My hero, Massimo Vignelli, passed away this morning. He inspired me to become a graphic designer, and his book the Vignelli Canon was my bible throughout design school. It wasn’t that I agreed with his ideals, I just loved that he had them. The fact that a person can be guided by a personal philosophy still inspires me every day.
I had the good fortune to meet Massimo at an AIGA event in Chicago to celebrate the release of the Unimark book. I was in college for graphic design and damn near broke, but I scraped together the fee for the event and took the Metra into the city. It was bitterly cold and I showed up bundled in shabby winter gear to awkwardly schmooze with real industry professionals (including several Unimark folks) dressed to the nines. I felt a bit out of place. Massimo was there dressed in a black turtleneck and black slacks, sipping on a beer and chatting idly. I was terrified of talking to him. He was my greatest design hero, but I had no idea what to expect. I purchased a copy of the book and asked him to sign it. He greeted me warmly and obliged.
The organizers of the event took to the microphone. They made grand introductions, talked of Massimo’s influence. Massimo sat at his table, chuckling and whispering to his neighbors, looking around and taking pictures with a little black Leica point-and-shoot. The event was ostensibly in his honor, but he was just a member of the audience enjoying the event. Finally, they invited him to the microphone. He came up, greeted the audience, and I swear to you, spoke for no longer than forty-five seconds before sitting back down. One of the organizers, visibly flustered, returned to the mic and asked if anyone else maybe had a story to share about Unimark.
The rest of the night proceeded not as a formal presentation, but a casual conversation, with people coming up, sharing stories, Massimo remembering things and returning to the microphone to share and then stepping down to encourage others to talk. We listened and talked and drank and laughed. When someone brought up the temperature outside, Massimo pulled up one of his pant legs to his knee to reveal his long underwear (black, of course). I’ll never forget that image.
It’s dangerous meeting your heroes. Too often they fall short of your expectations, leave you wondering how you ever looked up to them. Massimo Vignelli turned out to be so much more than just a great designer. He was a warm and funny man who cared about people and made the world a better place. I’m glad to have met him, and I hope he got my letter. I’ll sincerely miss him.