Helvetica and the Vignelli Canon: How Typefaces Ought to Be in Graphic Design

by . March 28th, 2012

I had my first brush with typography when I had a subject about freehand lettering in high school. In that class I was exposed to lettering and some of typography’s history. From there, I began admiring different type designs on printed material, from magazines (Ray Gun, Esquire) to posters (“Your Turn, My Turn” and “International Zeitung” posters) and, later on, films and documentaries featuring typography.

Recently, I watched Helvetica (again), the 2007 documentary about the typeface of the same name. I found it very interesting as it is focused on the rise, effectiveness, and eventual ubiquity of the Helvetica typeface. It also provides, as you watch through the documentary, a guide on how typeface must be applied in graphic design and its related fields, i.e., advertising, marketing, and design in general.

Helvetica approached design in a philosophical and psychological way. The designers interviewed for the film were notable personalities in design and typography. They shared different insights on the beauty of type and the functionality of Helvetica in particular. They explained the idea of the proper typeface: an immovable, firm object that floats in space, like air, infinite and unseen yet right in front of us.

An interesting designer featured in the film is Massimo Vignelli. He’s a modernist designer known for his typography-centered designs in different media. His works include American Airline’s corporate identity, NYC’s subway signage, and DC Metro’s way-finding system, among others. Another contribution he made for design is the Vignelli Canon (link goes to a .pdf file).

The Vignelli Canon, a handy guide for pursuing typographic design or any design project, is a collection of personal principles that Massimo Vignelli has used throughout his career. It was initially set as a guideline for his design group, but was published later on to help young designers improve their trade.

As a budding designer, I found the concepts and guidelines presented in the Vignelli Canon helpful with creating my projects. It’s a straightforward guidebook that can help designers establish or improve their design foundation. I read through it every now and then for inspiration on my projects.

There are parts of the canon that I think are necessary for all designers. By designers, I mean designers from all industries, from fashion designers to architects. I consider Vignelli’s dedication to the purpose, consistency, and practicality of design as important factors for a design to be successful and functional. Just to give you a taste of the awesomeness you can find in the canon, and also to demonstrate how the canon also applies to typography, here’s why I personally consider three of the intangibles Vignelli mentioned to be important:


Semantics in design simply pertains to the meaning of the end product. It could be the purpose of its redesign, or an upgrade of an old design. Even though it’s applicable to all design disciplines, semantics can easily be applied and seen in typography.

In design, semantics plays a valuable part in sending the message across to a target audience. A commonly used element for design semantics is the application of cultural iconography or symbolism that has strong connections to the target audience. Here, Uncle Sam is used as a patriotic symbol to recruit soldiers into the war effort.

In typography, it’s all about the meaning and legibility of the design. How people easily read and understand a typographic design is up to the designer. That’s why a designer must first know the history of his project and the people he’s working with – from the company’s and their design’s history, up to their target market and audience. Once a designer learns these, he’ll be better able to create a product or graphic design that makes sense.

A great example of semantic design can be found in American Airlines’ branding, which has not changed much since its creation in the late 1960s. It has become an iconic design because of its recognizable elements – the words “American Airlines” used as one word and separated by the colors blue and red. These colors have been used for American Airlines’ branding because of its relevance to the company’s market and as a tribute to the U.S.’s colors.


Syntax, when applied in design, is the overall consistency of the elements throughout a project. In design, syntax is applied to the process to create an overall design that is made up of complementing elements; this is just like how syntax in grammar is the selection and combination of the right words to create a consistent and clear message or thought.

Graphic design acts as a communications framework that involves different elements of design in its creation. It is important that a design must be consistent, legible, and intelligible for it to be fully understood by the target audience. This is why modernists utilize as few elements as they can, which are type and negative space (or background).

Once applied in typography, syntax provides the consistency that a design needs to send a clear and straightforward message to its audience.

Syntax in design can be seen in signages, maps, or navigational tools. A classic example can be found in NYC’s subway system signage. These signages use the Helvetica typeface, which gives the system a streamlined and consistent look. This consistency allows passengers and passerbys to navigate their way through the subway system easily.

(Erratum: Turns out Vignelli did not initially specify Helvetica for the NYC subway signage, though it became that later. They specified a version of Akzidenz, which the image sample we have above is actually showing. Please see Scott Smyth’s comment below for more details.)


In design, pragmatics is considered as the practicality of the design; its usability and functionality. If a design fails to be understood by the consumer or audience, it is useless regardless of the level of syntax or semantics applied to it. This is where the designer must compare his design’s intent with the results of his work to see if they have diverged or followed at least similar routes.

Aside from its consistency and purpose, a project must also be capable of standing alone, much like cultural icons, wherein a single part, e.g., weapon, hairstyle, clothing, etc., can be easily identified as part of the whole. Like how the trefoil logo (three stripes) is easily associated with the Adidas brand. The concept of pars pro toto (a part taken for the whole) can be used as an acid test for the pragmatics of the design.

Pragmatics applied in typography transforms the design into a straightforward tool that we see in marketing and advertising. The concept of pragmatics in typography is to get the message across the consumer or audience without confusing them.

Just to demonstrate to you how taken for granted pragmatics in typography is, here’s a completely wrong example of pragmatics in typography and see if it doesn’t make you roll on the floor with laughter:

For more on the topic, you can check out Smashing Magazine’s How to Choose a Typeface.

As a graphic designer, you are entitled to the privilege of creating something that can be monumental and that can move a person to do things – buy something, dispose of garbage properly, cross the street, know where she should go. It’s a designer’s job to inform the public, from channels like advertising and marketing to simple signs and symbols. It’s also a designer’s responsibility to create aesthetically pleasing pieces and help prevent visual pollution (a term used by Vignelli).

As Vignelli said in his book, design is a language that must use proper grammar in the construction of phrases. A design, to be able to communicate and function properly, must be well thought of and researched before it can move forward. When creating a project or design solution, a designer must study the design itself and the things that may affect it, from the consumer to the manufacturer – and the designer himself.

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