Current 01/2009

The Vignelli Canon

I grew up without a canon, now nations, cities, professions and schools develop their own canon, benchmarks of essential steps in their history or their development. And when constructing canons once become popular, everyone will follow.



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Massimo Vignelli still has a good nose for the signs of the time, so he recently issued 'The Vignelli Canon'. As a very strong believer in the virtues of Modernism he has every right to do so. His professional career is built on a number of professional axioms that he never betrayed. (Well, to be honest, his axioms are pretty ambiguous here and there, so there is lots of room for interpretation). If you wish to sum up Massimo's major professional contribution in one single line, one could say that he brought European design to the US. Obviously, European design with an Italian flavour, so there was a large interest for interior, product and even fashion design. All his designs have the minimalist, purely functional, almost calvinistic touch, that for some reason roots so well in the exuberant Italian society. Maybe it's like the Italian kitchen; the food is always austere, but the meal and the event can be extravagant.

The God is in the detail.

And it ever was at Vignelli's. Always refined and sometimes sublime.

We all know that Dutch people are seldom well behaved. (It's almost part of the Dutch canon). They always have to make unsolicited remarks, so here is mine about the Vignelli canon. I never understood why mediaeval (or Old Style) figures were never part of character sets produced in the US. It seemed as if mostly Dutch typographers were sensitive to this kind of (very traditional) typographic refinement. There are no mediaeval figures in the Vignelli Canon, only tabular figures used in the running text. (Failing any syntactic or pragmatic motivation). With all the good things Massimo shipped over the ocean, I feel he forgot something. Too bad he did. He could have avoided that the American font producers needed at least 25 years to catch up with this kind of essential typographic tradition.



Well, that dream has turned out to be a sort of never ending dream that is highly unlikely to come true as many already suspected. Nevertheless, Americans (more than any other culture) have written complete libraries with advice about how to become successful. They remain strong believers of the concept of bootstrapping against all evidence to the contrary, specifically in their own society.


It seems that a wide range of circumstances can make a major difference in the likeliness of becoming successful. Being born in the right era certainly helps. Most of the successful IT entrepreneurs were born between 1953 and 56. That is not surprising, people born in that period had just the right combination of having enough experience (the 10,000 hour norm) and also being at the beginning of their careers, so with no strong attachments to existing businesses. No distractions from staying focused. At the very moment when a technological shift took place, these talented people were - by coincidence - free, fresh, able and available. When you dig deeper in the personal background of each IT tycoon you find even more reasons that showed that coincidence was the cause of each individual taking an advantage in knowledge over their peers. Coincidence, nothing more. Bill Gates concludes about his own career that he's just been lucky. Being born in the right era is an enormous boon. Also for designers, artists and architects. Setting up an architectural practice in the early 20s or by contrast 10 years later in the early 30s makes a big difference in the follow-up. The architectural profession has blossomed extravagantly during the past 25 years because of exceptional circumstances in the building industry. Graphic designers have had their days in the sun in the 60s through the 90s. Technological/scientific shifts are important because of their economic effects, but also peer influence can change a whole profession in a relatively short period of time. The influence of France in the visual arts at the beginning of the 20th century was overwhelming. The explosion of German visual art during the past 40 years; England in the past 10 years is not the coincidence of a sudden wave of highly talented people being born in one specific period in one specific country. The coincidence is geo-political combined with the presence of one or a few geniuses that attracted and inspired many talented people who in turn stimulated each other to reach ever higher professional levels. Professional developments can be like the dancers in a 'primitive' African village where the collective is responsible for bringing the individual physical performance to perplexing superhuman levels. The stimulant coming from one's direct environment cannot be overestimated as source of success. It starts with your own family that merely sees that education and intellectual development goes on when the schools are closed, it continues if you're lucky enough to get a (professional) education in schools that are not crowded and have good teachers, and the stimulant you receive from your fellow students can turn out to be priceless in the development of your own career. After school, the best strategy is to work for a while in places that maintain a high professional level. These places have sometimes far more openings than in other times. It is just coincidence to be given a chance to participate.

There are also causes for success of a total different nature.

Advanced medical knowledge reveals that extraordinary (pathological) conditions may be the cause of an exceptional talent. A deficiency in one specific brain function may cause the unusual large development in another. An exceptional visual talent maybe caused by an underdeveloped verbal capability. Idiot savants are mentally handicapped but are brilliant in certain areas. 'Les extremes se touche', the French say and Dutch wisdom has it that 'the bigger the mind, the bigger the beast in us'. There is also a case to be made for the pathogenic effects of success. It seems to be difficult to stay mentally healthy in a situation of being extremely successful. First, there is the bizarre hunger for more that seems to increase with becoming ever more successful or wealthy. Arriving at the top seems to enhance the desire to grow wings. The wealthy and powerful are starting to take absurd risks (or remain bizarrely frugal) to reach an even higher level of power or wealth, sometimes resulting in a total loss. The immensely successful Microsoft company needed the intervention of the highest international courts to curb its insatiable commercial blood thirst. The biggest financial institutions have taken the highest risks ultimately resulting in the recent global financial meltdown. A pathological condition called 'obsessive compulsive disorder' (COD) seems to be be to some degree a steady companion of success. All effort and attention is put onto one or a few cards. All life experiences become tunneled into the source of the success. For exceptionally successful designers this often leads to neglecting simple functional aspects of design, groundbreaking typography becomes unreadable and as the saying goes that 'architecture leaks'. Probably brillant architecture leaks like a strainer. Success does not allow for criticism. That is always dismissed as envy. Success can only collapse under its own weight. Flying high is intoxicating, a soft landing rare and a fall always devastating. Exceptional success is always based on a immense passion that burns like a wildfire and will only end when there is nothing left to burn.


Going to the Post Office

Well organised postal services were the lifeline of the new economy. Mail ordering was a cornerstone of the economic activity in the US at some stage of its development. The mail services freed all business activities from the confinement of being local operations. All Western economies have landmark buildings for their major post offices, all built at the beginning of the last century. Well, and then telecommunications came along, followed by the digital era. Business communications and activities changed with the new technologies. Postal services became privatised and email no longer required large distribution buildings. Nevertheless, the mail remained important. A distribution network of physical goods is still the indispensable shadow of the digital network. One cannot live well without the other.




But going to the post office has become a dramatically different experience during my lifetime. The actual experience of dispatching a mail package through a post office depends much on where you are on the globe. I joined my colleague in NY to the Church Street (near Wall Street) post office there. In this case, putting something in the mail is a royal experience. There is this huge Art Deco palace with a ground floor that has no other purpose than to send stuff by mail. The building has a majestic architecture bathing in a subdued light, spaces are mostly empty and no staff to be seen. It feels like an deserted kingdom. There are a lot of service kiosks scattered in the gigantic spaces where an interactive screen/scale combination helps you to stamp your own packages or letters. One needs to be experienced though, otherwise it would take you a day to get through the large digital questionnaire needed to get a simple package properly stamped. Every action in the US always leaves the impression as if entering a complex legal transaction. After paying and putting the printed sticker(s) on your mail you just dump it in a gap in the wall. In London, basically the same procedure is organised in a total different setting, it feels more like collecting food stamps during a long war. A small and crammed place annex convenient store is filled with cuing people. Nothing royal here, but there are less machines and still some staff around that operates in a polite and half automated mode. In Tokyo, the old post office is kept for the most part intact. Uniformed staff and a plethora of different options for services. The convenient store is only slowly creeping in. In my French village, the staff in the post office at the 'Place de Poste' was gradually reduced from three employees to one lady in the past 10 years, but the old building is entirely refurbished. The lady is now working behind thick glass in the middle of a colourful collection of prepaid standard packages. (The French public organisations have discovered graphic design at last. Well, the discovery was done in a French way of course). I only have to put my package on her counter and answer her questions about the type of delivery required - and her queries about the well-being of myself and my family - and all the rest is done by herself. In Amsterdam, the listed building of the Head Post Office has been transformed more than ten years ago into a shopping mall, where the stunning architecture is now competing with the commercial signage. The myriad of all the other nice post offices in the city are now closing after having seen themselves refurbishes a couple of times by new visual identity programs. The new post office model is a simple convenient store with a postoffice corner. All official status is gone. The national mail is organised the way the cleaning of buildings is. This approach has been quite a change from before. The Dutch national mail and telecommunication services once played an important national role as stimulator of good design, architecture and art collecting. Some countries, Lebanon for instance, do not have a postal service to speak of, although Canada Post did set up Liban Poste after the civil war. If you want to have a package or letter delivered most Lebanese think it will be better bring it yourself or ask your driver to do it for you. Luckily, the country is very small.


Design Philosophy

The only type of design that really matters. (Well, that is put too straightforward perhaps, making 'interesting or cool design' today is useful for boosting your peer status, design education, museums, design magazines, design shops and everything else related to fashion. The last includes a lot of commercial activities these days) Yet, designing is also about developing ideas, having an unconventional approach towards a design brief.

There was not much need or demand to develop a design philosophy. This situation changed when design became a commodity with lots of competing designers and when design education became a highly lucrative industry. A design philosophy became a concise or a more elaborate distinctive view to market your design work or your education facility. Having the option of getting the highest scholarly degree in design made documenting and thinking about design philosophies a serious business, coming with the handicap that a complex wordy account is often considered intellectually profound. The UK/USA tandem are the trail blazers in this field since marketing are more or less invented in these societies and their educational systems match (and of course their languages have remarkable similarities).

Carin Goldberg suggested to Andrew Blauvelt that AGI members might be interested in a piece that Andrew published on the blog. Andrew thinks that we are today in the process of a paradigm shift across (a fundamental different approach towards) all fields of design. He believes that we went the past 100 years through stages like the three separate aspects of signs or symbols: a formal (grammatical), a semantical and a practical. But in our professional case these were stages describing the professional activity and they happened in a chronological order. Now we're entering the stage where the practical (or relational as he calls it) aspect becomes the most important one. Does Andrew have a point (despite his awkward comparison) ? Judging is difficult since the commercial and social environment has changed so fundamentally in the past 100 years that maybe all professional activities are affected in the way that Andrew describes for the design profession.

Towards relational design



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