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.