More than four decades have gone by since acclaimed designers Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda of Unimark International were hired by the New York Transit Authority (now the MTA) to modernize and unify the look of the subway signage, which by Noorda’s own account “was a mess.” Cluttered with varied typefaces of different sizes and rendered on different materials from mosaic tile to a paper sign stuck to the wall, the old signage system confused more than aided travelers. In its place, Vignelli and Noorda developed a cohesive subway wayfinding system designed to promote intuitive understanding — so much so that they promised: “The passenger will be given information or directions only at the point of decision. Never before. Never after.” It did all that and more. The New York Transit Authority’s wayfinding system is still considered a masterpiece of clarity, logic, consistency, and elegant modernist design.
The accompanying 174-page Graphic Standards Manual was as brilliantly written and produced by Vignelli and Noorda. One day in 2013, two young designers at Pentagram – Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth – stumbled upon an original copy of the manual in the basement of Pentagram’s New York office. The pair found the manual so awesome that they wanted to share it with friends, so they created a dedicated website (thestandardsmanual.com) and posted scanned pages online. The site instantly went viral. Within 72 hours, more than a quarter million people visited the site. Although delighted, Reed and Smyth felt strongly that an on-screen viewing didn’t do justice to the beauty of the real Standards Manual. To truly appreciate it, they felt people should see it full size in print, and they set out to produce a book with an introduction by Vignelli protege and Pentagram partner Michael Bierut and an essay by New York Magazine’s Christopher Bonanos, author of “Instant: The Story of Polaroid”.
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We recently lost one of the giants of our profession, Massimo Vignelli. An internationally acclaimed modernist, Massimo left a strong mark on our collective culture. Having had the privilege to know him personally, I also came to appreciate him as a warm, personal and extremely generous individual. Massimo was highly principled, joyous, robust, and thoughtful, but above all, he was a man of great passion who lived deeply. I saw this last year when I asked Massimo, along with 14 other designers, to describe how he sees San Francisco for a promotional project. I expected remarks about cable cars, steep hills, great restaurants, the Golden Gate Bridge,etc. Massimo’s response was lyrical, elegant, insightful and heartfelt – like the man himself. I held onto his description to remind myself that at the heart of visual arts is a poetic soul. Here is Massimo’s impression of San Francisco:
“Summer temperature, suddenly a chilling wind, a drastic drop in temperature and awesome clouds billowing over the hill toward me. A preview of the end of the world. A city inside a cloud. Would I survive? Is it real? The rampant clouds are rolling one over the other, gradually absorbing the city, vanishing it around me.”
Massimo, we will miss you.
The words “typeface” and “character” are fitting terms to describe fonts. When listening to good designers talk about them, you would think they were gossiping about people. They talk about their emotional qualities, complain about what they perceive as their flaws, get blushingly specific about their physical beauty. For them, some typefaces are casual flings, good for a quickie when the mood strikes and the lighting is right; with others, they are in love and ready to commit for life. For many designers, a studying letterforms is more engaging than reading what the collected letters have to say.
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The Pentagram 365 Typography Calendar now celebrates its tenth year, prompting us to ask its originator Kit Hinrichs what drove him to create this now popular product.
What was your inspiration for the calendar?
I’ve long been an admirer of Massimo Vignelli’s iconic Stendig calendar, introduced in 1966. It’s classic Helvetica typeface is boldly graphic, contemporary and easy to read. If I may speak for Massimo, it was “Perfetto!” Yet as someone who loves and uses type, all kinds of type, I felt there was room for a wall calendar where the typography was in more than one face. So many people, designers included, have no idea who designed the beautifully crafted typefaces that are very much a part of our everyday life. I wanted to enable people to become more aware of type as a designed object.
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Pie charts and bar graphs are the crude “stick” drawings of the Power Point world — unimaginative and dull, yet easier to grasp than spreadsheets and algorithms. But in the hands of designers, infographics can be so much more.
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