Review: 'Design Is One' A Jumbled, Scattershot Look At Designers Who Mastered Simplicity

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by Kevin Jagernauth
October 12, 2013 10:41 AM
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"The way things work in communication design is frequently enhancing understanding, which is of course is at the heart of much of the Vignelli's legacy work," Richard Grefe of the American Institute Of Graphic Arts, says about Lella and Massimo Vignelli, the subjects of "Design Is One." "To the extent that the communication designer, the graphic designer, plays the role of the intermediary between information and understanding. The Vignellis have been messiahs in that regard, in terms of making the complex clear, for those of us who need answers." And while the documentary by Kathy Brew and Roberto Guerra certainly makes a case for the thesis that the Vignellis were the premiere purveyors of simple, beautiful, striking and clear design, the film itself is a jumbled, scattershot experience that is all too content to simply gawk at their work, rather than investigating their methods and history with any depth.

While you might not know the name of Vignellis, there is no doubt you've seen their iconic work. The creative duo are behind the New York City subway map and signage in the stations, logos for Bloomingdales, American Airlines, Saks Fifth Avenue and more; interdisciplinary masters who truly live up to their motto, "If you don't find it, design it." Not just graphic artists, the Vignellis have created furniture, jewelry, clothing and more, bringing a dogged emphasis that their creations are clean, straightforward and accessible. And yet, within that seemingly narrow approach, the pair finds so much room to explore and constantly surprise, setting new trends along the way. The Italian Vignellis are credited with literally bringing the Helvetica typeface to the United States, and now it's hard to imagine what design would be like without it. Their emphasis on grids for layouts has provided an astonishing visual consistency in their work, that is still always inventive.

So, credit to "Design Is One" for truly getting the Vignellis legacy across, even if it's in broad, Wikipedia-sized strokes. But unfortunately, the rest of the 80-odd-minute doc can't afford to be so breezy. With work stretching from the mid-'60s until today, the Vignellis have lived through an extraordinary, constantly changing time in design, but the film never captures their role or impact, either in their community of colleagues or in the pop culture sphere at large. Too often, Brew and Guerra are content to simply point the camera at a variety of Vignelli projects, then cut to talking heads proclaiming how great it is. Were they ever out of favor? Was there a project or time period with which they struggled or felt out of step? What are their own inspirations? What designers do they admire? These are the sort of pressing questions that begged to be asked, but were instead left unexplored.

More crucially, there is no arc to the narrative. "Design Is One" moves swiftly but erratically, jumping from Vignelli anecdote to Vignelli anecdote without any sense of history, chronology or even dramatic stakes. As the film plays out, the Vignellis hit the ground running and never looked back, accumulating stature and fame—but honest, deep reflection is missing. Beloved and admired, it seems the only true lesson we take away from the documentary is that the pair like the computer age because it allows them to still be very productive even into their twilight years. That they are still plugging away on projects is inspiring, but again, we're left wanting to know more about what still drives them beyond pure obsession. At one point, Massimo declares that design is not art, and yet, their pieces are in museums. How does he reconcile that? Again, it's left unasked. 

"Design Is One" is loosely bookended by the groundbreaking and opening of their archives at the Vignelli Center For Design Studies at the Rochester Institute Of Technology. There is no doubt that their body of work deserves to be studied for years and years to come. And yet,  that moment, walking around a facility named after them, and dedicated to their work, is utterly anticlimactic. After spending the entire runtime only scratching the surface of the immense and important influence they've had, the filmmakers ask the audience to consider their legacy without providing the framework for it. It's a shame, because with two witty, engaging people willing to participate, one wishes the Vignellis received something as considered and labored over as their own work in "Design Is One." Haphazard and on the edge of half-hearted, the documentary always feels like a sketch rather than a finished design. [C]

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