For Designers, the Computer Was “The Great Redeemer”

Question: How much of your work takes place on, and off, the computer?

Massimo Vignelli: Well, when I started was a completely different set of tools then than today.  And I like to divide our profession into B.C. and A.C., just like history.  So B.C. is Before Computer, A.C. is After the Computer.  So before the computer was extremely and intensively manual.  So of course I grew up with a pencil.  A pencil was my computer at the time  and so drawing, drawing, drawing and the tools of drawing were the usual ones and eventually then you graduated from the tools when the work increases and you start to draw by freehand as precise as possible and as accurate as possible, and I was pretty good at that.  So, for me one inch was a particular length, but in centimeters or inches, which is kind of important too because it gives you a very good sense of dimension and therefore a good sense of scale.  Scale is extremely important, you know.  Scale is not dimensions.  Dimensions are physical and scales are mental.  And so without a knowledge of one, you can’t get to the knowledge of the second one in a sense. 

Then, there was a lot of glue, a lot of other materials, you know, pasting up and specifying type and losing type and was a very long and tedious process, Photostat machines and paste up again.  Oh god, what a life.  I spend two-thirds of my life on nothing, in a sense. 

Then all of a sudden God sent this incredible thing, which is the computer, that’s the – it’s like God sending Jesus Christ, it’s that kind of a thing.  I don’t believe in one or the other, but I can believe in the computer.  And so that was the great redeemer.  So throw away all other kinds of tools and all of a sudden you could do things that were taking a long time to do, all of a sudden you can do it and you can see while you’re doing it.  So that is a very, very, very exciting thing.  Not only that, but you could do things better than ever in history.  You can also do things worse than in history, all the time.  Most people do worse things than ever.  But good guys then make better things than ever.  And so that is a great tool to work.  And this is what we use all the time.

Now, since I’m medieval, as you can see, then I still use my pencil, and I use the computer mostly for email and writing and things like that, and Googling, and blah, blah, blah, and checking the words, as you can imagine.  Not being my first language, I have to check spelling all the time.  And then I have people working with me which are very literate in the computer and so I can work behind them and say a little bigger, a 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 very funny in a sense.  You cannot play the piano by telling a pianist what to do, go a little more to the left or to the right.  And the same is for the computer, really.  You have to play yourself to get the most out of it.  But you know, and it takes a long time to learn too.  So, I don’t think I have the time in my head to really use it in a good way.

Question: Is there anything the computer can’t do for a designer?

Massimo Vignelli: Yeah, the computer is really like a pencil, you know.  It used to be.  The pencil can do anything you want to, but you have to do it, and the same is with the computer. It can do anything you want, but you have to do it.  It’s a tool.  And when it goes by itself, it’s a disaster because it’s a very seductive kind of tool.  The pencil you leave it there, and it’s dead.  It doesn’t do anything and it doesn’t move by itself.  It doesn’t offer anything; it’s totally submissive to you.  The computer instead, even by accident, offers incredible beautiful things that are very seductive.  And if you forget about, or if you don’t have an idea to begin with, it is very easy to be seduced and that is not a good use of the computer.  You know?  So, that is the way it goes.

Massimo Vignelli divides his profession into two eras, B.C. and A.C.: Before Computer and After Computer.

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