Massimo Vignelli: Timeless in D.C.

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Through his work, graphic designer and architect Massimo Vignelli, attempted to convey timeless art, rather than keep up with the trends of the day. For most inhabitants of Washington, D.C., Vignelli’s work was indeed timeless – so timeless that it became part of daily life without a second thought. 

Although Vignelli’s work can be found across the globe, his contribution to D.C. will continue to last as long as the trains continue to run, even past his death May 27.

In the mid-1970s, Vignelli partnered with D.C. Metro architect Harry Weese to create a way-finding marker to alert a passenger where they were — whether it be in or outside a Metro station.

The brown pylons that signify the location of a Metro stop were designed by Vignelli and have been a symbol of the Metro ever since.

2014_06_Vignelli-Pylon1 Pylons, like the one displayed here at the Judiciary Square Metro stop, were designed by Massimo Vignelli, who died May 27.

As the Metro has expanded beyond its initial five-station line in 1976, Vignelli’s pylons changed slightly, but maintained the Helvetica font and brown color of the original design.

“In large part because of its seamless integration into Harry Weese’s overall architectural design, Vignelli set the standard for modern day transportation graphics,” the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority said in a June 12 statement to FedScoop.

At its inception, the Metro featured no signage on the station walls. Instead, passengers relied on the signage on Vignelli’s pylons to lead the way. After customer’s struggled to find their way to the trains, the WMATA installed signage on the walls.

In a visit to Washington in 2010, Vignelli criticized the Metro’s updated signage. According to an Associated Press story about his visit, Vignelli said the Metro had been cluttered with sign “pollution.” He compared the signage on the walls of the Metro to putting advertising on a church or the White House.

“Get rid of it,” Vignelli said. “Signage should be kept to a minimum […] but be there when you need it.”

In addition to providing way-finding information, Vignelli’s pylons also served another purpose inside the station. The pylons, made primarily of cement, also hide lights that illuminate the top of the Metro’s ceiling and air ducts that keep air circulating throughout the terminal.

“These standards undoubtedly contribute to Vignelli’s legacy and can now be seen not just in the Washington region, but all over the world,” the statement from WMATA said.

Vignelli is credited with using the name Metro, instead of a string of acronyms, according to Gizmodo. The pylons in the Metro are not Vignelli’s only contribution to design – he is credited with the graphic design of the New York City subway map and the pamphlet design for the National Park Service’s guide materials.

“Metro salutes the legacy of Massimo Vignelli and is pleased that his design of the Metrorail signage system has endured over decades,” WMATA said.

Vignelli, often looked to for thoughts and quotes on design and aesthetic, said good design is timeless.

“If you do it right,” Vignelli said. “It will last forever.”

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Commentary, Guest Columns, Lifestyle, Massimo Vignelli, WMATA