The quest for elegance

Angie Hempel
Angie Hempel

Director, Strategic Services

Note: This is another installment of our year-long delve into connecting with our inner designer.

Debbie Millman may have saved the best for last.

The final interview in How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer is with Massimo Vignelli. I’m not a graphic artist, but I appreciate thoughtful, beautiful, functional design. And I recognize that thinking like a great graphic designer can make me a better writer.

And what do you know, Mr. Vignelli, one of the most celebrated designers of his generation, appreciates lovely prose. The first line of his interview:

“Well, I write all the time.”

Me, too! We already have so much in common.

An Old Friend

I actually remember seeing Massimo (we’re on a first name basis now) in the documentary Helvetica. I took an entire semester on typography in college, so I’m kind of an expert. (Not really.)

Being the amateur typophile I am, I know Massimo’s work is legendary. Even after his death in 2014, his designs are still being shown in the Modern Museum of Art, his brochures are still being used for the National Park Service, and his legacy lives on in protégés like Michael Bierut.

Precision and Discipline

Massimo is famous in part for the strict boundaries he put on his designs.

“My work has a certain discipline, a rigor, and a minimalist expression,” he said.

He worked with just a few typefaces, just a couple of colors, but broke a lot of rules and ground maybe not despite those restrictions, but because of them. This was not just a design philosophy – it was the way he wrote and the way he lived his life, too.

“I want to have the exact word that says exactly what I mean as precisely as possible.”

I often search long and hard for that elusive, perfect word, too. And sometimes the most creative work happens when we have rigid boundaries. I see this happen on my favorite TV show Top Chef all the time. Restrictions give us a place to start from, and the challenge to exceed expectations within that mold can be very motivating, and that’s much more gratifying in the end.

Curiosity and Passion

To Massimo, his purpose in life was to bring more elegance to the world.

“My life is a continual struggle, a continuous battle against vulgarity taking over,” he said.

In design, the work’s purpose is to “take care of everything around us.” Whether people realize it or not, everything is designed, from subway maps to glassware. And every word around us has been written by someone. So more than typing letters on my screen or my design counterparts drawing lines here and there, it’s our job to put thought and reasoning behind our decisions. Our boss Elizebeth always says, “we are problem solvers.” And it all starts with the goal.

“When you start working on something, you are aiming for a specific target. You have the target in your mind and a bull’s-eye. And I try to aim for that bull’s-eye. If you hit it, you’re very happy. And that’s when you know you’ve finished, that you’ve found the solution to the problem,” Massimo said.

The hard part is that we as marketers often have to discover the problem – the hidden wants and needs of our audiences.

“The purpose of marketing should be to find needs – not to find wants. People do not know what they want. They barely know what they need, but they definitely do not know what they want. They’re conditioned by the limited imagination of what is possible,” he said.

Don’t be surprised if you see this quote embroidered on pillows around the Emspace office.

As writers and designers, we’re ultimately thinkers. We are charged with imagining a better place, a better way of doing things, a better future for our clients and their customers. It’s our job to think big, and to continually solve problems, disrupt the ordinary and create elegance.