The Responsibility of Design

Ben Groulx
May 30, 2014
The Responsibility of Design

Massimo Vignelli passed away at the age of 83, on May 27, 2014.

Massimo was one of the world's most renowned and influential designers - particularly in the graphic design area. But his influence and ethos passed into many other industries as well. He was one of my own personal heroes, and it is very sad to see him pass on.

A Quote-Worthy Career and Life

Massimo has had a very quote-worthy career and life. One of his most famous quotes is taken from the documentary film Helvetica (2007), where he states, "the life of a designer is a life of fight: a fight against the ugliness." I think many people -- myself included! -- first thought this was meant design is about taking the ugly things in life and making them pretty.

That's awfully shallow.

When that statement is dissected, one encounters a number of problematic notions. First, at what point does "ugly" become "beautiful"? Who dictates at what point ugliness is allowable? And furthermore, really, what is beauty? Our responses are wholly subjective and based on personal tastes and experiences… this can't truly be the life of a designer. Can it? Can design really just be about appearances?

But that is not what Massimo intended. Instead, let's take a look at the quote as a whole:

"The life of a designer is a life of fight: a fight against the ugliness. Just like a doctor fights against disease. For us, the visual disease is what we have around, and what we try to do is cure it somehow with design."

Nowhere does Massimo state design is purely an exercise in aesthetics. Nowhere does he say design is purely visual. Massimo's visual "ugliness" is just the tip of the iceberg, where what has been created and is communicated with our eyes is just one of the results of a process.

The role of the designer is to communicate ideas. It's our responsibility to make sure this passing of information is efficient, and if we can, make it beautiful. But that doesn't take place at the end of the process exclusively, it needs to happen at the beginning. And in the middle. And at every step in between. Processes need to be reorganized, and organizations need to be reprocessed.

To fight the ugliness, we need to make things logical, usable, and delightful.

Massimo leaves behind a legacy for all to ponder, and a responsibility for designers to pursue. His ideals of simplicity, organization, and beauty -- real, true beauty -- will live on in philosophy and in practice, as he himself takes a place in the Hall of Fame. Perhaps even as the centrepiece.

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