3 classic creations by Massimo Vignelli, 1931-2014

The iconic designer has sadly passed away. We pay tribute with a look back at the great man's work.

Iconic designer Massimo Vignelli has died at the age of 83 after suffering a long illness.

Born in Milan in 1931, he was a self-confessed 'architecture groupie' while growing up. After visiting the USA on a fellowship between 1957 and 1960, he returned in 1966 to start the New York branch of a new company, Unimark, which went on to become one of the largest design agencies in the world.

He left in 1971 and soon after formed Vignelli Associates with his wife, Lella, where he worked in fields including interior design, environmental design, package design, graphic design, furniture design, and product design. He won multiple awards for his work, including the AIGA Gold Medal and the National Lifetime Achievement Award from the Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design.

In 2008 the couple agreed to donate the entire archive of their design work to the Rochester Institute of Technology, near Rochester, New York. Here we celebrate his life by paying tribute to the three creations he was best known for...

01. 1972 New York subway map

During the 1970s, the New York subway map wasn't just an efficient way to explain how to get places - it was an iconic piece of abstract graphic design revered throughout the industry. Created by Vignelli in 1972, it was criticised by some for its geographical inaccuracy. But it was exactly the fact that it unravelled the spaghetti-like intertwining of the real-life train lines and transformed them into an elegant, easy-to-read visual system that was such a triumph for the graphic designer and a boost to the city's visitors and commuters.

02. 1967 American Airlines logo

For almost half a century, this distinctive logo design was recognisible throughout the world. Designed by Vignelli in 1967, the simple font, red, white and blue colouring, and strong eagle image portrayed everything that American Airlines wants to be seen as: a loyal, hard-working American airline. The logo was inevitably redesigned in 2013 (to Vignelli's public opprobrium) but the 46 years it remained in place is testamony to the timeless quality of the designer's work.

03. The Vignelli Canon

Vignell's landmark book is available to download as a free PDF

Vignelli didn't just like to create good design: he was also passionate about sharing its principles, rules and criteria so others could do the same. His landmark book The Vignelli Canon uses numerous examples to convey applications in practice from product design via signaletics and graphic design to corporate design. And best of all, in 2009 he made it available for free in PDF form. It remains available to download today here. A must-read for every graphic designer.

Don't miss the next issue of Computer Arts, on sale 26 June, which will reflect on the passing of Massimo Vignelli and the importance of legacy in design.


Tom May is a freelance writer and editor specialising in design and technology. He was previously associate editor at Creative Bloq and deputy editor at net magazine, the world’s best-selling magazine for web designers. Over two decades in journalism he’s worked for a wide range of mainstream titles including The Sun, Radio Times, NME, Heat, Company and Bella. Follow him on Twitter @tom_may.