The Vignelli Twelve Typefaces… well, almost

5 minute read

You have to learn a little more about the history of typography, or type. How it came about.

It was invented at the end of the 14th hundred […] and then for two or three hundred years there were very few different typefaces. Very elegant and that’s it. Some publisher had type and print and publish was all one thing.
And there were very few also because it was very difficult to cut type. It was cut by hands and not tools, precise chisels […] and type was small. So it was a very refined kind of operation to do. And because it was refined it was also quite elegant: there was no room to vulgarity to get in.
So the basic typefaces done in those years like Garamond, Baskerville, Granjon, Caslon, and so on.
They were quite elegant… very elegant actually… typefaces.

Then the industrial revolution comes about and then you can do the type in an industrial way, with the help of machines and so on. And then because you can do it, people started to do it, the foundries started to do more types, and therefore they had to resell it, to offer.
And they found the right victim into the advertising people which they’ve been told that they should use different typeface for every different client. They should not have two clients with the same type.
God. *facepalm*
And so that went on and on and became a business just like wallpapers. Then because of that you got typefaces designers, people got into the business, they liked it and they created nonsense type, things that were totally useless, things of bad nature, and on, and on, and on, and on.
And so eventually you understand that there are a lot of typefaces just because there’s a business, not the need.
So you begin to sift, sift, sift, sift, to see which one is appropriate for one use or the other.
Basically as you know all the typefaces are divided in two categories which are called serif – the ones with the feat – and sans serif – without the feats, the straights ones. Between one family and the other family you begin to pick up the best and at the end when you pick up the best you wind up with about half a dozen or little more of typefaces.
And those are good, those are good for everything.
Then each one of those families is very large, in the same typeface you have very thin or very big, very straight or italic, which is inclined, things like that.
So yes, there are only maybe a dozen, I’m very generous today, St. Patrick’s day. *laugh*
But there’s no more than a dozen, actually I don’t use many more than three or four in my life. That is the thing. However I made an exception sometime I may have used some other too.
But there is really not much more than that. Good typefaces and the rest you can really trash it.

However I’m from a design point of view.
However it’s a business that keeps a lot of people alive. And… what do you want to do? They won’t do otherwise. So, let them do type if they like it. *laugh*

The only thing that’s important to understand is: when to use it and when not to use it. Or what to use.
And then, good designers can come to it. They come very well along with very few typefaces.
And very good designers doesn’t use more than few typefaces.
And when they are less good the number increase, and if they are worse they use all of them. *laugh*

— Massimo Vignelli (2010) We use way too many fonts

This is the transcript of the interview, emphasis mine.

It’s a topic that often resurfaces, Vignelli isn’t the first saying something similar, and won’t be the last. But surely he’s a very famous designer, so his remarks can cause a lot of uprise. Even more if you’re a typeface designer or typeface lover like John Boardley or his great commenters. ;)

I think that the uprise is justified if you stop right at his words. But I don’t think that’s the point and I don’t think that he’s saying anything about good typeface designers!

Instead, he despises the type industry. As much as, I’m sure, a lot of other industries that work to create less than perfect objects. And I’m sure that nobody is going to say that the majority of the typefaces out there are good. They are far from good. I love reading debates between typographers even about common and widely accepted good typefaces, because “they are not good“.

Vignelli is a modernist designer with an incredibly high quality threshold

First of all, Vignelli is a modernist designer. Not only that: he’s a modernist designer with an incredibly high quality threshold: he doesn’t accept anything less than perfect. I can perfectly understand his point of view, sharing myself a similar trait. To better understand his point of view, read something about what he means about ‘elegant’ and ‘vulgar’.

With this point of view in your life – and being this your way to judge a good designer – you can perfectly understand what it means that you are going to user a few typefaces: you are going to choose the perfect ones. The one that are crafted with passion, maybe love, with every little details taken care of. Anything less than that, isn’t your first choice.

When he says “twelve” he’s laughing! It’s just a number. Just a while before he says six. Then twelve. Then a few. It’s not important the number, that’s a red herring. I can’t believe that now “The Vignelli Twelve” is taken as a rule.

He doesn’t say that “there are universally just 12 good typefaces, now and forever, stop making them”. He says sift. He says choose. And to be able to do that as a designer, you have to rely on good typeface designers. You have to rely on the people that creates them, refine them. The same people that criticise Helvetica because he wants “something better”. You can’t sift something that doesn’t exist! :)


sift, sift, sift, sift

What’s important here is that as a designer you have to choose very carefully your typeface. You have to “sift, sift, sift, sift”. And you have to understand “when to use it and when not to use it”.

It means that you have to aim no less than perfection. That you can’t accept anything less than perfect. And to do that as a designer, you have to rely on a typeface designer that is doing exactly the same.

I’m sure that everybody wants just perfect tools in his/her own toolbox …even if sometimes you’re going to make an exception and use that less than perfect tool. Because it’s just right.

Stop this “twelve” misinterpretation and keep aiming for perfection. Whatever your job is. ;)