| August 3, 2010 5:50 pm

Vignelli-SubwayOver the past couple of weeks, I’ve been wandering about in a daze.  (This often happens when I’m doing too many things at once.)

I’m trying to get LyX-Outline done, finish my book, and draw up plans for  Time Drive.  I’ve also got dozens of ideas for blog posts, scientific studies, articles, software projects, and even books dancing about in my head.

(I wish I could figure a way to make some of these ideas pay for themselves, as I would like to pursue them more aggressively.  But, that is a topic for another day.)

Amidst all of the creative chaos, there is one question that I find particularly interesting.  Namely: How the form of a thing influences its function?  This question also goes by a secondary, better known moniker: “the medium is the message”.

Like other dynamics such as nature/nature,  form/function is  a constant in graphic layout, analytic design, horse training, writing, software development, scientific inquiry, marketing/advertising, neuroscience, and behavioral psychology (basically everything which interests me).  My obsession with it has already filled one book chapter and, unless I can exercise some self-restraint,  will likely consume another.

Which brings me to the point of this post.  While researching typographical examples this morning, I found a very interesting instance and thought I’d share.


The examples can be found in Massimo Vignelli’s Canon.

In case you’ve never heard of him, Massimo Vignelli is a legend.  He was one of the founders of the “modern” style of design and it’s impossible to overstate his impact.   He does print, products, interior decoration, architecture … basically everything.  Aspects of his style have been imitated by everyone and has become more or less ubiquitous.  (It’s also why Vignelli is revered as a living legend whose impacted everyone from Steve Jobs to Brian Oakes.)

The Canon is a book of typesetting principles that Vignelli released last year.  It basically covers the entire art of typesetting from foundational principles to applied practicalities.  (It’s available as a download from Vignelli’s website and is well worth your time to read it.  Really.  Go download it now.)

What I find absolutely fascinating about the Canon, though, is that for a book about typography – from a legendary designer, no less – it’s very difficult to read.  I wouldn’t say that it’s ugly (some spreads – like the one below — are absolutely stunning), but the word forms certainly don’t catch and hold the eye.


In fact, Vignelli commits a number of typographical sins which actively repel your attention.  As just one example (there are others), he makes inconsistent use of punctuation and character spacing.  Instead of delineating where paragraphs start and end, he forces you to determine that on your own.  As a result, the letter shapes combine into an intimidating mass of words that influence readability, feature detection and retention [1] .

Put another way, due to design choices, Vignelli makes you work to read his book.



I’m not sure if this is due to choices which Vignelli made explicitly, or it is a secondary consequence of aesthetics.  (I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a combination of the two.)  But you can’t miss the irony.  You have a book about display and typography that is somewhat difficult to read, though not necessarily to look at.

Which, like I said above, makes it a fascinating example of “the medium is the message.”

The Canon provides wonderful insight into effective layout and how you can meld graphics and text into a single narrative.  But even though the information is extremely valuable, the way that it’s presented causes your mind to wander.  Instead of focusing on the text, you lose yourself in the layout.  This causes your mind to wander and you end up staring at the pictures.  (Choices in typography and layout can have profound effects on behavior [2].)

But as I said earlier, this might be Vignelli’s intention.  Instead of fostering rapid reading, Vignelli may want you to lose yourself and contemplate the material; or maybe he wants to share his insights with people who will work to understand them*; or maybe Vignelli wants you to see the layout and then read the text.  I don’t really know what Vignelli’s about.

But, regardless, it is interesting.


* I once knew a horse trainer who was difficult by design.  He would deliberately use dense language, bizarrely defined terms and oblique references when talking to students.  This was very frustrating to me, so I called him on it.  Here’s what he said (paraphrased):

I know that I’m hard to understand.  I do that on purpose.  It encourages the rubberneckers (his term for casual students) to move along and gives me a way to deal with the sycophants.  After you toss out those two groups, you’re left with people who are willing to work for understanding; and I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather deal with.


  1. Denis G. Pelli et al., “Feature detection and letter identification,” Vision Research 46, no. 28 (December 2006): 4646-4674.
  2. R. H Hall and P. Hanna, “The effect of Web page text-background color combinations on retention and perceived readability, aesthetics and behavioral intention,” in Ninth Americas Conference on Information Systems, Tampa, FL, 2003.


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