September 3, 2016 Serena

Law and Vignelli, plus Anna Calvi

The Vignelli canon.

 (first series of analogies, between law and the NY map, here)

In 2012 designer Massimo Vignelli knew enough about himself and his art to write a short book aimed at young designers, “with the hope of improving their design skills”. That was the Canon, a short, powerful piece of literature. A fascinating philosophical read.

Vignelli divided the Canon into two parts, the Intangibles and the Tangibles.

Intangibles: these are the principles which should inspire designers’ work: Intellectual elegance, Visual power, Equity, Timelessness etc.

Tangibles: the tangibles are more detailed, down to earth, guidelines: grid, paper sizes, typefaces and so on. Even here, Vignelli never goes too much into detail.

I read the Vignelli’s Canon in a day. Being made of rules, you would expect a bored lawyer like me to fall asleep after a few pages. Quite the contrary. The thing is, the Canon is a beautiful read.

It’s a read on principles, not on rules.

The Canon tells you where to go, but doesn’t bother telling you how, why and when. It leaves you free while setting the main direction. And I think it is like that because it is a distilled of years of practice, not of theoretical speculations.

A little diversion now.

I was reading about Anna Calvi, who is, like the majority of non classical musicians, self taught.

“How did you find teaching students the guitar given that you were self-taught?“

“I wasn’t really that good at it [laughs]. I didn’t have lessons so I found it kind of hard to tell people how to do it, really. It does make you realise that certain things can be learned but there’s a basic instinct for what sounds good and what works that can’t really be taught.” 

(from the Escapism of Anna Calvi, Spook Magazine)

Like native speakers, self taught musicians know little or nothing about grammar of music while they’re still able to compose beautifully complicated pieces. They learn by practicing, by listening and with a innate instinct for what is good and what is not.

Back to Vignelli now.

The old guy set the principles, not the rules. Exactly as any self taught musician, as any writer, he learned along the years what to do and what to avoid and toward the end he was able to distill his practice into principles, broad, large principles: but not into rules. It would have been impossible and useless to set the rules for making good design. First, because they’re partially time and context dependent and secondly because…they can’t be known in advance. There’s a basic instinct for what sounds good and what works that can’t really be taught.

Now the analogy. Short and sweet.

Wouldn’t be great to do the same for have a legal system which sets the guidelines without bothering with all the details? 

Is there a basic instinct for good and bad which doesn’t need to be taught? We just sense it, and that’s it. But if we try to put it into rules we just become clumsy and rigid. Can we curtail all the rules, and just focus on principles and good practices? I don’t know.

p.s. I was also wondering how canon, which comes from the Greek and means law, rule, came to mean also, in music, a contrapuntal composition.  I’m not sure of what this means.

However, I know that language, being a natural product of some kind of mass intelligence, helps bear connections between things. Connections between laws and music, remember? I’m so sure there’s so much to explore there.

Tagged: ,