I can pinpoint the moment where my grudge against Massimo Vignelli began. About halfway through Gary Hustwit’s documentary Helvetica, Vignelli is filmed isolated against a gray background, and after some playful grousing, he says, “The life of a designer is a life of fight: fight against the ugliness.” I found this simultaneously offensive and confusing, because of a conflict of my own. I wanted the design profession to be more important than aesthetics, but not so full of itself to believe it could change the world. Of course, this is a ridiculous and self-defeating set of demands: you must fly while wearing handcuffs. Good luck, kid.
Youth brings stubbornness, and insolence is a pair of earmuffs. While coddling my immature grudge, I missed the rest of Vignelli’s statement: “The life of a designer is a life of fight: fight against the ugliness. Just like a doctor fights against disease. For us, the visual disease is what we have around, and what we try to do is to cure it somehow, with design.”
One of my perpetual mistakes is believing that insight must be dramatic. Not so. In fact, the most mundane and obvious advice is perhaps worth the most consideration. There are reasons things won’t go away. Massimo was giving that kind of advice, and my stubborn ears were missing it. Of course life devolves into confusing ugliness unless you fight against it with clear beauty. Of course it does.
My grudge left when I inverted Vignelli’s words. When you fight against something, you are also fighting for its opposite. Design isn’t just battling ugliness. It’s also an unending fight for beauty, balance, consistency, and parity, because the world devolves into an ugly, imbalanced, inconsistent, and unequal place unless we are vigilant. Beauty has a role in the good life, so designers like Massimo chip away at their corner: visuals. I’m in that corner, too, with my tiny rock hammer. We all have our place in this effort, not just designers.
A few weeks ago while Massimo’s health was waning, the Vignelli family invited the public to send him personal notes. Massimo famously worked for years using only five typefaces, and I thought it suitable to use five words in my note. I bought a stamp and said what I had been meaning to say for the longest time.