Jul 4 • 54M

The Vignelli Canon: Massimo fires shot across bow of vulgar design (#2)

My notes, quotes, and takeaways from reading The Vignelli Canon, the legendary designer’s “interpretations of reality.”

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Appears in this episode

Philip Levy
Learn from history’s most influential product designers. Each episode, I will delve into the work of an impactful designer and share insights to inspire our work. Design is the fascinating intersection of productive function and emotional form. As thinking beings, we use products to get things done, but as feeling humans, we want to enjoy doing it. This podcast is about the designers who have come before us and wrangled form and function into something that is the essence of beauty. If you make things, this is for you. Even if you’re not a trained designer, you design something: a business, a service, an event, a message — something that can benefit from the accrued knowledge and experience of the history of design. As we embark on a new era in technology that will challenge our very notion of humanity, it is more important than ever to learn from the mistakes and mastery of previous designers.
Episode details
Close up of Vignelli's 2008 revision of the 1972 modernist New York City Subway map
section215, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Massimo Vignelli saw the world in black and white — and I’m not talking about one of his favorite color combinations. In his manifesto, The Vignelli Canon, he paints of scene of stark contrast: appropriateness vs arbitrariness, elegance vs vulgarity, discipline vs chaos. About quality, he said there are no hierarchies. “Quality is there or is not there, and if it is not there, we have wasted our time.” A Modern moralist, he traced the birth of his ideology to the publication of the French Encyclopédie in the mid-18th century, the embodiment of Enlightenment thinking at the time. While he does acknowledge this a “personal canon” and “my interpretations of reality,” his simple and powerful words cast him in a superhero persona, a crusading creative living a life of “fight against the ugliness.”

In addition to covering his core philosophy, we’ll use this episode to explore themes of timelessness, context, and commercialism and consider the enduring relevance of the Canon.


  • History (1:11)

  • Core philosophy

    • Semantics (2:26)

    • Syntactics (7:26)

    • Pragmatics (9:30)

  • Timelessness (16:40)

    • American Airlines

  • Context (32:30)

    • Dribbblisation of design

  • Commercialism (41:46)

  • Bonus: how elegant paper sizes relate to evil-sounding music (47:26)