Great Design is Timeless, Great Designers Unfortunately aren’t

Design legend Massimo Vignelli is dying, and he wants you to send him a postcard.
Here’s why you should.

Screenshot 2014-05-14 18.05.54

Even if you’ve never heard of Vignelli, you have surely seen his work. Chances are you may be seeing it every day. Pictured above is his redesign of New York’s subway map, released in 1972. It doesn’t look that old, does it? This approach was diagrammatic, which means that it sacrificed geographical accuracy – note how Central Park is reduced to a square – in favor of a neat, geometric design: one dot for each station, one color for each line, 45 and 90-degree angles only.

While it may look very contemporary now, this design was outrageously ahead of its time in 1972. Vignelli was aware of that, so he created two geographical maps and a verbal map – which explained how to go from place to place in words – to go along with his revolutionary A to B, modernist design. Unfortunately, the MTA thought this was too complicated and only introduced the map above, to the confusion of travelers: New Yorkers were outraged by what they saw as the misrepresentation of their city, while tourists struggled to relate Mr. Vignelli’s design to what they found above ground, writes The New York Times.

In 1979, Vignelli’s design was eventually replaced with this:


A safer, uglier alternative that does nothing to diminish the value of Vignelli’s work, which has influenced the design of transit maps ever since, and has a rightful place in MoMa’s collection. Also, the rest of his work for the New York subway system – a collaboration with another design legend, Bob Noorda – is still very much there for everyone to see:


The signage system debuted in 1968, and it’s just one of the children of Vignelli’s love affair with the Helvetica typeface, and Swiss design in general. A year earlier, he had redesigned American Airlines’ corporate identity and created an iconic logo that could have gone unchanged forever:


But it was changed last year. The new one is hardly as timeless. Several of the world’s most prominent corporate logos are in Helvetica, including BMW, Lufthansa, Toyota, Target and, ironically, Microsoft, which has never included the font in Windows, supplying the extremely similar – and cheaper to license – Arial instead.

Italian-born Vignelli has long been a resident of New York city, and his work can also be seen in the logos, signs and packaging for the city’s landmark department stores Bloomingdales, Barney’s and Saks Fifth Avenue. And last year, the MTA introduced The Weekender, an interactive version of the subway map based on his 1972 version.
His contributions to design are unforgettable, as is his philosophy: «I like design to be semantically correct, syntactically consistent, and pragmatically understandable. I like it to be visually powerful, intellectually elegant, and above all, timeless».

Last week, his son Luca announced that Massimo Vignelli is terminally ill and will be spending his last days at home. He also requested that anyone who has been influenced or touched by his work send him a note, or a letter, to his home address in New York City.
I hope this might inspire you to do so. Here is the address:

Massimo Vignelli
130 East 67 Street
New York, New York 10021

Update: Mr. Vignelli died on May 27th, 2014. Read his New York Times obituary.


Why You’ll Hate the New Facebook Design


Why does everyone complain when Facebook gets a new design?

As soon as the changes appear, people start moaning. It’s happening right now, as the redesigned News Feed is being rolled out to all users, after almost a year of fine tuning.
But why does everyone get so grumpy?

Humans are change averse when it comes to graphical user interfaces, among many other things. Knowing your way around a website or software is a matter of habit. When it changes, you lose your points of reference and have to learn your way around again.
That leaves you dumbfounded until you new habits are formed over the old ones, which can be a bit of an annoyance. In other words, changes in Facebook make you feel stupid for a little while, and you hate that.

Change is difficult. Moving to a new city, starting a new job or learning how to use an operating system are all processes that require you to think about every little thing you’re doing. It’s hard work, but it’s something we generally accept, if maybe ungraciously, as a part of life. When change completely eludes our control, though, we feel lost. How would you react if you got home tonight to a completely rearranged furniture layout in your house? Change can be good and exciting, depending on your personality, but it’s a form of loss, and we are all loss averse by nature. If I gave you a $50 bill and asked if you want to gamble it on a coin toss for double or nothing, you’d probably do what most people do and choose to keep your $50. We tend to value what we already have about twice as much as potential gains, so the gamble is not worth the risk.

Computers haven’t been around that long in absolute terms, so we haven’t yet developed a specific set of psychological tools to apply to changes in that area, and we follow the general rule. Some folks feel that they have a right to retain the interface design they like best (the one they have gotten used to) and claim it’s intolerable that they are not given this option. They even make petitions that go nowhere and are soon forgotten. But Facebook isn’t a product you own or a software you’ve bought. It’s a free service that wants to make money off you and the user interface design is an integral part of its marketing effort, not a matter of anyone’s taste. Companies that pay Facebook to display their ads want to know how they will look like and demand consistency. As Mark Zuckerberg famously said, «you are the product».

People have a right to complain all they want. It’s a way to cope with the anxiety brought on by change. But it’s an empty effort when it comes to Facebook. As soon as you readjust to the new layout, a new habit forms and all is well. So, when you feel like you want to kick up a fuss, just wait a week. By then, it’s likely you’ll no longer care.

The Death of Skeuomorphism

This is the Calendar app you find on iPads and recent Macs. 

It comes complete with fake leather and torn bits of paper, resembling the real object it’s supposed to replace. This is an example of skeuomorphism, an approach to design that recreates functional elements in an ornamental way. It’s used in physical objects as well: your car might have fake, retro-looking hub caps on its rims, and the rivets on your jeans are most likely just fakes covering the real, functional rivets underneath. But Apple has made it famous by incorporating it in its graphical user interfaces.

Apple’s obsession with skeuomorphism reaches into the tiniest of details. If you have an iPhone with iOS 6, launch the Music app and take a look at the volume knob:

If you tilt the phone on its axis, left to right, you will see the reflection effect on the knob change, as if it were a physical one. The gyroscope inside the phone is used to detect the motion. It’s nearly impossible to spot, yet someone at Apple went out on a limb to program this into the interface. Steve Jobs was a fan of skeuomorphism and Scott Forstall, the Head of iOS design, was a strong supporter. But there’s been an ongoing debate about this inside the company for some time.

Yesterday, Apple fired Scott Forstall. He’s taking the blame for the iOS 6 Maps fiasco, but the implications on graphic design are interesting. Guess who’s been appointed to replace him on the non-business end of his responsibilities? Jony Ive, Apple’s chief of industrial design. Now he’ll be in charge of designing not just the products, but even the graphical elements of the software that runs on them. Ive’s design philosophy is one of purity and simplicity: «We try to develop products that seem somehow inevitable. That leave you with the sense that that’s the only possible solution that makes sense», he says.

Wether you like the design of Apple gadgets or not, you must agree that it’s one of the key factors to its dominance. And the credit is all Ive’s. Before he came around, phones looked radically different. Computers were unappealing beige boxes. His first iconic creation was the original iMac, which came in a variety of bright colors and had a curious handle on top:Walter Isaacson notes in his book that is was “more playful and semiotic than it was functional”, and quotes Jony Ive on its purpose: «Back then, people weren’t comfortable with technology. If you’re scared os something, then you won’t touch it. I could see my mum being scared to touch it. So I thought, if there’s this handle on it, it makes a relationship possible. It’s approachable. It’s intuitive. It gives you permission to touch.
It gives a sense of its deference to you».

The design principles established by Apple now dominate technology, to the point that most other players in the field are very happy to just be copycats. This is most apparent on hardware, but software isn’t immune. Here’s the telephone icon from iOS:

It’s nearly identical, with very minor variations, on every other smartphone operating system, including Android. Somehow, Apple has decided that the telephone function must be identified with a white phone handle on a green background, and everyone else has just followed suit. Interestingly, it’s skeuomorphic and it refers to an outdated design for telephone handles. But while you’d be hard pressed to come up with a sensible alternative, does iBooks really need to resemble a wooden bookshelf?

Doesn’t this sacrifice functionality in some way? And why are most icons for voice recording shaped like either a classic studio microphone or an old tape, items that most people, especially youngsters, might have never seen in their lives? Skeuomorphism made a lot of sense when computers first came around: it gave people a quick way to grasp the functionality of otherwise obscure buttons or applications.
But do we still need that?

Given Ive’s track record in influencing the design of everyday things, it’s reasonable to imagine that he might apply the same mojo to UI elements. In other words, we may be on the brink of the greatest revolution in interface design since the inception of computers. Microsoft has just launched a new version of Windows that radically does away with the past and contains little or no trace of skeuomorphism. If Apple does the same they might become copycats themselves, but the impact of such a decision could resonate even more greatly.