer, a perfectionist with a big heart. He believed in timeless design, refusing any ephemeral fashion. He used so say to his students "if you design it right, it will last forever". He was like a lighthouse fighting the darkness of ignorance and bad taste.

Massimo succeeded in adapting his work to the needs of his clients, and with great coherence he never betrayed the principles of his minimalist design, always finding a subtle equilibrium between form and contents. His approach was to articulate a basic geometry in all his projects, translating it into visual pleasure, making the intangible tangible.

Massimo introduced the aesthetics of European Modernism to American graphic design. He was link to the rationalism of Mies van der Rohe, influencing the way we look at things by starting from a rational position, and choosing every solution for a precise reason. With basic grids, only six typefaces and primary colors he was able to invent different solutions for every problem, and they were always elegant and appropriate.

Among his more renowned works of graphic design, I recall the posters for the Piccolo Teatro di Milano, the logos for Bloomingdale’s and American Airlines, the image for Knoll Furniture, the map for the New York City Subway, and the graphics program for the United States National Park.

As a product and interior designer, among other projects Massimo designed the Divano Saratoga, the interior of St. Peter’s Church in New York, the Heller line of plastic ware.  His book "Canon" was widely distributed around the world.

But this is just a small list of his endless and fantastic creative productions.

When working on projects of my own, I would often wonder what Massimo would have thought about a particular idea, and from time to time I would send him my designs and ask for his advice. Massimo was always very generous with his time, and always replied with various suggestions or appreciations. When criticizing a project he was direct, logic and persuasive. His thoughts and ideas were always coherent, and his advice invaluable.

Massimo was a master of self-promotion, he knew how to sell and persuade a client, helped greatly by his wife Lella. On one occasion, I recall a competition for a corporate identity that he was participating in, along with two other important design studios in New York. When he presented his work he told the client "we are all very good, you could choose between us with your eyes closed… but if you open them, you will choose us."

He used to say that we designers should behave like doctors, suggesting to our clients to do what they need, not to do what they want.

Massimo was a tireless organizer, always pondering over new projects. I remember various AGI meetings where he was president, such as in Amsterdam, Amalfi, and Tokyo. Through his humor, enthusiasm, and distinctive elegance he communicated an international and an Italian flavor. Massimo was an Italian that held the image of Italy high around the entire world.

He used to say that he would like to design the corporate identity for the Vatican, keeping the logo, but redesigning all the rest. It was interesting to note the contrast between his sparkling personality and sense of humor and the meticulous strictness of his design.

I had the opportunity to teach with Massimo at various workshops and seminars around the world and I always appreciated the methodology, discipline and passion for design that he was able to communicate to his students. Roger Remington, director of the Vignelli Center in Rochester, said "as we move forward at the Vignelli Center for Design Studies, our task is to extend his legacy of excellence in everything we accomplish.”

Massimo and Lella Vignelli, Roger Remington and Milani among others at the Moulin des Trois Arcs, Provence.

Massimo and Lella Vignelli, Roger Remington and Milani among others at the Moulin des Trois Arcs, Provence.

Collaborating with Massimo for so many years has been a privilege and a great pleasure. He was a grand master of design and a real friend, I will miss him very much and for me he will always be by our side. He wrote a book about his work "Vignelli from the A to the Z" but for us his Z will be endless.

- Armando Milani

Watch Vignelli's recent interview on More Than Branding.

Photo credits: The Altos de Chavón School of Design and Armando Milani.

Special thanks to Armando Milani for his beautiful words.

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.

Steve Jobs: The Man Behind the Brand

On the month that marks the second anniversary since Steve Jobs' passing, blogger Edgar Estévez reflects on the influence and legacy Apple's main man left to the marketing world...  

Young Steve Jobs

An entrepreneur, an innovator, an inventor, a visionary…  a genius. These are just some of the adjectives used to describe Steve Jobs, a man whose path was never predictable. He was given up for adoption at birth, he dropped out of college after only one semester and at the age of 20 co-founded Apple, currently one of the most valuable companies in the world.

There is no doubt that Steve Jobs created a revolution. As one of the top pioneers on the personal computer and electronics field, his impeccable taste and sense of style made him push all market boundaries, transforming one industry after another - from computers, to smart phones, to music and even animated films.

It’s been two years since he passed away and we still remember him as the very soul of the organization he helped create. His aggressive and demanding personality made him a perfectionist, always aspiring to be one step ahead of the industry and setting the market trends in innovation and design. But most importantly, he impregnated his passion for simplicity and top-notch quality into the company’s organizational culture, making this one of the key components of Apple’s sustaining performance and competitive advantage - percieved upon entering any Apple store in the world or simply by opening the box of any Apple product for the first time… It’s almost like a ritual!

As a marketer, Steve Jobs was a natural. He was driven by his obsession and love for his products, and made it a personal mission to have an impact in people’s lives. Not only did he invent great things, he also made the consumers feel emotionally attached to the brand at the point of turning them into passionate advocates of Apple. They don't think of themselves as consumers, but in turn members of a movement, a mission, something larger than themselves. He helped build mystery and expectation around product launches, always generating buzz and suspense before unveiling some amazing new gadget, making consumers and specially the competition go mad with speculation.  Jobs was also not afraid to go big, as pointed out on hubspot.com, and one great example was the widely known 1984 “Think Different” commercial for the new Macintosh, where he hired Ridley Scott, director of Alien and Blade Runner, and spent around $1.7 million ($3.4 million today) between producing the ad and running it one time during the Super Bowl. This was a huge risk for the company, especially since it wasn't clear that the ad would succeed, but it paid off. The ad generated as much coverage as the Macintosh itself.

No doubt that Steve Jobs is a tough act to follow and the company is not only facing  new challenges in the market but also trying to continue his legacy. So, how is Apple doing today? According to a study conducted by Interbrand Corp. on the Top 100 brands this past September, Apple has unseated Coca-Cola as the world’s No. 1 brand with a brand value of $98.3 billion, 28% more than last year. 

Still, some say that the brand is losing its magic. Some of the latest product innovation hasn’t raised the bar high enough for competitors and for consumers, who are always expecting big things from Apple. Many of the brand’s major products are facing increased competition from Samsung’s top-selling Galaxy phones, Amazon’s Kindle tablet reader and Spotify’s music service - and still the company keeps innovating around the same things - which is probably not innovating at all. The brand may be loosing its momentum, but they still have time to turn things around. After all, Apple is a very strong brand and the most profitable technology company there is, generating $41.7 billion last year. And even more importantly, they still have the consumer’s trust, since the popular perception is that “Apple could do no wrong”.

Most recently, the company appointed former Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts as their new SVP of Retail and Online Stores, which many industry experts are saying is one of the company’s best decisions so far, since she is likely to bring a fresh leadership focus to Apple and complement well with current CEO Tim Cook to bring the brand up to the next level with breakthrough innovative products in new categories, allowing Apple to become the outstanding company of this decade. 

 Before you finish reading I wanted to leave you with the 10 things I have personally learned from Steve Jobs as a marketer myself. Additionally, here's a small fragment from a PBS documentary of 1994, which for me, perfectly reflects the way he saw and lived his life. Enjoy!

10 things I’ve learned from Steve Jobs as a marketer:

  1. Innovate.
  2. Time to market is crucial.
  3. Simple is always better.
  4. Failure is part of the process. The most important thing is knowing how to stand up again.
  5. Tenacity and hard work always pays off.
  6. Be curious.
  7. Stay focused.
  8. Pay attention to details.
  9. It’s ok to go a little crazy sometimes.
  10. Don’t be afraid to think different.

Steve Jobs on 'One Last Thing', a PBS documentary: 


“ When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money.

That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is - everything around you that you call life, was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.

The minute that you understand that you can poke life and actually something will, you know if you push in, something will pop out the other side, that you can change it, you can mold it. That’s maybe the most important thing. It’s to shake off this erroneous notion that life is there and you’re just gonna live in it, versus embrace it, change it, improve it, make your mark upon it.

I think that’s very important and however you learn that, once you learn it, you’ll want to change life and make it better, cause it’s kind of messed up, in a lot of ways. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again."

Design and Marketing: The Critical Duo

The way we interact with our surroundings is defined, quite possibly, by its structure. Shapes, colors, words, sounds and other elements combine to create an environment that may well be hostile or friendly to us.

All space and objects we come into contact with is subject to a process that has led to this physical creation: design.

Daily, we hear this term applied to many industries, and for various purposes: graphic, textile, urban, architectural, industrial, interiors, editorial, advertising, digital, etc. It has so many meanings and interpretations, and, unfortunately has become a discipline somewhat misunderstood and underestimated. Not many people appreciate its true power, or better yet, its transcendence in our lives and in the business world.

All things we choose in our everyday (clothes, food, consumer goods, etc.), as well as for our big decisions (house, car, school, etc.) are always subject to a criteria of functionality and aesthetics, sometimes in different orders of priority. Thus creating within us a perception that may result in a purchase.

In marketing, design is critical to the success of a brand. From the design of a product: its packaging, presentation, logo, name and colors, to its pricing strategies, point of purchase display and advertising. Everything is conceived, planned, designed. Design must therefore provide a functional and aesthetic solution to a specific need on principles of simplicity, practicality and economy (entailing an efficient management of resources that comprise it, without desire to cheapen the concept).

A consistent design, from all angles, generates great power and value to brands; it projects a very strong cohesion, and its elements are not reduced just to visual elements. A company that displays a careful visual image, a product or service well-crafted, effective business communication, and consistent behavior of its employees or agents, has great opportunities and a huge advantage over their competitors.

If a brand’s advertising is flawless, it is possible to persuade a large number of people to buy it - but if its container is not ergonomically friendly or service lends itself so clumsy or hasty - perhaps it will discourage consumers from buying it a next time. If, however, the physical design of a product is outstanding, many people may not have a chance to try it if your advertising and communications is poorly designed.

The development of effective business design is built upon several disciplines that are complemented by a single purpose: marketing, semiotics, hues and chromes, typography, psychology, semantics, sociology, and so on. Those responsible for the design of a graphical solution, product, space or advertising message need to know this in order to create a strong and suitable concept.

According to several professional and remarkable designers, we can conclude that good design must comply with the characteristics below:

  • Good design is a concept, a story, something to say.
  • Designing communicates, not decorates.
  • Good design should be universal and timeless. Your message must be easily understood in different places and cultures. Moreover, it must strive to transcend time instead of becoming obsolete quickly.
  • Good design is versatile. Fits various means.
  • It is simple, clear and concise.
  • Good design is innovative. It surprises and calls the viewer's attention.
  • It helps us to understand a product. It communicates benefits perfectly.
  • It makes a product useful.
  • It watches the details.