Vignelli’s Vision from Above

Massimo Vignelli was one of the most beloved, respected figures in 20th century design. He brought his design ethos to any field he pleased, including interior design, houseware, and corporate logos. No matter the subject, he prized clarity and elegance above all.

In 1972, Vignelli attempted to bring his design priniciples to the New York Subway map. His design solution was controversial in 1972, but it is still unquestionably forward-thinking design in 2015.

Designing the New York Subway map is a formidable task. For many New Yorkers, the Subway is an integral part of city life. And in such a complex city, it is imperative to simplify the journey from point A to B.

Vignelli’s Subway map was preceded and followed by consistently literalist interpretations.

The 1958 Map


The 1979 Map


The 2008 Map


Vignelli criticized each of these maps for their lack of simplicity and straightforwardness. He took issue with fragmentation of lines in the 1958 map, the arguably superfluous realism of the 1979 map, and the use of information balloons in the 2008 map. His critique raises the enduring question of communicative design: when is it “enough”?

Vignelli transformed the Subway map, providing an unorthodox and innovative design solution. His map truly exemplified one of his own quotes: “The correct shape is the shape of the object’s meaning.”

Vignelli’s 1972 Map


Vignelli’s striking map employs an eye-catching aesthetic, but it is most notable for defying conventional paradigms about space and functionality.

In repsonse to the 1979 map, Vignelli said, “And look at here [pointing to curved path of train line at lower Manhattan]. Who cares if the subway has to make a [turn] like that? I’m going, we’re all going, from Point A to Point B. How we get there is the conductor’s problem, not mine.” Vignelli found it unnecessary and ultimately distracting to focus so much on the environment around the Subway. He took the liberty of distilled his map’s information to the destination.

Vignelli’s philosophy was fairly polarizing. On one hand, his map received derision from much of the general public; on the other hand, it has been praised ever since by designers. His map design was even exhibited by Museum of Modern Art in 2004.

Studying Vignelli’s map is a valuable exercise for any student of communication design. Vignelli’s insight and indirectly challenged thousands of designers to reconsider what is necessary. His communication was simultaneously direct, minimalist, and a striking, beautiful piece of art. Not bad for a Subway map.

By the way, in 2012, by request of the MTA, Vignelli’s design resumed directing the public in the form of the Weekender, a digital application.




Fast Company Design


Flat Design as an Optimization Solution

This post examines the solution of “Flat” design style, which has largely replaced “Realism” in the design world since 2012-2013.

If you have recently used a device with an User Interface (a qualification that has come to include most phones, many TVs, and even a sizable number of cars), then you have probably encountered Flat Design. In fact, if you are reading this WordPress post, then you are currently engaging with Flat Design.

But what is Flat Design exactly?

Flat Design gained prominence with the release of Microsoft’s Windows Phone and Windows 8 operating systems in the early 2010s. As of 2015, it can be seen in the design approach of Google, previously design “realistic” Apple, and most sites that you come across. In fact, this WordPress interface is a fine example of Flat Design.

What lead to the change? The answer seems to be that many designers find Flat Design superior for optimization, particularly because of the rise of mobile.

Some adherents to Flat Design criticized realism as overly skeuomorphic. Skeuomorphs are graphics that imitate real-world imagery and design. The skeuomorphic calculator apps of the past used shadow and lighting effects on their buttons to imitate the roundness of their real-world counterparts. Apple’s previously skeuomorphic Notes app had a background that imitated notebook paper. For many users, the familarity of realistic skeuomorphs is refreshing.

However, as stated earlier, Flat Design has taken the lead in addressing optimization concerns.

Rendering Flat Design is generally lightweight. Although many users are fans of Realism and its detailed skeuomorphs, system resources are not. Realistic imagery can be can be quite taxing to handle. On the increasingly mobile web, system resources must be optimized as well as possible. Serving content quickly is key to survival.

Responsive Design, meaning design that can be reformatted for different devices, has become critical on the web in recent years. Because the mobile space is an increasingly dominant force, meaning that a lack of mobile optimization can deter a great deal of traffic online.

Quite simply, Flat Design is just that: simple. Flat Design is minimalist, meaning its visual communication gets right to the point. It is elegant and lightweight whether it incorporates skeuomorphic or non-skeuomorphic design solutions.

If you would like to learn more about Flat and Realistic design or simply enjoy yourself, check out this well-designed, hilarious game about the topic.


Website Design Hawaii: “The Web Design Battle: Flat vs. Realistic”

UX Mag – “A Look at Flat Design and Why It’s Significant”