Increasingly dated

Massimo Vignelli

I've been making my way through the phenomenal Helvetica / Objectified / Urbanized: The Complete Interviews; a treasure trove of design insight. I bought the iBooks version, and have been highlighting it like a crazy person.

Here are a few snippets from Gary Hustwit’s interview with Massimo Vignelli, originally done for the Helvetica documentary on March 29, 2006 in New York.

MV — We always had the tendency to use very few typefaces. It’s not that we don't believe in type; we believe that there are not that many good typefaces, you know. If I want to be really generous, there’s a dozen. Basically, I use no more than three, I guess. Yeah, in my life, most of the time, I’m very happy with Helvetica and Garamond and Bodoni, basically. Then, of course, I use Century Expanded, and I can use Univers; I can use Futura, Gill—it depends on the job.

GH — I know you've done hundreds, or thousands, of different commissions. Was there ever a time where you proposed Helvetica to a client and they didn't want it—they had a negative reaction to it?

MV — No, because we cook it very well! If you know how to cook, you can eat eggs for life, so to speak, or chicken for life, or pasta for life. It’s like pasta. You can cook spaghetti so many different ways, you can hardly ever be tired of it. And the same is true of Helvetica. It’s spaghetti. It’s the slow food of typography.

MV — The approach was consistent throughout, because consistency is extremely important in design. This is forgotten most of the time by people designing books, magazines, signs, packaging, whatever it is. The least number of typefaces you use, the better, and the least number of font sizes is even better. It all stems, naturally from that good Swiss approach. The Swiss, maybe because they make watches, they are so precise. It’s interesting that all these theories were developed there, but they’re really universal; they have nothing to do with a specific country. It just has a lot to do with logic, and, of course, logic is not something that is really a currency over here in the USA. It is a different kind of culture, a different kind of sensitivity. This is the country for emotions, it’s the country for novelty, the country for being different. It’s not the country for consistency, logic, and that systematic approach.

MV — There were people who said you cannot read sans serif, you can only read it if it has the serifs, the feet. And there were people like the modernists saying, “It's not true. You can read modern typefaces. They're easier on the eye, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah.” And this went on for many, many years. I mean, 40 years ago, 50 years ago, they were still fighting about these things. I remember when I was still fighting about these things.

MV — Most people think they have to design a new typeface. It's not new typefaces we need—actually we don't need them at all; we have plenty. But what we need, still, is refinement of some of the good ones and then to develop them into a family.

Here's the portion included in the original documentary.

Michael Heilemann