Intent is everything: the Vignelli Canon

The first thing I noticed in the Vignelli Canon is how uniquely the book itself is designed. It’s not just a book about design, but the book itself is a design and it has been designed. The pages aren’t just leaves of paper that exist for words and pictures to be slapped onto like the 22nd edition of a textbook that has only been in print for 8 years. Take page 40 for example – it is both informative and illustrative. It was purposefully designed this way to illustrate how useful the structure of the grid is for design.

I think that’s just straight-up clever.

Another section that stood out to me was what Vignelli had to say about sequence. I guess it’s easiest to explain my interest in this in two personal anecdotes. First, I grew up on the internet, from web 1.0 with basic HTML, marquee text, the dancing baby, wiggling divider gifs, webrings and guestbooks, and I’ve made my fair share of pages with images slapped on there with no particular flow. There was nothing to guide the eye or create a “simultaneously static experience […] and the cinematic experience of a sequence of pages,” as Vignelli writes (88). It was plain old ugly. (But I’ll say right now that finding those old websites again gives me that stinging nostalgia!!!)

Second, my mom worked for decades as editor-in-chief of a magazine that’s still pretty popular with military types in NoVA. For a while, she had to do every single design job – putting together the layout for the articles, designing the covers, cobbling the advertisement page together in a way that didn’t look cluttered. And that’s all on top of editing articles that were basically Greek to her. Vignelli writes that “if you can see the layout, it is probably a bad layout” – meaning, the structure of the page (in this case, the magazine articles) should feel and flow naturally. Not to brag on my mom, but hers kicked butt.

The short page about text alignment made me chuckle a little, especially the part about justified text. I remembered watching Karen Kavett’s Intro to Typography video and she talked about the “rivers” of white space that run through justified text. I can remember zoning out in high school staring at the rivers in my textbooks instead of reading.

What I found to be most salient in the book is waaay back on page 14. Vignelli emphasizes the importance of intent in your design. If someone doesn’t understand the end product, then the design phase was faulty. This is still something that I’m struggling with in the things that I’ve been making – either I make something and I feel like it speaks for itself (and it absolutely doesn’t) or I make something that kind of… doesn’t really say anything at all. “Whatever we do, if not understood, fails to communicate and is wasted effort,” Vignelli writes (14). If too little of my effort is going into the communicative design portion of what I make and more is going into little details, then I’ve definitely been wasting effort on those details.