Vignelli's Recipe to Good Design

Creativity needs the support of knowledge to be able to perform at its best.
— Vignelli, M. (2010)

What does it mean to do good design?

What principles are important?


While we develop our own language, we can use some guide from the masters. And there is no one like Massimo Vignelli

I read through The Vignelli Canon and I love the authority and knowledge with which he speaks. You can see his respect for design in every detail. It's a little compilation of the guidelines they have set for themselves (together with Lella, his wife and professional partner), through decades of experience.

A must read. It's concise, clear, and its rules can be easily applied to many fields.

Of course there's no specific recipe, but according to Massimo's vision, let's comment on the three fundamental aspects EVERY good design should address:



the search of meaning of whatever we design. 

That may start with research on the history of the subject, to better understand the nature of the project and to find the most appropriate direction for the development of a new design. Depending on the subject the search can take many directions. It could be a search for more information about the company, the product, the market position, the competition, its destination, the final user, or indeed, about the real meaning of the subject and its semantic roots.

Semantics are what provide a base for design and define the parameters in which we will operate.

As in language, they concern the relationships of the "signifiers" and what they stand for. 

"Design without semantics is shallow and meaningless but, unfortunately it is also ubiquitous, and that is why it is so important that young designers train themselves to start the design process in the correct way- the only way that can most enrich their design.

Semantics, in design, means to understand the subject in all its aspects; to relate the subject to the sender and the receiver in such way that it makes sense to both. [...] It means to design something that has a reason for being, something in which every detail carries the meaning or has a precise purpose aimed at a precise target." (p.10)



is the discipline that controls the proper use of grammar in construction of phrases and the articulation of a language, Design. (p.12)

The syntax of design is provided by many components in the nature of the project.

In graphic design, for instance, they are the layout, the grid, the typefaces, the text and headlines, the illustrations, etc. The consistency of a design is provided by the appropriate relationship of the various syntactical elements of the project: how type relates to grids and images from page to page throughout the whole project.

In architecture we could relate it with the structure, the basic modules of columns and beams that give harmony and consistency throughout the building, while allowing each module to become something new and exciting. The syntax of design gives order but also gives space for creativity.



refers to the ability of design to be understood, and have clarity of intent in the eyes of the user.

"We design things which we think are semantically correct and syntactically consistent but if, at the point of fruition, no one understands the result, or the meaning of all that effort, the entire work is useless.

We love complexities but hate complications!" (p. 14)

So don't try to be extra clever. If you have to think too hard probably a lot of people won't understand your intention.

It's better to do design that you can tell has been thought carefully, and when experiencing it as a user it make sense. That in itself is beauty as well, and can relate to what Massimo calls "intellectual elegance."

vignelli-3P .png


In summary, you start from the meaning of the project and its related elements, compose the design with structure and harmony throughout the work, and finally this overall clarity of intent has to be visible as clarity of result.

This also relates with the core idea of a recent lesson in Methodology of Design class: to start from the data. It's really hard for designers to not design at the first moment. After all, creating is what excites us most. It's the rush of new ideas and the feeling of materializing things that fuels us.

But we have to learn to stop for a moment and analyze. Research. Get all the pieces of information together, and only then we can make decisions that are not abitrary but beautiful.


(1) Vignelli, M. (2015) The Vignelli Canon. Lars Müller Publishers. Retrieved January 15, 2018 from:

This is a free ebook, and since the link appears to be broken I uploaded it so you can read The Vignelli Canon.