Design Is One Lacks the Elegance of Form It Attempts to Explain

The contradiction of design is that it aspires to be both beautiful and self-effacing, shaping at all times our perception of public space and corporate image while remaining tactfully beyond our grasp, unauthored and void of meaning.

Take the well-known New York subway map of 1972: It streamlined the inscrutable sprawl of the city's transit system into an elegant arrangement of color-coded lines, producing a diagram at once intuitive and geographically abstract. Naturally, the question of authorship arises: Who is responsible for New York's radical, graphical reimagining?

Design Is One, a new documentary by Kathy Brew and Roberto Guerra, tells us that the accountable pair are Lella and Massimo Vignelli, and, as it happens, their contributions to the popular imagination extend significantly further: They created the corporate identities of American Airlines and the Ford Motor Company, crafted all manner of mass-produced teacups and chairs, and, in their most influential coup, brought the Helvetica typeface into ubiquity by slathering it across New York's transit signage, among other places (the Vignellis do not shy from repetition).

If this aspect of their legacy sounds familiar, it is because it has been chronicled exhaustively in Gary Hustwit's Helvetica, the popular documentary about the history of that font. Design Is One opts to shift the conversation from the work to the people behind it—a change that barely justifies the necessary redundancy—but the film lacks the elegance of form required to honor its subject.

Good design rests at the intersection of function and beauty. Design Is One, alas, has far too little of the latter.

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