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A Masterpiece

By Massimo Vignelli
June 1, 1996
A Masterpiece

Amazing but true: there is a masterpiece of information architecture printed on every food package sold in the United States. The first time I saw the Nutrition Facts label, it earned my unlimited enthusiasm.The label is perfectly structured, with a bold rule at the top to draw attention and support the height of the text that hangs from it. Following the bar, a line of type, “Nutrition Facts,” boldly states the contents. Every nutrition component is entered in a clear manner—line by line, separated by a light rule. There are no highlights, no balloons, no flashes; in short, none of the marketing devices normally associated with the junkyard of package design. The label is a clean testimonial of civilization, a statement of social responsibility, and a masterpiece of graphic design. Not a small achievement in today’s graphic landscape.

You can imagine my joy in seeing it exhibited at the AIGA Information Graphics show. Beyond the aesthetics of the design solution, what strikes me more than anything else is the built-in-mechanism to control the implementation. I have seen the label on all kinds of packages: round, square, rectangular, vertical, horizontal. On some packages it is “portrait” and on others”landscape” direction; elsewhere it is extremely landscaped (as on Hershey’s chocolate bars, for example). In all variations, the label maintains its visual integrity, even if basically distorted by such different sizes and shapes. This is one of the most difficult things to obtain in a graphic design program and they have done it. For this accomplishment alone, they deserve the Presidential Design Award.

The only thing that strikes me as strange is the anonymity of its authorship. In the wall caption for the Information Graphics show, the AIGA credits the office responsible for enforcing the application of the label, but will the real designer step forward and receive our heartfelt gratitude for having spared us another visual humiliation and for having given us a sign that civilization still lives?

This little label is indeed the best piece of graphic information, or better yet, information architecture, that has surfaced in this country in the last twenty years. It reaches us at a time when graphic design has almost disintegrated and, perhaps for this very reason, it seems to have greater value.

This responsible little label comes at a time when I feel a schism is rocking our profession. On one side are information architects, rooted in history, typography, semiotics; on the other side are graphic designers rooted in advertising, pictorial arts, and trends. It seems to me that the development of our profession, as we have seen in countless annuals, awards, and magazines, is clearly pointing out that this dichotomy is in action. Personally I feel I no longer have anything to share with the so-called graphic design of today: not concept, not the typefaces, not the layout—nothing.

But I do have a lot to share with many of the designers in the Information Graphics show. Therefore, I conclude that I am no longer a graphic designer, but an information architect, and from now on that is how I will describe the meaning of my work and the scope of my activity.

For me, to be an information architect means to organize information in a  way that is essentially retrievable, understandable, visually captivating, emotionally involving, and easily identifiable. Information should be semantically rooted, syntactically correct, pragmatically efficient. It doesn’t work otherwise.

I am sure there is room for two sides of the schism, ours and theirs. Finally accepting this reality, I feel mush more relaxed now than I have ever been. All of a sudden everything is clear, each of us with our Nutrition Facts label, revealing our content to the world, where, indeed, there is room for all of us designers.

Massimo Vignelli is an AIGA medalist and a principal at Vignelli Associates.

This article originally appeared in the AIGA Journal of Graphic Design Volume 14, Number 2, 1996.