Big Think Interview With Massimo Vignelli
In 1965, Vignelli became co-founder and design director of Unimark International Corporation. With Lella Vignelli, he established the offices of Vignelli Associates in 1971, and Vignelli Designs in 1978. His work includes graphic and corporate identity programs, publication designs, architectural graphics, and exhibition, interior, furniture, and consumer product designs for many leading American and European companies and institutions.
Vignelli has had his work published and exhibited throughout the world and entered in the permanent collections of several museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Brooklyn Museum. He is a past president of the Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGl) and the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AlGA), a vice president of the Architectural League, and a member of the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA). His many awards and honors include the AIGA Gold Medal, the Presidential Design Award, and the National Arts Club Gold Medal for Design.
Massimo Vignelli: My name is Massimo Vignelli and I like to\r\nbe known as a designer.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n
Question: How did you choose design as a career?\r\n\r\n
Massimo Vignelli: \r\nYes. I started to begin to\r\nbe interested in architecture and design when I was 14 years old, which was\r\npretty early in life. And then I\r\nwould start to look at architectural magazines and I eventually went to the\r\nschool of architecture too, but one of the things I learned very early is that\r\nan architect should be able to design anything from a spoon to the city. That was a favorite phrase by Argo Flores, a Viennese architect around the turn of the century, the other\r\ncentury. And I was fascinated by\r\nthat idea and then I’ve seen that that is true and the great architects like\r\nFlores and Hoffmann from Vienna, again were doing this kind of things. And since I was born and raised in\r\nMilan, architects in Milan, they were also doing all kinds of things. They were designing buildings and\r\nfurniture and interiors and exhibitions and so on.\r\n\r\n
Then I shared an apartment with Max Huber, a famous graphic\r\ndesigner from Switzerland, and so I learned graphic design and I got fully in\r\nlove with graphic design. And so I\r\nwas doing the whole thing from graphics to architecture.\r\n\r\n
So I built a house at one point for a client and then I did\r\nexhibitions and then I started to do products and you know, that's the way I\r\nstarted. And I like to try all the\r\ntime to try different materials, different experiences, I was eager to try all\r\nkinds of things and I suppose that attitude has a left me after a long, long\r\nlife of design anyhow. So that's\r\nhow I got interested in architecture and design. And naturally since I was very curious about the protagonist\r\nof the Modern movement in Europe at the time by the time I got to the\r\nUniversity of Architecture I was about 20 years old, I had already met cursory\r\nall the major architects in Europe from Le Corbusier, to you name it, all the others, country by\r\ncountry, which was very exciting. \r\nYou know, I was a kind of a groupie I would say.\r\n\r\n
And of course, I was reading all of the books of them and\r\nabout what they had to say, and that gave me the critical strength or the\r\ncritical background to approach architecture and design.\r\n\r\n
Question: How much of your work takes place on, and off, the\r\ncomputer?\r\n\r\n
\r\n\r\n Massimo Vignelli: Well, when I started was a completely\r\ndifferent set of tools then than today. \r\nAnd I like to divide our profession into B.C. and A.C., just like\r\nhistory. So B.C. is Before\r\nComputer, A.C. is After the Computer. \r\nSo before the computer was extremely and intensively manual. So of course I grew up with a\r\npencil. A pencil was my computer\r\nat the time and so drawing,\r\ndrawing, drawing and the tools of drawing where the usual ones and eventually\r\nthen you graduated from the tools when the work increases and you start to draw\r\nby freehand as precise as possible and as accurate as possible, and I was pretty\r\ngood at that. So, for me one inch\r\nwas a particular length, you know, but in centimeters or inches, which is kind of important too\r\nbecause it gives you a very good sense of dimension and therefore a good sense\r\nof scale. Scale is extremely\r\nimportant, you know. Scale is not\r\ndimensions. Dimensions are\r\nphysical and scales are mental. \r\nAnd so without a knowledge of one, you can’t get to the knowledge of the\r\nsecond one in a sense.
Massimo Vignelli: Well, when I started was a completely\r\ndifferent set of tools then than today. \r\nAnd I like to divide our profession into B.C. and A.C., just like\r\nhistory. So B.C. is Before\r\nComputer, A.C. is After the Computer. \r\nSo before the computer was extremely and intensively manual. So of course I grew up with a\r\npencil. A pencil was my computer\r\nat the time and so drawing,\r\ndrawing, drawing and the tools of drawing where the usual ones and eventually\r\nthen you graduated from the tools when the work increases and you start to draw\r\nby freehand as precise as possible and as accurate as possible, and I was pretty\r\ngood at that. So, for me one inch\r\nwas a particular length, you know, but in centimeters or inches, which is kind of important too\r\nbecause it gives you a very good sense of dimension and therefore a good sense\r\nof scale. Scale is extremely\r\nimportant, you know. Scale is not\r\ndimensions. Dimensions are\r\nphysical and scales are mental. \r\nAnd so without a knowledge of one, you can’t get to the knowledge of the\r\nsecond one in a sense.
Then, there was a lot of glue, a lot of other materials, you\r\nknow, pasting up and specifying type and losing type and was a very long and\r\ntedious process, Photostat machines and paste up again. Oh god, what a life. I spend two-thirds of my life on nothing,\r\nin a sense.\r\n\r\n
Then all of a sudden God sent this incredible thing, which\r\nis the computer, that’s the – it’s like God sending Jesus Christ, it’s that\r\nkind of a thing. I don’t believe\r\nin one or the other, but I can believe in the computer. And so that was the great\r\nredeemer. So throw away all other\r\nkinds of tools and all of a sudden you could do things that were taking a long\r\ntime to do, all of a sudden you can do it and you can see while you’re doing\r\nit. So that is a very, very, very\r\nexciting thing. Not only that, but\r\nyou could do things better than ever in history. You can also do things worse than in history, all the\r\ntime. Most people do worse things\r\nthan ever. But good guys then make\r\nbetter things than ever. And so\r\nthat is a great tool to work. And\r\nthis is what we use all the time.\r\n\r\n
Now, since I’m medieval, as you can see, then I still use my\r\npencil, and I use the computer mostly for email and writing and things like\r\nthat, and Googling, and blah, blah, blah, and checking the words, as you can\r\nimagine. Not being my first\r\nlanguage, I have to check spelling all the time. And then I have people working with me which are very\r\nliterate in the computer and so I can work behind them and say a little bigger,\r\na little smaller, yeah, like this, yeah this is good, this is better. Yeah, try this, try that. It’s that kind of operation, which is\r\nvery funny in a sense. You cannot\r\nplay the piano by telling a pianist what to do, go a little more to the left or\r\nto the right. And the same is for\r\nthe computer, really. You have to\r\nplay yourself to get the most out of it. \r\nBut you know, and it takes a long time to learn too. So, I don’t think I have the time in my\r\nhead to really use it in a good way.\r\n\r\n
Question: Is there anything the computer can’t do for a\r\ndesigner?\r\n\r\n
Massimo Vignelli: Yeah, the computer is really like a\r\npencil, you know. It used to\r\nbe. The pencil can do anything you\r\nwant to, but you have to do it, and the same is with the computer. It can do\r\nanything you want, but you have to do it. \r\nIt’s a tool. And when it\r\ngoes by itself, it’s a disaster because it’s a very seductive kind of\r\ntool. The pencil you leave it\r\nthere, and it’s dead. It doesn’t\r\ndo anything and it doesn’t move by itself. It doesn’t offer anything; it’s totally submissive to\r\nyou. The computer needs...even by\r\naccident, offers incredible beautiful things that are very seductive. And if you forget about, or if you\r\ndon’t have an idea to begin with, it is very easy to be seduced and that is not\r\na good use of the computer. You\r\nknow? So, that is the way it goes.\r\n\r\n
Question: What makes a design work?\r\n\r\n
Massimo Vignelli: Well, it should be visually powerful in\r\nthe sense that I do not like design that is a flat tire, that has no tension,\r\nthat has no guts, that has no expression. \r\nThis doesn’t mean to be **** like this, it could be on the contrary,\r\nextremely elegant. And by that I\r\nmean, intellectually elegant. Not\r\nfashion elegant, not mores elegant, but intellectually elegant. That means a mind that has been\r\ncultivated and refined for quite a long time, you know. Reading the best kind of books and\r\nreally understanding how the mind can be sublime. And another way intellectual elegance is exactly the\r\nopposite of intellectually vulgar, you know. And indeed, we are surrounded by a tremendous amount\r\nof vulgarity, therefore, it is a strive to – it is an effort to change that\r\nkind of situation, but it is very exciting because you have a sense of\r\naccomplishment. You know. And of course, you like to talk about\r\nit, you like to convince people and tell people how to get away from vulgar\r\nsituations into something which is a little more elegant, a little more\r\nrefined. And if you multiply,\r\nmultiply, multiply, then the world is beginning to get better. It takes you a long time.\r\n\r\n
Then the third thing is, people are fascinated with\r\ntrends. You know, trends are in\r\nthe air, everybody likes to be trendy, to be up-to-date, you know. But what is up-to-date today is gone\r\ntomorrow. And if you are a\r\nresponsible kind of a designer, you cannot design things that tomorrow are no\r\ngood anymore. If you like cheating\r\nwith your client and your public where you use it, whatever it might be. So, you like to design something that\r\nis going to last a long time. And\r\nso, you train yourself to be disciplined and you train yourself to stay away\r\nfrom trends. And in a sense you\r\nget automatically involving into the notion of timelessness, so it takes to\r\nlast a long time. And my god, I\r\ncan quote so many things. Let’s\r\nsay American Airlines logo I’ve done. \r\nLook how many have been done since I done that one. I done that one 45 years ago, maybe\r\neven 50 years ago, and it’s still there. \r\nIt’s the only one that’s never changed. And how you can change? How can you make it better? It’s very legible, there are no tricks, it’s half red, half\r\nblue. What is more American than\r\nthat? You give me one and I’ll\r\ntake a look. You know, the type is\r\na type that will last forever. And\r\nit’s fine.\r\n\r\n
There are so many, the Bloomingdale logo, or the New York\r\nSubway, or you know, I mean, plenty, plenty, plenty of things which are – and\r\nobjects that we have done, plates like the Heller plates. You know, generation after generation\r\ngrew up by eating on those plates and they are still around today. Furniture that we have designed a long\r\ntime ago are still there, and so on. \r\nSo, it is great to design things that stay a long time. They have a long staying power. And when you look at the antiques, one,\r\nthey have staying power. So, I\r\nkind of like the idea of designing things that in 100 years from now will be\r\nlooked at with respect and not laughed about, in a sense.\r\n\r\n
Question: What aspects of contemporary design do you\r\ndislike?\r\n\r\n
Massimo Vignelli: Well, vulgarity is a real ubiquitous\r\nthing. You know, vulgarities on\r\neverything. On clothing today more\r\nthan ever is on printed matter, kind of toonish kind of things, balloons, even\r\nthe subway map has all those balloons. \r\nI mean, that’s very low, literally. **** there’s no need. \r\nYou don't talk down to people, you talk up to people, you know. So instead most of the people -- most\r\nof the manufacturers they tend to design things to sell they are more\r\ninterested in the money side than anything else. And greed is really the religion of vulgarity. And it's that is that kind of greedy\r\nyou know that everybody seems to have. \r\nI mean, as part of the culture, more here than any other place to a certain\r\nextent. Maybe because it offers\r\nmore, maybe because there's more buying power in the people, who knows? I don't know why. But certainly is -- and you know why\r\nelse because it's a very young country and hasn't had the time to sift what is\r\ngood from what is bad. But like\r\neverything that is young it's fascinating.\r\n\r\n
Question: How did you create your iconic 1970s New York City\r\nsubway map?\r\n\r\n
Massimo Vignelli: Well, number one, we like to design things\r\nwhich we have done before. So we\r\nhave a challenge to make it better. \r\nThe other thing, all the maps which were done at the time before our map\r\nwere **** to a certain extent, but we’re talking a different – they were trying\r\nto be half geographic, half schematic, and so on, not a very clear idea. And so we started to took a precise\r\nvery diagrammatic kind of an approach, a diagram based on a grade of 90 and 45\r\ndegrees, like the London map which was very 1931. You know, a long time ago. And we just did it. \r\nEvery line had a color at the time, every station had a dot, no dot, no\r\nstation, it’s very simple. But\r\nvery simple however is a process of insisting, insisting, insisting until you\r\nget just the essentials. And all the\r\ntrashy things are gone. And that\r\nis a process that is typical of our modes operandi, I mean what we do all that\r\ntime sifting, sifting. Actually,\r\nI’m not a designer, I’m a sifter. \r\nI can sift everything, all the time. My sift level lines keep shaking all the time for everything\r\nthat is around. And so that is the\r\nway the – then in 1979, they changed their nomenclatures, so the map that we\r\nhad then was no good anymore for use. \r\nAnd so recently we redesigned the map according to the new\r\nnomenclatures, so that’s what we have done and it’s kind of nice. There’s so many museums I can’t believe\r\nit. And I hope we will do\r\nsomething with it soon. It’s a\r\ngood map.\r\n\r\n
But most of the maps today, they are done this way, subway\r\nmaps I mean, around the world. \r\nParis has done a new one like this some time ago. Berlin, you name it, every major city\r\nuses diagrammatic map. It’s only\r\nNew York, which is kind of special, it still has this sort of a hybrid between\r\na map and a diagram, but not even a diagram and, not even a map, but however,\r\nthe problem with the existing map is too much information it is 5 pounds into a\r\n1 pound bag. And no wonder it\r\nbreaks.\r\n\r\n
Question: What other New York City signage have you created?\r\n\r\n\r\n
Massimo Vignelli: Well, I mean we designed the signs for the\r\nhistorical district, the historical streets you know. And why we did that, you see again, you have to be aware of\r\nwhat is around. For instance, we\r\ncould have done a completely new and different sign, but that would have been\r\nstupid. As a matter of fact\r\nsomebody else did that kind of thing and I consider it a very stupid approach\r\nbecause then when it does it is who it adds to an already very busy\r\nclutter. So instead we took the\r\nexisting signs and just change the color. \r\nYou know, so it's not so expensive that way, but also doesn't add\r\nanother layer to the already very busy urban clutter you know. So the problem of clutter is a big one\r\nof course as a designer and sifting, sifting, we tried to sift out as much as\r\npossible. And that kind of stuff.\r\n\r\n
Question: When you walk around New York, or the world, do\r\nyou feel like you’ve designed the place?\r\n\r\n
Massimo Vignelli: Yeah. You know, you have to know that, like every good designer,\r\nyou’ll have a twin brother that is called ego. And I go around with my ego all the time. And you should see how happy he is when\r\nhe goes around in a most far away kind of place and all of a sudden maybe a\r\ntruck that comes by with a logo that you have designed, or a book is on the\r\nwindow of a store, or someplace has the furniture that you have designed, or\r\nthe airline that brings you there has that. So, it’s kind of funny. Yes, it is a lot of fun.\r\n\r\n
While it is a gratification, it’s a lifelong\r\ngratification. But as I said, it’s\r\nfrom my ego; to keep my ego happy. \r\nIf the ego is not happy, you are in deep trouble, you know that?\r\n\r\n
Question: Why have you argued against the proliferation of\r\nnew fonts?\r\n\r\n
Massimo Vignelli: Well you know, you have to know a little\r\nbit more about the history of typography, or type, and how it came about. You know, it was invented at the end of\r\nthe 1400’s, you know, the Guttenbergs, so to speak, and then for 200 or 300\r\nyears, it went with very few different type faces. You know, very elegant, and that’s it. Some publisher had\r\nthe type and printer and publisher was all one thing. And there were very few also because it was very difficult\r\nto cut type, you know, it was cut by hand and not tools besides the chisels, so\r\nto speak, and the type was this small, so it was a very refined kind of\r\noperation to do. And because it\r\nwas refined, it was quite elegant. There was no room for vulgarity to get into\r\nit. So, the basic typefaces done\r\nin those years like Garamond, like Baskerville and **** and so on, ****. They were quite elegant – very elegant,\r\nactually, typefaces.\r\n\r\n
Then the Industrial Revolution comes about and then you can\r\ndo the type in an industrial way and with the help of machines, and so on and\r\nso forth. And then because you could do it, people start to do it. The foundry started to do more type and\r\ntherefore they had to sell it, to offer it. And they found the right victim in the advertising people,\r\nwhich they thought that they should use a different typeface for every\r\ndifferent client. They should not\r\nhave two clients with the same type. \r\nGod. And so that went on\r\nand on and that became a business just wallpapers, you know, it became a\r\nbusiness to make typefaces. And\r\nthen because of that, you’ve got typeface designers, people who got into the\r\nbusiness, they like it and the create nonsense type, things that were totally\r\nuseless and things of that nature and on and on and on and on.\r\n\r\n
And so eventually, you understand, that the reason that\r\nthere are a lot of typefaces is just because there’s a business, not a\r\nneed. So, you begin to sift, sift,\r\nsift, sift, and you begin sifting to see which one are appropriate for one use\r\nor another and basically, as you know, the typefaces are divided into two\r\ncategories, which are called serif, the one with the feet, and sans serif\r\nwithout the feet, the straight one. \r\nAnd between one family and the other family you begin to pick out the\r\nbest, and at the end when you pick out the best, you wind up with about a half\r\na dozen, or a little more of typefaces. \r\nAnd those are good, those are good for everything. Each one of those families are very\r\nlarge, you know, so they are of the same typeface you have are very thin or\r\nvery big, they are straight or italic, which inclined, and things like\r\nthat. So yes, there are only a\r\ngood maybe a dozen. I’m very\r\ngenerous today since I think they – but there’s no more than a dozen, actually\r\nI don’t use much many more than three or four in my life. That is the thing.\r\n\r\n
However, exceptionally sometime I might use some other\r\ntoo. But not really much more than\r\nthat a dozen of good typefaces and the rest you can really trash it from a\r\ndesign point of view. However,\r\nit’s a business that keeps a lot of people alive and what do you want to do,\r\nwhat would they do otherwise? So,\r\nlet them do type if they like it. \r\nThe only thing that is important to understand is when to use it and\r\nwhen not to use it, or what to use. \r\nAnd a good designer can come to it, you know. And they can really very well along with a few\r\ntypefaces. Every good designer\r\ndoesn’t use more than a few typefaces and when they’re less good, the number\r\nincrease. And if they’re worse,\r\nthen use all of them.\r\n\r\n
Question: Having starred in the documentary “Helvetica,”\r\nwere you surprised by its success?\r\n\r\n
Massimo Vignelli: Yeah, definitely, I was surprised and\r\nvery, very, very pleased too. But\r\nit’s incredible by how many people really liked the movie. People that had nothing to do with\r\ndesign, and how useful it has been. \r\nYou have no idea the amount of people that mentioned this movie to me,\r\neverywhere in the world. I got\r\nemail from everywhere in the world talking about it. I don’t say many things.\r\n\r\n
In the disc, if you get the disc, at the end there are\r\nextras, which are better then the whole movie, really. It was terrific. So, if you get the disc is fun. Any how, what is clear you see,\r\nHelvetica was born in 1957, around that time, you know, 1955, for the very precise\r\nreason I remember, before Helvetica, I was using similar typefaces and cutting\r\ntogether close, because we like the type to be closed. But typefaces, they came with shoulders\r\nat that time, and the great invention of Helvetica was to be make the shoulder\r\nvery, very tight so you could put the type – and it’s the only type that had\r\nthat, that’s why.\r\n\r\n
When we had that type that we could do that; that was B.C.,\r\nBefore Computer. Now with\r\ncomputer, you can even do that. You can do anything. But at the time, it had to be done by cutting. And so I lost a lot of type ****, a lot\r\nof letters by cutting and gluing and so on. But when Helvetica came about, that could be done fine and\r\nthat is why it was so successful. \r\nAnd I started to use it and use it and the more you use it the more you\r\nlearn how to use it, it’s just like a piano, the more you play it, the more you\r\nlearn how to play it and the better player you become. And so it is with the type. And it is a great typeface, it will\r\nlast forever. You know, there are\r\nothers, some people like other variations of it. I’m happy with it. \r\nAnd I think it will last hundreds of years, you know. And there are people will write with\r\nthis. Along with the **** along\r\nwith the Garamond, along with the few of the great classic typefaces. And that’s it, until we **** those\r\nfaces will be around, I guess.\r\n\r\n
Question: What is the distinction you make between dimension\r\nand scale?\r\n\r\n
Massimo Vignelli: Dimension is a measurable thing, entity,\r\nyou know that long, six inches, 10 inches, 10 feet, whatever it might be. Scale is a mental – you can say that a\r\nlounger has scale, a building has scale, or an object has scale, or a page, or\r\nwhatever if it’s just right. A\r\nscale is a relationship to the object and the space surrounding it. And that dialogue could be music, or it\r\ncould be just noise. And that is\r\nwhy it is so important, the sense of scale. And the scale relates to everything. The thickness of a pipe, the thickness\r\nof a leg of the furniture. Even\r\ncolor could have a scale. Let’s\r\nsay that if you paint a building shocking pink, that has no scale, it is just a\r\nhuge mistake, but it’s not in the scale of the city to have things like\r\nthat. You know. So, not only\r\nbecause it’s not appropriate, not only because it’s offensive to the\r\nenvironment, I mean but among them also because that quantity of that color in\r\nthe urban scale, is out of scale.\r\n\r\n
But however, out of scale is also very fascinating\r\nthing. One of the greatest\r\ninventions of pop art was really to bring an object which was usually like this\r\nto make it huge. Oldenburg was\r\nreally the great artist that did the best with that notion, you know. I mean we need also, **** we made a\r\nline of cosmetics in the shape of nuts and bolts and screws and things like\r\nthat by just taking a real thing and making it big. The change in scale is a surprise sometimes that could be\r\nused in a good way, but again, you have to measure it and it should be\r\nappropriate. Appropriateness is\r\nnot a very important issue, you know, the notion of appropriateness. That means to design things which are\r\nright for that destination, and not for another one. And so when we start, we always look for what is specific\r\nfor that particular problem so that we can design in a most appropriate way as\r\nmuch as we can understand it, of course. \r\nBut appropriateness is important, discipline is important, and ambiguity\r\nis important.\r\n\r\n
Ambiguity is not – ambiguity for us Italians is a positive\r\nthing. For the Anglo-Saxon it is a\r\nnegative thing. You know. It’s a different culture. You know, you come up with a Vatican in\r\nyour pocket, ambiguity becomes very natural. But for us, ambiguity is plurality of meanings and that is\r\nwhy it is exciting. In the\r\nAnglo-Saxon dictionary, so to speak, ambiguity instead has a negative connotation\r\nin the sense that ambiguity’s mellifluous, something that is neither here or\r\nthere. And for us instead **** is\r\na way of living. But it’s\r\nimportant in design too because then it gives another level of richness so\r\nthat, yes, it is that thing and if you read it in a slightly different way,\r\nmaybe it is something else too. \r\nAnd that might be – but it’s very, very dangerous as well. So, one has to train – it’s not for\r\neverybody.\r\n\r\n
Question: Are we currently in “postmodernism,”\r\n“post-postmodernism,” or “neo-modernism”?\r\n\r\n
Massimo Vignelli: I tell you, one of the greatest things\r\nabout postmodernism is that it’s gone. \r\nYou know. Postmodernism was\r\nthe 15 minutes of celebrity for those that would have never had it\r\notherwise. You know. When you think of Modernism as\r\nincredibly alive and just rooted in hundreds of years – in a sense, I think\r\nModernism started during the Renaissance somehow. But really, the Modernism is more, really started, I would\r\nsay, with the Enlightenment, you know, the Enlightenment, you know, 1750,\r\n1770s, 1750, you know, around that time. \r\nAlong with the Didierot and d'Alambert in a sense, with industrialization, basically the\r\nfirst sounds of industrialization. \r\nAnd Modernism is alive and well and a great – while postmodernist is\r\ngone, it has only one very good thing with it, is that somehow you restore\r\ninterest in history. And that is\r\nvery important. History, theory,\r\nand criticism are the most important aspects in the development of design. But Modernism is alive and well, as I\r\nsay, and a lot of the young people are now working along the Modernist\r\nway. And there is no more\r\npost-modernism around, it’s really gone, gone, gone, gone, thank God.\r\n\r\n
But, of course, it’s not a style. What is in style is a bad thing. Modernism is an attitude, it’s not a style. Modernism is a discipline, not a\r\nstyle. Modernism is intelligent,\r\nnot a style. And so, when you work\r\nalong those lines, you are a Modernist designer, and that is what is good about\r\nit.\r\n\r\n
So that will last forever, by the way.\r\n\r\n
Question: What was Le Corbusier like?\r\n\r\n
Massimo Vignelli: Well, we were lucky enough to meet all the\r\ngreat masters of architecture and design from Le Corbusier to Mies van der\r\nRohe, from Alvar Aalto to Charles Eames, and it is nice to know them. And if you aren’t stupid, they like you\r\ntoo. And parties, you know. Anyhow, Le Corbusier was well, was God\r\nat the time, you could imagine. I\r\nremember one time, we were traveling from Milan to Venice on a train, he was\r\ngoing to give a lecture in Venice, and he was traveling with a friend of mine, an\r\narchitect friend, a very important architect at the time, and so, I could\r\nresist, I went to the same compartment where they were, you known, and I was\r\ndoing an architectural magazine at the time, so just like you, I was very\r\ninterested in interviewing the great master, you know. And I remember at one point he said, when\r\nI was sitting next to Le Corbusier, and he said, “Wow, this young man has a lot\r\nof heat.” It was summer. Maybe we were tight together, but he\r\nmeant it as a kind of a – well, it was fun. And I have stories about every one of those big\r\nmasters.\r\n\r\n
One night we had dinner, we had several dinners in Chicago\r\nwith Mies van der Rohe because I was teaching at the Institute of Design in\r\nChicago. And again, very exciting\r\nstories, I mean, he was a great storyteller, he would tell stories over the\r\nBarcelona Pavilion, how it came about and all the things that happened during\r\nthe construction and a thousand of antidotes from every one of them. And it was fun. So, you know, as I say, I was a\r\ngroupie, so this is why I am never annoyed when wherever I go to give lectures\r\nand I see youngsters coming around, you know they want a signature. And I understand that, I mean, I was\r\ndoing the same thing. So, it’s\r\nfine. I am not annoyed by that at\r\nall. And I’m glad actually, I’m\r\nglad they have some examples, somebody in their mind that is, you know is a\r\nmentor. I mean, at the end of the\r\nday, that is the most gratifying thing.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n
An interview with the modernist designer and founder of Vignelli Associates.
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The experience of life flashing before one's eyes has been reported for well over a century, but where's the science behind it?
At the age of 16, when Tony Kofi was an apprentice builder living in Nottingham, he fell from the third story of a building. Time seemed to slow down massively, and he saw a complex series of images flash before his eyes.
As he described it, “In my mind's eye I saw many, many things: children that I hadn't even had yet, friends that I had never seen but are now my friends. The thing that really stuck in my mind was playing an instrument". Then Tony landed on his head and lost consciousness.
When he came to at the hospital, he felt like a different person and didn't want to return to his previous life. Over the following weeks, the images kept flashing back into his mind. He felt that he was “being shown something" and that the images represented his future.
Later, Tony saw a picture of a saxophone and recognized it as the instrument he'd seen himself playing. He used his compensation money from the accident to buy one. Now, Tony Kofi is one of the UK's most successful jazz musicians, having won the BBC Jazz awards twice, in 2005 and 2008.
Though Tony's belief that he saw into his future is uncommon, it's by no means uncommon for people to report witnessing multiple scenes from their past during split-second emergency situations. After all, this is where the phrase “my life flashed before my eyes" comes from.
But what explains this phenomenon? Psychologists have proposed a number of explanations, but I'd argue the key to understanding Tony's experience lies in a different interpretation of time itself.
When life flashes before our eyes
The experience of life flashing before one's eyes has been reported for well over a century. In 1892, a Swiss geologist named Albert Heim fell from a precipice while mountain climbing. In his account of the fall, he wrote is was “as if on a distant stage, my whole past life [was] playing itself out in numerous scenes".
More recently, in July 2005, a young woman called Gill Hicks was sitting near one of the bombs that exploded on the London Underground. In the minutes after the accident, she hovered on the brink of death where, as she describes it: “my life was flashing before my eyes, flickering through every scene, every happy and sad moment, everything I have ever done, said, experienced".
In some cases, people don't see a review of their whole lives, but a series of past experiences and events that have special significance to them.
Explaining life reviews
Perhaps surprisingly, given how common it is, the “life review experience" has been studied very little. A handful of theories have been put forward, but they're understandably tentative and rather vague.
For example, a group of Israeli researchers suggested in 2017 that our life events may exist as a continuum in our minds, and may come to the forefront in extreme conditions of psychological and physiological stress.
Another theory is that, when we're close to death, our memories suddenly “unload" themselves, like the contents of a skip being dumped. This could be related to “cortical disinhibition" – a breaking down of the normal regulatory processes of the brain – in highly stressful or dangerous situations, causing a “cascade" of mental impressions.
But the life review is usually reported as a serene and ordered experience, completely unlike the kind of chaotic cascade of experiences associated with cortical disinhibition. And none of these theories explain how it's possible for such a vast amount of information – in many cases, all the events of a person's life – to manifest themselves in a period of a few seconds, and often far less.
Thinking in 'spatial' time
An alternative explanation is to think of time in a “spatial" sense. Our commonsense view of time is as an arrow that moves from the past through the present towards the future, in which we only have direct access to the present. But modern physics has cast doubt on this simple linear view of time.
Indeed, since Einstein's theory of relativity, some physicists have adopted a “spatial" view of time. They argue we live in a static “block universe" in which time is spread out in a kind of panorama where the past, the present and the future co-exist simultaneously.
The modern physicist Carlo Rovelli – author of the best-selling The Order of Time – also holds the view that linear time doesn't exist as a universal fact. This idea reflects the view of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who argued that time is not an objectively real phenomenon, but a construct of the human mind.
This could explain why some people are able to review the events of their whole lives in an instant. A good deal of previous research – including my own – has suggested that our normal perception of time is simply a product of our normal state of consciousness.
In many altered states of consciousness, time slows down so dramatically that seconds seem to stretch out into minutes. This is a common feature of emergency situations, as well as states of deep meditation, experiences on psychedelic drugs and when athletes are “in the zone".
The limits of understanding
But what about Tony Kofi's apparent visions of his future? Did he really glimpse scenes from his future life? Did he see himself playing the saxophone because somehow his future as a musician was already established?
There are obviously some mundane interpretations of Tony's experience. Perhaps, for instance, he became a saxophone player simply because he saw himself playing it in his vision. But I don't think it's impossible that Tony did glimpse future events.
If time really does exist in a spatial sense – and if it's true that time is a construct of the human mind – then perhaps in some way future events may already be present, just as past events are still present.
Admittedly, this is very difficult to make sense of. But why should everything make sense to us? As I have suggested in a recent book, there must be some aspects of reality that are beyond our comprehension. After all, we're just animals, with a limited awareness of reality. And perhaps more than any other phenomenon, this is especially true of time.
Might as well face it, you're addicted to love.
- Many writers have commented on the addictive qualities of love. Science agrees.
- The reward system of the brain reacts similarly to both love and drugs
- Someday, it might be possible to treat "love addiction."
Since people started writing, they've written about love. The oldest love poem known dates back to the 21st century BCE. For most of that time, writers also apparently have been of two (or more) minds about it, announcing that love can be painful, impossible to quit, or even addictive — while also mentioning how nice it is.
The idea of love as an addiction is one that is both familiar and unsettling. Surely it can't be the case that our mutual love with our partner — a thing that can produce euphoria, consumes a great deal of our time, and which we fear losing — can be compared to a drug habit? But indeed, many scientists have turned their attention to the idea of "love addiction" and how your brain on drugs might resemble your brain in love.
Love and other drugs
In a 2017 article published in the journal Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, a team of neuroethicists considered the idea that love is addicting and held the idea up to science for scrutiny.
They point out that the leading model of addiction rests on the notion of a drug causing the brain to release an unnatural level of reward chemicals, such as dopamine, effectively hijacking the brain's reward system. This phenomenon isn't strictly limited to drugs, though they are more effective at this process than other things. Rats can get a similar rush from sugar as from cocaine, and they can have terrible withdrawal symptoms when the sugar crash kicks in.
On the structural level, there is a fair amount of overlap between the parts of the brain that handle love and pair-bonding and the parts that deal with addiction and reward processing. When inside an MRI machine and asked to think about the person they love romantically, the reward centers of people's brains light up like Broadway.
Love as an addiction
These facts lead the authors to consider two ideas, dubbed the "narrow" and "broad" views of love as an addiction.
The narrow view holds that addiction is the result of abnormal brain processes that simply don't exist in non-addicts. Under this paradigm, "food-seeking or love-seeking behaviors are not truly the result of addiction, no matter how addiction-like they may outwardly appear." It could be that abnormal processes cause the brain's reward system to misfire when exposed to love and to react to it excessively.
If this model is accurate, love addiction would be a rare thing — one study puts it around five to ten percent of the population — but could be considered a disorder similar to others and caused by faulty wiring in the brain. As with other addictions, this malfunction of the reward system could lead to an inability to fully live a typical life, difficulty having healthy relationships, and a number of other negative consequences.
The broad view looks at addiction differently, perhaps even radically.
It begins with the idea that addiction exists on a spectrum of motivations. All of our appetites, including those for food and water, exist on this spectrum and activate similar parts of the brain when satisfied. We can have appetites for anything that taps into our reward system, including food, gambling, sex, drugs, and love. For most people most of the time, our appetites are fairly temperate, if recurring. I might be slightly "addicted" to food — I do need some a few times per day — but that "addiction" doesn't have any negative effects on my health.
An appetite for cocaine, however, is rarely temperate and usually dangerous. Likewise, a person's appetite for love could reach addiction levels, and a person could be considered "hooked" on relationships (or on a particular person). This would put love addiction at the extreme end of the spectrum.
None of this is to say that the authors think that love is bad for you just because it can resemble an addiction. Love addiction is not the same as cocaine addiction at the neurological level: important differences, like how long it takes for the desire for another "hit" to occur, do exist. Rather, the authors see this as an opportunity to reconsider our approach to addiction in general and to think about how we can help the heartsick when they just can't seem to get over their last relationship.
Is "love addiction" a treatable disorder?
Hypothetically, a neurological basis for an addiction to love could point toward interventions that "correct" for it. If the narrow view of addiction is accurate, perhaps some people will be able to seek treatment for love addiction in the same way that others seek help to quit smoking. If the broad view of addiction is correct, the treatment of love addiction would be unlikely as it may be difficult to properly identify where the cutoff of acceptability on a spectrum should be.
Either way, since love is generally held in high regard by all cultures and doesn't quite seem to be in the same category as a bad cocaine habit in terms of social undesirability, the authors doubt we'll be treating anyone for "love addiction" anytime soon.
A school lesson leads to more precise measurements of the extinct megalodon shark, one of the largest fish ever.
- A new method estimates the ancient megalodon shark was as long as 65 feet.
- The megalodon was one of the largest fish that ever lived.
- The new model uses the width of shark teeth to estimate its overall size.
A Florida student figured out a way to more accurately measure the size of one of the largest fish that ever lived – the extinct megalodon shark – and found that it was even larger than previously estimated.
The megalodon (officially named Otodus megalodon, which means "Big Tooth") lived between 3.6 and 23 million years ago and was thought to be about 34 feet long on average, reaching the maximum length of 60 feet. Now a new study puts that number at up to 65 feet (20 meters).
Homework assignment leads to a discovery
The study, published in Palaeontologia Electronica, used new equations extrapolated from the width of megalodon's teeth to make the improved estimates. The paper's lead author, Victor Perez, developed the revised methodology while he was a doctoral student at the Florida Museum of Natural History. He got the idea while teaching students, noticing a range of discrepancies in the results they were getting.
Students were supposed to calculate the size of megalodon based on the ancient fish's similarities to the modern great white shark. They utilized the commonly accepted method of linking the height of a shark's tooth to its total body length. As the press release from the Florida Museum of Natural History expounds, this method involves locating the anatomical position of a tooth in the shark's jaw, measuring the tooth "from the tip of the crown to the line where root and crown meet," and using that number in an appropriate equation.
But while carrying out calculations in this way, some of Perez's students thought the shark would have been just 40 feet long, while others were calculating 148 feet. Teeth located toward the back of the mouth were yielding the largest estimates.
"I was going around, checking, like, did you use the wrong equation? Did you forget to convert your units?" said Perez, currently the assistant curator of paleontology at the Calvert Marine Museum in Maryland. "But it very quickly became clear that it was not the students that had made the error. It was simply that the equations were not as accurate as we had predicted."
Found in North Carolina, these 46 fossils are the most complete set of megalodon teeth ever excavated.Credit: Jeff Gage/Florida Museum
The new approach
Perez's math exercise demonstrated that the equations in use since 2002 were generating different size estimates for the same shark based on which tooth was being measured. Because megalodon teeth are most often found as standalone fossils, Perez focused on a nearly complete set of teeth donated by a fossil collector to design a new approach.
Perez also had help from Teddy Badaut, an avocational paleontologist in France, who suggested using tooth width instead of height, which would be proportional to the length of its body. Another collaborator on the revised method was Ronny Maik Leder, then a postdoctoral researcher at the Florida Museum, who aided in the development of the new set of equations.
The research team analyzed the widths of fossil teeth that came from 11 individual sharks of five species, which included megalodon and modern great white sharks, and created a model that connects how wide a tooth was to the size of the jaw for each species.
"I was quite surprised that indeed no one had thought of this before," shared Leder, who is now director of the Natural History Museum in Leipzig, Germany. "The simple beauty of this method must have been too obvious to be seen. Our model was much more stable than previous approaches. This collaboration was a wonderful example of why working with amateur and hobby paleontologists is so important."
Why use teeth?
In general, almost nothing of the super-shark survived to this day, other than a few vertebrae and a large number of big teeth. The megalodon's skeleton was made of lightweight cartilage that decomposed after death. But teeth, with enamel that preserves very well, are "probably the most structurally stable thing in living organisms," Perez said. Considering that megalodons lost thousands of teeth during a lifetime, these are the best resources we have in trying to figure out information about these long-gone giants.
Researchers suggest megalodon's large jaws were very thick, made for grabbing prey and breaking its bones, exerting a bite force of up to 108,500 to 182,200 newtons.
Megalodon tooth compared to two great white shark teeth. Credit: Brocken Inaglory / Wikimedia.
Limitations of the new model
While the new model is better than previous methods, it's still far from perfect in precisely figuring out the sizes of animals which lived so long ago and left behind few if any full remains. Because individual sharks come in a variety of sizes, Perez warned that even their new estimates have an error range of about 10 feet when it comes to the largest animals.
Other ambiguities may affect the results, such as the width of the megalodon's jaw and the size of the gaps between its teeth, neither of which are accurately known. "There's still more that could be done, but that would probably require finding a complete skeleton at this point," Perez pointed out.
How did the megalodon go extinct?
Environmental changes that led to fluctuations in sea levels and disturbed ecosystems in the oceans likely led to the demise of these enormous ancient sharks. They were just too big to be sustained by diminishing food resources, says the ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research.
A 2018 study suggested that a supernova 2.6 million years ago hit Earth's atmosphere with so much cosmic energy that it resulted in climate change. The cosmic rays that included particles called muons might have caused a mass extinction of giant ocean animals ("the megafauna") that included the megalodon by causing mutations and cancer.
Scientists, led by Adrian Melott, professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at the University of Kansas, estimated that "the cancer rate would go up about 50 percent for something the size of a human — and the bigger you are, the worse it is. For an elephant or a whale, the radiation dose goes way up," as he explained in a press release.
A brief passage from a recent UN report describes what could be the first-known case of an autonomous weapon, powered by artificial intelligence, killing in the battlefield.
- Autonomous weapons have been used in war for decades, but artificial intelligence is ushering in a new category of autonomous weapons.
- These weapons are not only capable of moving autonomously but also identifying and attacking targets on their own without oversight from a human.
- There's currently no clear international restrictions on the use of new autonomous weapons, but some nations are calling for preemptive bans.
Nothing transforms warfare more violently than new weapons technology. In prehistoric times, it was the club, the spear, the bow and arrow, the sword. The 16th century brought rifles. The World Wars of the 20th century introduced machine guns, planes, and atomic bombs.
Now we might be seeing the first stages of the next battlefield revolution: autonomous weapons powered by artificial intelligence.
In March, the United Nations Security Council published an extensive report on the Second Libyan War that describes what could be the first-known case of an AI-powered autonomous weapon killing people in the battlefield.
The incident took place in March 2020, when soldiers with the Government of National Accord (GNA) were battling troops supporting the Libyan National Army of Khalifa Haftar (called Haftar Affiliated Forces, or HAF, in the report). One passage describes how GNA troops may have used an autonomous drone to kill retreating HAF soldiers:
"Logistics convoys and retreating HAF were subsequently hunted down and remotely engaged by the unmanned combat aerial vehicles or the lethal autonomous weapons systems such as the STM Kargu-2... and other loitering munitions. The lethal autonomous weapons systems were programmed to attack targets without requiring data connectivity between the operator and the munition: in effect, a true 'fire, forget and find' capability."
Still, because the GNA forces were also firing surface-to-air missiles at the HAF troops, it's currently difficult to know how many, if any, troops were killed by autonomous drones. It's also unclear whether this incident represents anything new. After all, autonomous weapons have been used in war for decades.
Lethal autonomous weapons
Lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS) are weapon systems that can search for and fire upon targets on their own. It's a broad category whose definition is debatable. For example, you could argue that land mines and naval mines, used in battle for centuries, are LAWS, albeit relatively passive and "dumb." Since the 1970s, navies have used active protection systems that identify, track, and shoot down enemy projectiles fired toward ships, if the human controller chooses to pull the trigger.
Then there are drones, an umbrella term that commonly refers to unmanned weapons systems. Introduced in 1991 with unmanned (yet human-controlled) aerial vehicles, drones now represent a broad suite of weapons systems, including unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), loitering munitions (commonly called "kamikaze drones"), and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), to name a few.
Some unmanned weapons are largely autonomous. The key question to understanding the potential significance of the March 2020 incident is: what exactly was the weapon's level of autonomy? In other words, who made the ultimate decision to kill: human or robot?
The Kargu-2 system
One of the weapons described in the UN report was the Kargu-2 system, which is a type of loitering munitions weapon. This type of unmanned aerial vehicle loiters above potential targets (usually anti-air weapons) and, when it detects radar signals from enemy systems, swoops down and explodes in a kamikaze-style attack.
Kargu-2 is produced by the Turkish defense contractor STM, which says the system can be operated both manually and autonomously using "real-time image processing capabilities and machine learning algorithms" to identify and attack targets on the battlefield.
STM | KARGU - Rotary Wing Attack Drone Loitering Munition System youtu.be
In other words, STM says its robot can detect targets and autonomously attack them without a human "pulling the trigger." If that's what happened in Libya in March 2020, it'd be the first-known attack of its kind. But the UN report isn't conclusive.
It states that HAF troops suffered "continual harassment from the unmanned combat aerial vehicles and lethal autonomous weapons systems," which were "programmed to attack targets without requiring data connectivity between the operator and the munition: in effect, a true 'fire, forget and find' capability."
What does that last bit mean? Basically, that a human operator might have programmed the drone to conduct the attack and then sent it a few miles away, where it didn't have connectivity to the operator. Without connectivity to the human operator, the robot would have had the final call on whether to attack.
Key line 2: The loitering munitions/LAWS (depending upon how you frame it) were enabled to attack without data conn… https://t.co/5u89cDDA60— Jack McDonald (@Jack McDonald)1622114029.0
To be sure, it's unclear if anyone died from such an autonomous attack in Libya. In any case, LAWS technology has evolved to the point where such attacks are possible. What's more, STM is developing swarms of drones that could work together to execute autonomous attacks.
Noah Smith, an economics writer, described what these attacks might look like on his Substack:
"Combined with A.I., tiny cheap little battery-powered drones could be a huge game-changer. Imagine releasing a networked swarm of autonomous quadcopters into an urban area held by enemy infantry, each armed with little rocket-propelled fragmentation grenades and equipped with computer vision technology that allowed it to recognize friend from foe."
But could drones accurately discern friend from foe? After all, computer-vision systems like facial recognition don't identify objects and people with perfect accuracy; one study found that very slightly tweaking an image can lead an AI to miscategorize it. Can LAWS be trusted to differentiate between a soldier with a rifle slung over his back and, say, a kid wearing a backpack?
Opposition to LAWS
Unsurprisingly, many humanitarian groups are concerned about introducing a new generation of autonomous weapons to the battlefield. One such group is the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, whose 2018 survey of roughly 19,000 people across 26 countries found that 61 percent of respondents said they oppose the use of LAWS.
In 2018, the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons issued a rather vague set of guidelines aiming to restrict the use of LAWS. One guideline states that "human responsibility must be retained when it comes to decisions on the use of weapons systems." Meanwhile, at least a couple dozen nations have called for preemptive bans on LAWS.
The U.S. and Russia oppose such bans, while China's position is a bit ambiguous. It's impossible to predict how the international community will regulate AI-powered autonomous weapons in the future, but among the world's superpowers, one assumption seems safe: If these weapons provide a clear tactical advantage, they will be used on the battlefield.