When Massimo Vignelli designed Italian TV news

In the late 1980s, Italy’s second national news program, broadcast by RAI, bore the same signature as the iconic New York subway map: an essay in visual design theory and practice, from the Domus archive.

All through the design mythology, the name of Massimo Vignelli is connected to the field of graphic design, with indelible signs such as those with which he had been able to clarify and communicate the intricacy of New York subway lines, as well as with logos destined to constitute its most enduring identity.of companies and institutions worldwide. But the spectrum of action and reflection, for the Milan-born designer (New Yorker by adoption, from the 1960s Unimark experience followed by the Vignelli Associates era) went beyond the realm of graphic design, structured as it was by a pervasive design ethic and a cross-disciplinary vision – “if you can design one thing, you can design anything” – and thus the furniture and objects developed with his wife Lella appeared, and the Italian experiences of the late phase of his career: in 1989 came the design for a RAI (Italian public broadcasting company) news program, Tg2, renewed not only in graphics but also in studio space and  even in furniture, with custom chairs by Vignelli for Poltrona Frau. Domus presented the project that same year, in June, on issue 706.

Domus 706, June 1989

The Rai-Tv Tg2

Modernity also, and most of all, means a historical awareness, and hence the capacity of every project and of every project-designer, to sieze from the classical whatever remains that is determinant to the languages of contemporaneity. Otherwise a false conception of the modern, which it would be more correct to call modernization, would tend to erase the differences in favour of a creative standardization. In graphic communication, where the contents of the message must prevail over its form as the scenic space of presentation, typographic culture and, in particular, a functional use of lettering, represent a true and proper modernity because the protagonist is, in this case, reason against a false spectacularization.  

Vignelli’s graphic design ‘guided by reason’ respects the autonomy of every viewer, because it puts its cards on the table.

Massimo Vignelli, commissioned by RAI-TV (the Italian radio-tv corporation), has laid out the TV news and the whole system of TG2’s (one of the three national channels) information reporting, as if the linguistic tradition of the television medium did not exist: two large horizontal black fillets above and below, the double opening page where the news picture and that of the speaker are seen simultaneously, and a lettering that becomes form, self-signifying structure and no longer simply a caption. All this is part of a comprehensive production through which Vignelli, operating as a veritable three-dimensional art-director, has acted on the interior architecture, on the arrangement of the telecameras, on the newscasters’ elocution, on the studio lights.

Domus 706, June 1989

The television news has thus become an il lustrated newspaper where the front and back covers, the graphic scansion of sections and, I would say, all the historical spaces of editorial typographic culture, are the constants of Massimo Vignelli’s design, together with solutions of a more specifically television-oriented sort from which there emerges, and rightly so, a correct and not overflowing logic of entertainment. The aesthetic protagonism of the newscasters is, in a sense, under control, so that the news is at the centre of the actor’s attention; and credit for this is due also to TG2’s chief editor, Roberto Costa, who followed Vignelli’s work right from the start.

Gustav Platz, in his famous essay of 1927, Contemporary architecture, which was fundamental to the construction of the Modern Movement, wrote that “purpose is without doubt an indispensable stimulus to form, the former bestowing its peculiar characteristics upon the latter. The best form is, therefore, the symbol of purpose. But useful form cannot be consecrated by purpose alone: for it still lacks soul”. And in fact Massimo Vignelli’s design for TG2 causes typographic form to symbolize the purpose of television information, without however forgetting the soul of a visual communication that must be capable of speaking to the heart of people listening with their eyes. The news-reading takes place in a simultaneous visual and verbal perception of the event, while the stage design of the studio reminds us that we are watching a theatrical perfomance at the service of a practical purpose.

This, to my mind, is what modernity is all about; and this is why I prefer Massimo Vignelli’s graphic-television design to all the possible devices and tricks whose ultimate aim is to turn news into a pure and simple opportunity for entertainment. Vignelli’s graphic design “guided by reason” respects the autonomy of every viewer, because it puts its cards on the table. 

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