Designer Massimo Vignelli, known for his iconic New York City subway map and American Airlines logo, among many other designs, died today at the age of 83. It was reported earlier this month that he was very ill and would remain at home during his final weeks.
Vignelli co-founded the design firm Unimark International in 1964, which specialized in corporate identities until its closure the following decade, according to AIGA. In that time, it worked with Ford, JCPenney, and IBM — among other international companies — to develop brand identities for them, several of which remained for decades afterward. The most recognizable of those is certainly American Airlines' "AA" logo, which is credited to Vignelli himself. It was created in 1967 and used up until the airline unveiled a much-criticized redesign last year. Vignelli was among the critics.
"There was no need to change. It’s been around for 45 years," he told Bloomberg BusinessWeek at the time. "Every other airline has changed its logo many times, and every time was worse than the previous one. Fifty years ago there were very few logos in general. Somebody started to do logos and people started thinking that logos were important … It’s ridiculous. A word is so much better." Though American Airlines' old logo featured an eagle, Vignelli made it clear that he did not design it and was not happy with its presence.
Several years after working with American Airlines, Vignelli came to design one of the best-know — and most controversial — maps ever used by the New York City subway. Unveiled in 1972, the map turned New York City into a series of rigid brown and beige slabs with colorful subway lines darting across it. The map was hardly a map though, at least not one like riders expected: its lines and shapes weren't accurate recreations of the city or the subway routes. Instead, they were representations meant to make the routes and their stops easier to understand.
Along with his wife Lella, Vignelli went on to found Vignelli Designs and Vignelli Associates. While they continued to work on corporate identities, the companies covered everything from interior design to packaging and furniture. Among its most recognizable works is Bloomingdale's logo as well as its "brown bag," according to The New York Times. Vignelli has continued designing as part of those companies in the decades since, and in 2009 released a free ebook looking back at his and the company's work.
"Design is a profession that takes care of everything around us," Vignelli told Design Matters host Debbie Millman back in 2007. "Politicians take care of the nation and fix things — at least they are supposed to. Architects take care of buildings. Designers take care of everything around us. Everything that is around us, this table, this chair, this lamp, this pen has been designed. All of these things, everything has been designed by somebody."
"I think that it is my responsibility to make the work better than it is."
Above: Massimo Vignelli in November 2011. Photo by Pier Marco Tacca / Getty Images.
Below: Vignelli, Massimo (b. 1931) New York Subway Map. 1970.
Lithograph, .1: 59 x 46 3/4" (149.9 x 118.7 cm) .2: 58 7/8 x 45 3/4" (149.5 x 116.2 cm). Gift of the designer.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, USA. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY.
- Unveiled in 1972, Vignelli's subway map distorted New York's boroughs in order to make some sense of them.
- Vignelli created a manual for how New York's transit authority should display everything from arrows to route names. The entire manual is available online at thestandardsmanual.com.
- Bloomingdale's "big brown bag," created by Vignelli, hasn't just inspired smaller bags, but accessories based on their iconic design too, from totes to iPhone cases.
- Vignelli created the "AA" logo and wordmark used by American Airlines until last year. (Chris Parypa Photography / Shutterstock)
- A poster for Knoll International, created in 1966. Credit: AIGA.
- Even recently, Vignelli's subway map still had a presence in New York — limited as it may be. (Credit: Michael Cory / Flickr)