Michael Bierut | Essays

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mentor, Or, Why Modernist Designers Are Superior

Massimo Vignelli, Exhibition Opening Invitation, School of Visual Arts, New York, 1991

Here are some things I was not allowed to do as I began my first job:

Use any typeface other than Helvetica, Century, Times, Futura, Garamond No. 3, or Bodoni.

Use more than two typefaces on any project.

Use more than three sizes of typefaces on any project.

Begin any layout without a modular grid in place, including a letterhead or a business card.

Make visual references to any examples of historic graphic design predating Josef Muller-Brockmann or Armin Hoffman. 

Incorporate any graphic devices that could not be defended on the basis of pure function.

When I arrived as the most junior of junior designers at Vignelli Associates in 1980, my portfolio couldn't have been more eclectic. Filled with excitable homages to everyone from Wolfgang Weingart to Pushpin Studios, my design school work begged for a diagnosis of Multiple Designer Personality Disorder. You might have expected me to rebel against the strictures to which I was subjected by my first employer. Instead, I willingly submitted to them. For ten years. And, as a result, I am a better designer today. 

You may react to this with horror. That was certainly the reaction when the now-ubiquitous Amy Chua burst on the world several weeks ago with her Wall Street Journal essay "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," an excerpt from her memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. The essay, which has been called the "Andromeda Strain of viral memes," made a no-holds-barred case for subjecting the young to draconian rules. No TV, no sleepovers, no video games. Instead, 10-hour violin lessons. Chua also advocates zero tolerance for A-minuses on tests and even (heads up, graphic designers!) the rejection of less-than-adequate handmade birthday cards. In an age of permissive parenting, the Tiger Mother struck a nerve: as of this writing, the original essay has received 7,600 comments and counting. 

All of this got me thinking about my own strict upbringing as a designer. I was completely non-ideological when I graduated from college. I didn't regard Helvetica-on-a-grid as the apotheosis of refined reductivism as did the Swiss modernists or the founders of Unimark. But nor did I see it as the embodiment of Nixon-era corporate oppression as did designers like Paula Scher. To me, it was just another style. 

But it was a style I liked, and I submerged myself happily in its rigors when I took my seat at my first job. The rules weren't written down anywhere or even explicitly communicated. They were more like unspoken taboos. Using Cooper Black, like human cannibalism or having sex with your sister, simply wasn't done. For many young designers in the studio, the rules were too much. They resisted (futilely), grew restless (eventually), and left. By staying, I learned to go beyond the easy-to-imitate style of Helvetica-on-a-grid. I learned the virtues of modernism. 

I learned attention to detail. Working with a limited palette of elements leaves a designer nowhere to hide. With so little on the page, what was there had to be perfect. I learned the importance of content. Seeing Massimo design a picture book was a revelation. No tricky layouts, no extraneous elements. Instead, a crisply edited collection of images, perfectly sized, carefully sequenced, and dramatically paced. Nothing there in the final product but the pictures and the story they told.

I learned humility. I was a clever designer who loved to call attention to himself. The monastic life to which I had committed left no room for this. It became my goal, instead, to get out of the way and let the words on the page do the work. Ultimately, I learned about what endures in design. Not impulsiveness and self-indulgence, but clarity and simplicity. 

There was another side to modernism, though: its legacy as the great leveler. Massimo once told me that one of the great aspects of modernist graphic design was that it was replicable. You could teach its principles to anyone, even a non-designer, and if they followed the rules they'd be able to come up with a solid, if not brilliant, solution. To me, this was both idealistic — design for all — and vaguely depressing, a prescription for a visual world without valleys but without peaks as well. Sometimes impulsiveness and self-indulgence were no more than that, but every once in a while they were something you might call genius. I worried about genius.

So I permitted myself the occasional indulgence after I had been at Vignelli for a while. Once I did a freebie poster using Franklin Gothic for the AIGA. "Why did you use that typeface?" asked Massimo, sincerely baffled. I think he would have been satisfied if I said that I had lost a bet, or that I was drunk. Instead, I just, um, felt like it. I mean, Ivan Chermayeff used Franklin Gothic all the time! Was it really that bad? Another time, designing a catalog for an exhibition of vintage photographs of the American west, I created a cover that imitated a 19th-century playbill. What pleasure it was to work with a half-dozen typefaces out of Rob Roy Kelly's fantastic book, American Wood Type. In so doing, I managed to actually break at least three rules at once (unauthorized typefaces; too many typefaces at once; and, perhaps worst of all, historical imitiation). Massimo pronounced the result "awful," a word he could (and still can) provide with a memorable inflection while seeming to gag. I still like that cover.

By the time I left Vignelli Associates in 1990, I felt I was ready to move far beyond the limiting strictures of modernism. The period of graphic self-indulgence that followed is now a bit painful for me to contemplate. After a time I came to appreciate the tough love that my favorite mentor had so painstakingly administered for a full decade. The turning point came in about 1996, when I received a call to design a book for Tibor Kalman. This was the monograph that would become Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist. I was surprised and pleased. As a designer at Vignelli Associates, I had followed the work of M&Co. with interest and admiration, noting how often they broke every design rule in the world with cheekiness and impunity. I arrived at my meeting with Tibor, brimming with notions about how my book design would embody the irreverence of the M&Co. worldview. 

Tibor listened patiently to my ideas — there were lots of them — and then paused for a long time. "Well, yes, you could do some stuff like that," he responded carefullly. "Or, we could do something like this. You could work out a good clear grid. We could edit all the images really carefully. Then you could do a really nice clean layout, perfect pace, perfect sequence. You know," he added with a smile, "sort of like a Vignelli book. And then we could fuck it up a little."

I then realized that, whether you credit (or blame) your mother or your mentor, you can never fully escape your influences. The rules you grow up with are what make you, as a person and as a designer. The trick is to remember, every once in a while, to fuck them up a little.

This essay was originally published in January, 2011. 

Posted in: Business, Education , Graphic Design, Theory + Criticism, Typography

Comments [61]

Well said. Thanks for sharing your experience, and of course the reference to the Tiger Mother couldn't be more appropriate. I'm going to pass this along to my students.
Al Wasco

This is so awesome. Thank you, Mr Bierut!
Callie Neylan

Fantastic insight. I think I've already inferred my answer, but I'm curious about your internal resolution on the notion of design genius. Is "fucking up the rules a little" enough to satisfy those long-ago concerns?

I've only been a professional designer for two years, but that time has been spent designing for the web, where I've already seen countless trends flare into existence and then burn out with all the permanence of a firework. That's brought me to the point where I no longer feel pressured to achieve "design genius," and am happier striving for those principles Massimo taught you.
PJ McCormick

Thanks Michael.

This was a great read.
Martin Hooper

Yes! Don't yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded movie theater, yell ‘Fire!’ during sex. In case of emergency, please break “the rules.”
Clint Walkingstick

I am so jealous that you got to work with Massimo. I got to see him talk in Atlanta about a year ago, and boy was I taken in. But I understand what you are getting at. I find that when I do follow the rules in the beginning of each project then maybe break them a little in the end that I get much better results. Thanks for the article, was a great read!
Maria Black

Awesome post! thank's MB!

Amen Brother! I continue to be an unrepentant Modernist. I tried going without a grid and crazy, unreadable, typefaces, but deep down inside—I know who I am and have accepted it.

@Maria, if you think seeing Massimo speak was great, in the words of Bob Wages "Once you've partied with Massimo, everything pales in comparison."
Michelle French

Nice writing, and I was glad to see the memory of Tibor being brought up again. Yet I remember this story a bit differently. Tibor had told me, on different occasions, that he wanted to design a "normal" book, and THAT book of course had to be fucked up a bit. Just like in everything else he did - and like Seinfeld at about the same time - Tibor always had an ability to find some humor in normality.
I think he called on you, Michael, because he knew that you were the best to design a normal, quintessential-looking book- whether in spite of or because of Vignelli's Modernist training. It is this ability to look into the essence of things, which is not replicable and which goes beyond rules and typefaces.
constantin boym


When I worked at Bruce Mau Design, Bruce wasn't doctrinaire exactly, but for years our presentation documents, and much of our public output, defaulted to News Gothic. Other than that, we pretty much used Franklin Gothic, Perpetua (our Bodoni as it were), Interstate, and occasionally Trade Gothic. As the reality of the (pre-html5) internet became apparent, we surrendered to Arial and Verdana. Eventually Helvetica and Helvetica Neue creeped in, always a surprise as Bruce was closer to Paula Scher on the matter of the former. But we obviously fucked things up a little from time to time.
Jim Shedden


Less is always more.

Peter Darnell
Visible Works Design
Peter Darnell

Enjoyed reading this Michael. Poignant story and one that has me suddenly hungry to read 79 Essays.

Wonderfully written. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it from beginning to end.

I am Asian and having to deal with strict parents has been a difficulty I'm still having trouble with. But I know that the upbringing I had has helped me to be a better designer and a student. All that's left to do is "fuck it up a bit".

Looking forward to my future. Thanks again for a well-written article!

I definitely resonate with this. Thanks Michael,
Mathias Burton

Lovely article, thank you!
Mayank Bhatnagar

Haven't heard the words "unauthorized typefaces" in a long while. Nice to read an article about learning the rules before breaking them.
Kelly Kofron

Well said, Michael. I still think of something Colin taught me about design and designers almost every day!
Sarah Haun

In design 101 in college I did a project that compared the layouts of the Face and the New Yorker... It seemed I had committed some kind of faux pas in essentially saying the New Yorker was "boring." I quickly developed a good deal of anxiety about Josef Muller-Brockmann.

In an early job, in addition to my excessive self-consciousness about grids, I learned the hard way to be ever mindful of the provenance of the type I chose. The design I'd come up with for the Cultural Institution's gala was deemed to be "like the opening for a shoe salon."

Fast forward to the recent book I did with a colleague about 19th century 'artistic printing' and all its unrestrained and previously unheralded wackiness. The artistic printers were lambasted (sometimes rightly so) for their excesses and experiments. The critiques from the time seemed laughably familiar and comforting. I feel in some small way the 19th century set me free! (although I did obsess over the grid when designing the book)
angela voulangas

Thanks Michael.

It's been a while since I've read an MB article here. Good to have you back.
David Walker

The truth about great design in a nutshell. Thank you.
Sandra Tasca

The concept of the "Dragon Mother" is a flash in the pan pseudo-theory used to sell books by this Ivy League schlockster and an outdated concept that was prevalent in the 1980s on Asian kids being smarter etc etc and getting rehashed for a new generation who knows no better (or for those with young kids, who love to forward this article to my mailbox's dismay.) I say: Delete delete delete.

This article on the other hand speaks of something else- Discipline and the need to have it in an age where "Visual Pollution" as Mr Vignelli says so nicely is ever on the rise.

Regarding your "19th-century playbill catalog" … don't forget to never ignore the poo-poo! Woo!!


Joe Moran

This is fantastic!!
I, too, grew up with the same rules at Page, Arbitrio & Resen, though the permissible typefaces were a slightly different set. No colors were picked without hearing Josef Albers invoked. Like you, something about all that Modernist aesthetics sunk in and like you, I sought to rebel only I ran away from design towards art…and then to realize that this stuff is so ingrained in me. I've stopped running. And just now, the fun is about to start.
Julietta Cheung

Right on!
Chris McCampbell

Once again, I’m charmed by an intelligent, engaging, and generous essay by Michael Bierut. By me, he’s incapable of anything less. But yet again, I come away scratching my head because when I stop and consider its ideas, the argument comes apart like a sopping Master’s Series poster. To be serious as guidance on how to design, it seems that one’s principles need to be actionable and replicable. Instead, what are given us are wildly subjective opinions that are wholly inconsistent with each other.

As I read it, the essential point of this article is: the path to being a better designer is to arbitrarily diverge from the ideology of one of the field’s most doctrinaire practitioners—essentially denying everything he stands for. I’m no Vignelli scholar but his philosophy strikes me as one where you have to be “all in” or nothing. How is it possible to praise discipline while indiscriminately abandoning it?

I also have serious questions about this tenet of “fuck them up a little.” Might this up-fuckitude be defined just a bit? Are we talking PMS 811, symmetrical layout, using upside down “5”s in place of “S”s? And quantification: how much up-fucking is proper? Plus, how do we know when it’s suitable to do—as its instance is described (need I add the modifier “vaguely” here?) as “every once in a while.” And how do we square this random with-screwing with the previous directive against “impulsiveness”? (Is this a clarion call for strategic, considered, up-fuckization?) Or is impulsiveness bad only in combination with “self-indulgence”?(Which evidently is acceptable if one chooses to simply use Franklin Gothic while on an anti-Modern bender.) Or is impulsiveness contraindicated only if it results in a design formality that offends Michael Bierut’s sensibility?

I’m also trying to reconcile the widely praised invocation to “clarity and simplicity” with, say, Marian Bantjes’ work—also widely praised. Is this actually a secret critique of “I Wonder”? As the author has employed Marian on multiple occasions, it’s obviously not a total rejection. Is a dose of Bantjes an example of up-fucking? (Or are we just talking about her vocabulary?)

So, I’m confused if I’m supposed to be reading this article as pure amusement or if it’s meant to provide serious design thought. I’m likely color-blind in this area as it often seems—as in the comments section here—that designers are talking a secret language I don’t follow. They all seem to get it—what’s wrong with me? (Line forms to the right, hope you packed a lunch.)

As a delightful collection of anecdotes, this article is another winner. However, its ultimate application seems to be only to the career of one man. We should all be so lucky. However, we’re not. And it would be great if, under those more common circumstances, design writing had something to offer.

Just kidding, I loved it!
Kenneth FitzGerald

Michael, thank you for this beautifully written story. Its one of the best rewards I have ever received in my life, and I am really proud of having been the "mentor" of such a fine designer !

I am also delighted to see the banner of Modernism, blowing in the wind, in all his glory.....
Massimo Vignelli

When I state these "do nots" to my students, they look at me like I am nuts. Guess what they are all going to read and respond to this week.

Thanks Michael! I would have loved to have Massimo as my mentor. I am sure he would have made me cry every day—but would have been so worth it!

The word is Ambiguity.
“You know,” he added with a smile, “sort of like a Vignelli book. And then we could fuck it up a little.” — Tibor Kalman

Vignelli refers to this as this device as ambiguity. I just finished designing a little 32 page booklet for the school. The design started out being based on the Vignelli Canon—A5 booklet, grid design with Bodoni and Helvetica fonts. The template was a perfect match for an interdisciplinary, place-based program. One of the captions read “the study of New York City—through the lens of the Bronx.” I even got to design a modernist map of New York City with a sampling of 15 field trips students would take with their teachers. But the fun part was deconstructing the design to enhance the text, or as Tibor would say — “fuck it up a little.” Perhaps Vignelli would say after reading your essay “Syntactics Yes, but with Ambiguity.” Great work Michael!
Carl W. Smith

Typo should read:
"Vignelli refers to this device as ambiguity."
Carl W. Smith

Constantin: I think Tibor actually wanted me to not worry about being "M&Co.-ish" and simply work out the problems, not inconsiderable, of designing this particular book. "Do it like Massimo" was his way of putting it in terms I could understand.

Kenneth: I concede that this story's "ultimate application seems to be only to the career of one man," me. What is easy to miss about the (seemingly "all in") Vignelli philosophy is his interest — an Italian characteristic, I've always thought — in ambiguity. Carl Smith is correct that on that point Massimo and Tibor would have agreed. It may be too pat an answer for you, but in my mind at least it helps explain most of the questions you raise in your third paragraph.

Also, since the whole piece started as a parody of the original Tiger Mother article in the WSJ, there is an undercurrent of irony that might be missed by people seeking "guidance on how to design." For what it's worth, Amy Chua claims that her irony was missed as well.
Michael Bierut

While I might not have been mentored by Massimo, his influence shaped my own career. First in a single interview in Step-by-step graphics back in the 80s that I read and reread and reread in a small country town in Australia (about as far from NYC as it gets.) Then in my final year of college he and Lela did a "Design is One" tour in this country which resonated with that early dog-eared magazine. Next day I got to uni early to swipe a poster. I still have it.
Troy Matheson

Always a pleasure to read your well-constructed prose, Michael! It is all-too-rare for excellent designers to possess equally excellent writing skills.

I really enjoyed reading this. Going way back to my college education (Philadelphia College or Art, early '80s) I remember my instructors talking about how the grid provides both structure and freedom. Only with structure is freedom possible. I'm not sure I entirely got it then, but I do now. Coincidentally, I also remember Massimo Vignelli coming to AIGA Philadelphia to deliver a lecture: "Discipline, Appropriateness, Ambiguity"--the same themes we were learning in class. Vignelli was incredibly inspiring

I don't agree with Kenneth's idea that this essay does not apply to others. While I did not have the rare privilege of working with Vignelli, I did experience learning many of the same ideas. The essay reminds me of that. It's always worthwhile to be reminded of how we learned, who we learned if from, and what our guiding principles are.

I think the essay also applies to others in the broadest sense in its expression of the idea that learning from a mentor is a valuable experience--an irreplaceable way to become skilled at a discipline That's the take-away actionable and repeatable principle.

Okay, yeah, we cannot all be mentored by Vignelli, but some of us can at least be mentored by FitzGerald. Having said that, I'll add that I think maybe Kenneth was delivering a "hearty kicking," with his tongue firmly planted in cheek.
Rob Henning

I really enjoyed this post, Michael. And as told here, your story reminds me of Hermann Hesse's "Siddhartha" -- 10 years of design asceticism, followed by a few years of typographic debauchery, and then, finally, the arrival of wisdom or enlightenment. Along the way, some great lessons learned, and as Kenneth FitzGerald says above, you generously pass them on by writing about them here.

Thanks again!
Ricardo Cordoba

Michael Beirut writes the most fascinating design anecdotes and they always ring true. But I'd like to point out something that hit a false note with me (although I'm not sure if I'm reading Michael correctly, what with all the parody and irony and all). Anyway, the alternative to modernism is not undisciplined, crazy, self-indulgent work, as the essay and some of the commenters imply. The alternative to modernism is a different set of rules.

Here are some of those rules;

1. Use any typeface that is appropriate for the project.

2. Use as many typefaces as is appropriate to the project.

3. Use as many sizes of typefaces as is appropriate to the job.

4. Begin any layout without a modular grid in place, including a letterhead or a business card, but use a grid if it helps.

5. Make visual reference to any examples of historic graphic design, including modernism, that are appropriate to the project.

6. Incorporate any graphic devices that are appropriate to the function of the project.

Yes, these rules are a bit more open ended and perhaps more difficult to master (and as a purveyor of type they serve me well on more than one level). But, as Amy Chua wrote, "nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work."
Rudy VanderLans

Why the dogmatic and restrictive emphasis on being "appropriate," Mr. VanderLans?
Rob Henning

Improvisation is work
Modernist or not, I think both Michael and Rudy both understand that design is for the public and to be a great designer you must improvise to create meaning for your audience.
Carl W. Smith

Dear Michael, Massimo, Kenneth and Rudy,

Michael's statement and Massimo's response are marvelous and stand with no further comment necessary.

The significant part of what Michael says (for me) is the recognition that to know something well (to really know some - thing - any - thing... well) is so difficult that it requires years of practice and assimilation. To study a clear philosophy such as Massimo's teaches the ancient tenets of grace, truth and beauty, as well as the effectiveness of problem-solving. In addition, an apprenticeship with a master teaches design practice as away of life - in and out of client relationships and in and out of personal issues. I also learned this way the first time (though I had many masters rather than one).

Another way of learning is to study academically - as Kenneth did (in art and design). Then to teach, write and practice (as he does now), learning life and client relations as we go. Equally effective and unique - and infinitely more democratic (there are very few masters around). Kenneth chose post-modern masters and colleagues to emulate. Paul Rand and Massimo Vignelli may not have been consciously among them, however without them the new would not have emerged. So as I’ve said many times, ones position along this line of old to new comes from ones experience.

"The rules of postmodernism" for some have been expressed as “the rejection of modernism”. Every era must end. And I think it’s therefore fair to say only now (after the end of postmodernism) could Rudy Vanderlans make a list of "postmodern rules". In the full-thrust of the postmodern movement (in Graphic Design - which was much later than art and music) it would not have been desirable or possible to have any such list of “rules”. The form was (it’s practitioners believed) being invented in the moment.

My contention is that Modernism and Postmodernism both live as examples of successful design practice from which anyone can still learn. The new practice of Relationalism (some prefer Post-postmodernism) deals with issues in design and society that have emerged since postmodernism ended in the late 1990's (cf Frederic Jameson and Nicolas Bourriaud). The battle between the "multiple modernisms" is over now. It's time to consolidate our energies in allowing the new to emerge effectively, while acknowledging and expressing our collective gratitude for the old.
Robert Appleton

Oh, barf! Even the Tiger Mom has expressed some ambiguity about the outcomes of her parenting philosophy, but to use the current craze over her as the excuse for yet another reification of the moldy-oldie of graphic design "Modernism" is just pathetic. Beirut was lucky to have experienced the Kalman corrective to Vignelli's moribund fake discipline. Yes, Modernism in graphic design had lots of great ideas in its early years, but by the time it had dwindled down to the stylistic (and solipsiistic) musings of the late 70s and 80s it was mostly wallpaper, applied without thought to what it was papering over (thus the all-purpose style paraded as "discipline"). That's precisely why the "fuck-up" up post-modernism had to happen: why we needed Template Gothic and Dead History, if only for a little while (though MoMA has acquired them, whaddya know!). Read David Brooks' response in the New York Times to the Tiger Mom narrative: he points out that the American parenting style, with its' acceptance of communication, ambiguity, and socializing is just as demanding and building of intelligence as is rote training and unthinking submission to discipline (and he's an American conservative). It's exactly the same as graphic design: romanticize the intolerant and didactic daddies all you want, it's the generation that finally walked away from what had devolved into a rigid and phony stance that let the "discipline" grow. And that includes Beirut, even if he's too traumatized by his own experience with tough love to be able to recognize it, or to be able admit more clearly, and without the unnecessary flattery to Vignelli, that he learned to think for himself, and move on.

pboy, your comment is a fitting summary of ... all of it.
Michal Migurski

The rhetoric continues... I'd just like to point out (again - maybe I wasn't clear) that Postmodernism in art, music, film and architecture began sometime in the late 1950's. In Graphic Design it was "discovered" about 20 years later. So after another 20 years, when art and music have changed once again, graphic design still seems caught in the equivalent of high versus low. And in the face of today's real life issues, that seems trivial - to say the least.
Robert Appleton

Article and comments are a perfect example of everything I love about this site.
Mark Cotter

I really enjoyed reading this article. my teacher and mentor Milton Glaser said to us, learn a handful of typefaces and master them. He always taught it was a mistake to have young students design typefaces. We have so many typefaces available now, mostly bad ones. I am now grateful for having a limited type palate, as a young designer.
Thanks again for your article!
Hollis A King

I agree: discipline is an essential element in any profession. I would add one thing though: sometimes breaking with discipline is what's needed to gain an important new insight. So one must be disciplined about when one ought and ought not be undisciplined.
Fil Salustri

Apologies for being flip earlier. Recently tried my hand at a 19th century playbill-looking piece which was "poo-pooed."

Sure, more can be more… HALLELUJAH! — but more often, less is more.

Clients ultimately feed us and our families. How many clients have asked you to "fuck things up a little?"

In most instances, thoughtful design and attention to detail actually mean more to clients than multiple visual elements or "busy" layouts — no matter how well executed. And they've never heard of our design awards, magazines, blogs or the AIGA — sorry folks.

For what its worth… thanks Mr. Bierut. (And thank you Mr. Vignelli for your influence/s.)

Joe Moran

Michael's essay and all the contributions is an excellent, Friday afternoon (London, England), 'I've done enough for the week' read.

But I was particularly struck by Rudy VanderLans 'oppositional' stance. In relation to his first three points, Massimo did;

1. Use any typeface that is appropriate for the project.
– they were, Helvetica, Century, Times, Futura, Garamond No. 3, or Bodoni.

2. Use as many typefaces as is appropriate to the project.
– he did, consistently, two!

3. Use as many sizes of typefaces as is appropriate to the job.
– again, he did, three!

As 'snide' as the above might sound, I am hinting at what I think is an often missed point about Vignelli's 'rules' – I think its more about understanding how much can be done (just about anything worth doing) with so little (or few) that excities me about his design, but also design in general.

Lastly, R VdrL's throw away point that modernism is easy to master is just plain wrong! Indeed I would counter that his 'rules' are no rules at all, and who can't 'master' that?
Alex Cameron

What a great conversation and reminds me of a recent conversation I had with the great leadership visionary Mel Toomey. Constraints are necessary for creativity. There are two types of constraints, circumstantial which you can either overcome or acquiesce to, then there are self generated constraints which can be re-calibrated based on the needs of the work at hand.

In regards to a strict upbringing, constraints put on a child are circumstantial. Helpful to a child growing up, if and only if, there is room for that child to generate their own constraints. Danger here is, once the circumstances change, are you able to generate your own constraints to be creative?

I was raised, and professionally groomed with both strict circumstantial limitations, and the ability to generate my own. This balance gives you the flexibility to create, then break the rules as you see fit.
Brent Robertson

I wish I had some popcorn... Entertaining read followed by thoughtful discussion. I love this place in times like this.

Does a strict upbringing make you a better designer? It can give you better results in less time, but may limit the way you see.

The Rock Man in The Point knows what's up.

"Did you ever see...a pterodactyl?"

"Well...did you ever want to see a pterodactyl?"
David Castillo

Noise, Or, Emigre is a factory of garbage.
To understand part of the history behind this article read Massimo Vignelli vs. Ed Benguiat (Sort Of) Annotated by Julie Lasky.
Also please note Kenneth FitzGerald’s comment at the end as a special treat.

Here are a few lines from Print's September/October 1991 issue:

Julie Lasky: The way you’ve described Emigre makes it sound like what someone might have said about Dada in the ’10s and ’20s.

MV: No. Dada was just the opposite, as a matter of fact. All the Dada expressions were absolutely conceptual. They never had anything to do with the value of the artifact. Now, in this culture, it’s the other way around; we are completely involved with the value of the artifact and use that to express meaning. Therefore, we’re much closer to music. We like music and we can’t stand noise. What we see here in Emigre is noise. Noise is a sound that has no intellectual depth.
Carl W. Smith

Despite what I imply in my piece, modernism is not (or is more than) a list of rules. It's just often reduced to that by beginners like me.

My first boss actually works and lives by three principles: discipline ("the search for structure"), appropriateness ("the search for specificity") and ambiguity ("the search for fun"). My piece focused exclusively on the first, but Rudy Vanderlans and Carl Smith quite rightly raised, respectively, the second and third.
Michael Bierut

I thought this post and the discussion really exciting. There are few enough places that such an exchange of ideas can happen. So well done everyone...

But I must ask, of anyone who cares to answer, why did Robert Appleton feel the need to address his post to the famous four? Are the rest of us not worthy?

So as not to end on a downer... if any of you have not yet bought a print copy of The Vignelli Canon, go get it its a treasure!!


I don't know much but I know this: I am not famous.
Kenneth FitzGerald

Irene, Maybe those were the only four people who made comments Robert Appleton wanted to respond to--which is of course fair enough.

I've been kind of wondering why he wrote: "Michael's statement and Massimo's response are marvelous and stand with no further comment necessary"--but then proceeded to add four paragraphs of comments.

Rob Henning

Glad you enjoyed my posts - they're rare.

Regarding my comments: I love to chastise the design profession for its obvious frailties.

And on the selectiveness of my address: Among other things, I'm Scottish, and we generally prefer to get to the bottom line right away. Someone once commented that if the national Scottish peasant dish is a single potato, and the national Italian peasant food is a pile of spaghetti, then this alone may be all that's required to explain the Scottish desire for simplicity - and incidentally, why they also "Love New York".
Robert Appleton

ps: i also prefer to communicate on facebook - it's so real and (relatively) free from arrogance :)
Robert Appleton

I haven't read the Amy Chua book yet but as with most meme's the overarching themes were absorbed through other networks (watching her appearance on the Colbert Report, reading the New Yorker review...). The thing I took away from this whole discussion was that in early stages of development discipline is a great way to instill some sense of respect to practices that require commitment and passion, such as playing an instrument or learning math. However, extending this kind of relentless discipline beyond the boundaries of early developmental years harbors a risk of "creating" a robotic non-creative rule observer. Chua even alludes to this in her book, confessing to being terrified during her law school years when her professor would pose a question that required more then regurgitating a memorized answer. I confess, I question her creativity now after seeing her speak... not her intelligence, but her creativity.

The parallel between rearing a child and teaching a student/young designer seems completely valid. Inevitably one will begin to form their own ideas and rebel (maybe through using, gasp!, a handful of western typefaces on one project). The lesson to be learned is that there is value is being disciplined and practicing. "Fucking things up" seems a bit juvenile but I suppose most of us go through that teen angst phase before forming a unique adult identity. I have seen designers stagnant creatively after years of 8-10 hour days "practicing" the rules of insistent creative directors or faithfully following brand guidelines. It's not pretty... it's boring and it doesn't really add much to the design dialogue or visual culture.


I think "fucking things up a little" is a little off the mark. It's more like knowing when and how to use a design style, and then like Kalman, when to break outside of a design influence. That homage, and break from that homage, is cleverness--the cheekiness of M&Co.
Stewart McCoy

great article, last sentence says it all really.

Thanks it is delighting to read this. History some where or other in some part of world, in some moment of time repeat itself.

This gonna be really Handy "Guide" or say will be the "Ray of Hope" for me.

Thanks once again & thanks for fu*king a little :P
Gaurav Mishra

Love this, had a similar experience when I started out - eight typefaces to design 40+ books a year plus commercial design work. Well actually seven fonts as Souvenir was our Cooper Black. Found I devoted attention to the finer details: leading, margin proportions, x-heights etc. along with the overall feel of the work. With today's digitally drenched resource base the same basic rule of "when in doubt, leave it out" applies even more so.
Mark H

First off, I really enjoyed your style of writing. Your humor makes this piece very accesible.

You, or rather Massimo, posed a very interesting idea about modernist design and how it could be taught to anyone, even non-designers. At first the idea makes it seem as if it is perfect. It is a style that can be utilized by non-designers to execute brilliant ideas. However, at second glance, it is a very depressing idea because if true, what is the point of professional designers? if modernist design can be used to turn out clear and effective design by even the least experienced, boot-legged adobe PC software, template following amateur, then there really is little point. Right? It would appear so but no. While non designers would be able to follow such templates and the basic ideals of modernism, it takes a true professional designer to successfully fuck modernism up enough to communicate masterfully.

Jobs | July 12