I Love Typography

The Vignelli Twelve

Though I have the utmost respect for Massimo Vignelli, and am a fan of his work, his we use too many typefaces is just plain wrong. It’s by no means the first time Vignelli has voiced these views. If you have no idea what I’m writing about, then watch this video:

For any designer to claim that a half-dozen or a dozen typefaces is enough — well that’s their prerogative. However, it’s one thing to say ‘twelve typefaces is enough for me’, but to claim ‘twelve typefaces is enough’, period; extrapolating a generalisation from a personal imposition is rarely, if ever helpful.

Taking his statement at face value, imagine a Vignellian world in which only twelve typefaces exist. Ignore for now that such an arbitrary limit would mean that a number of writing systems would be left without typefaces. Sorry, Chinese, sorry Arabic, but there aren’t enough to go round; pen and paper for you, I’m afraid. The global typographic landscape would look pretty bleak indeed. So, in deference to Mr Vignelii, let’s suppose that he is talking about twelve latin alphabet typefaces. Enough?

Let’s answer that below. For now, let us pose another related question. Why, instead of a handful of typefaces, do thousands upon thousands exist? True, a large number of them could be shredded tomorrow, and we’d probably be none the worse for their deletion. In fact, we might be better off as a consequence. Again, hold that thought, and join me in the arbitrarily selected sixteenth century. Looking around, we see that we already have more than our quota of a dozen typefaces at our disposal; in fact, there are thousands to choose from. German-speaking countries, and a swathe of Northern Europe have numerous blackletter types, while the remainder load their setting sticks with roman types first developed by pioneers like the brothers da Spira, and honed by Jenson. We even have numerous italic styles, ornaments, some wood type, broader- and narrower-set designs, varying x-heights, and different lengths of extenders. Surely, then, we have enough? Despite all these typefaces, Caslon, Baskerville, Bodoni (inventions of the 18th century), the slab serifs (e.g. the Clarendons), the grotesques (e.g. Akzidenz Grotesk), the geometric sans (e.g. Futura and Gotham), the neo-grotesques (e.g. Helvetica), the humanist sans of Martin Majoor (e.g. Scala Sans), Adrian Frutiger’s eponymous Frutiger, Erik Spiekermann’s Meta, and a comprehensive, unified super-familiy like Lucas de Groot’s Thesis — well, none of these has yet to make an appearance. No doubt there were those in the 16th century who shared Vignelli’s views. Every age is populated by those who think we’ve reached the apogee of progress.

Let’s return to the why question: why are there so many typefaces? For that matter, why are there so many designs of chair? Surely a dozen designs of chair would suffice. And, while we’re at it, let’s make do with a dozen designs of houses, tables, books, bridges, teacups, salt-shakers … everything. Why, then, do we see such profligacy in design? Because that’s what we do, that’s who we are. Our restless minds are always striving for ‘better’, for more functional, more comfortable, stronger, more durable, more economical, more ornate, simpler, more complex, smaller, bigger, greener, healthier, clearer, more legible; even, more aesthetically pleasing. That’s what we do. That same spirit, that inherent desire for progress, that indefatigable obsession with creation, that’s what we do.

During the Industrial Revolution (which Vignelli mentions), there was explosive growth in the number of typefaces available, a gargantuan proliferation of new designs. Advertisers demanded new designs, so that their work could be differentiated from the competition; and type designers too created new, non-commissioned type designs; thus demand drove supply, and supply fed and elicited demand. This era gave birth to the grandparents of Vignelli’s beloved Helvetica, a typeface that would never have existed but for our desire to do better, to progress, to create.

Thousands of typefaces exist simply because they are demanded and supplied, supplied and consumed. Moreover, technological progress, the desire for differentiation, the desire for more legible types, for types appropriate for new printing techniques, for the screen, for printing on new substrates — these challenges, these changing needs demand new solutions. Vignelli is an exceptional designer, and graphic design is arguably better off for its association with him. He has succeeded despite his limited, self-imposed type palette, but the world is bigger and more beautiful than Vignelli and his twelve apostles.

Cyrus Highsmith’s Do we need more fonts?
Michael Bierut’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Typeface.
Video courtesy of bigthink.com


  1. These sorts of “island scenarios” can become unpleasant realities. On the iPad, the otherwise wonderful Keynote presentation program is limited to about 40 type families. You can’t import fonts, and presentations that use other fonts get Helveticaized. And of course web browsers at this point are limited to the type families installed on the user’s machine…your mileage can vary there as well. I think the efforts of people to expand the use of typography on the web are ill-served by pronouncements like Mr. Vignelli…because then it becomes easy to say “well, this well-known guy says that 12 is enough.”

    The reality, of course, is you don’t “need” zillions of typefaces…but you DO need an infrastructure that allows you to use one of those zillions—legally and reliably—when that unpredictable moment arises.

  2. Ben

    Wonderful article! I think you hit it right on the head. I can look at your right sidebar and see the monthly fonts and be reminded of why I personally could never limit myself to 12 fonts for a career. There are simply too many well designed fonts that can fit into certain situations better than if we had only 12 to choose from. Display fonts can fit into a single job amazingly, and then we may not use it again for a year or more.

    This mass quantity of fonts does of course present problems. Bad designers will use them in the wrong ways or simply choose to use any of the number of poorly designed fonts in lieu of a more appropriate one. The real problem, then, with all these fonts is the designers who use them, not the fact they are available for use. Perhaps Vignelli should spend more time discussing why designers need to be educated on the use of fonts than trying to for his arbitrary limit on them.

  3. Nervey

    He’s funny.
    Like a clown’s funny.
    But eventually, it’s his personal opinion.
    It’s okay to have a opinion.
    But there are as many opinions as there are people on earth.
    I have some too.
    And one of them is
    I use as many typefaces as I like.
    If he imposes himself a limited number of fonts to use for his work
    I’m okay with it.
    In fact I don’t give a toss.
    Does anyone?

  4. Not to mention the flagrant arbitrary classification of “Serif” and “Sans-Serif” he is talking about. For someone who claims to know enough about typography to make statements like thees, he seems to know very little.

    I respect Vignelli very much, and I have a great amount of respect for his work. He may have succeeded using only twelve typefaces, and limiting yourself to using only twelve typefaces can often really help you focus on the bigger picture of the design. But it is definitely not an absolute fact that the world only needs x number of typefaces.

    Then again, I think Vignelli is smart enough to realise that himself. I would argue he is making such a bold statement to merely focus on another problem that a lot of designers seem to have to cope with today: too much choice.

  5. guiie

    I cannot watch the video right now but maybe he is saying that you can do your work with 12 typefaces instead of “with only 12 typefaces in the world we could be much happier”. I still think that working with only 12 typefaces is wrong, but it is not so crazy as just 12 typefaces in the whole world.

  6. In his canon (http://www.vignelli.com/canon.pdf), Vignelli writes “it is not my language and I am not interested in it.” (Pages 54-55)

    Clearly what he is after is to tell people that more is not necessarily better. If what you need to express can be done in a handful of fonts, there is no reason to use a hundred. On the contrary - too many fonts spoil the soup.

    He definitely allows other fonts to exist when there is a need - it is just that he, who happens to be one of the greatest designers, does not feel that need.

    If an average designer feels the need, s/he may want to think twice about if it is a true need.

  7. Having listened to the Vignelli opinion of type a few times, I think that he’s poorly served by his phrase that “there are only a few good typefaces.” When those of us on a type blog hear this, we tend to take it as an indictment of the type designer’s work, from outlines to kerning. Is Vignelli really saying, though, that Jean-Francois Porchez or Kris Sowersby produce bad type? I don’t think so. (In fact, I’m sure he’s not familiar enough with any of their typefaces to assess their quality.) His dictum comes instead from the modernist love of constraint, exemplified by adherence to a grid. Limiting options is often considered an aid to creativity, as it gets the designer focused on the project’s fundamental communicative goals. Using just a few typefaces (a dozen is really too generous for Vignelli most days) hones his work, keeping it effective in its precision. Perhaps he would be better understood if he didn’t make universal pronouncements about “good” type — at the least, he wouldn’t malign type designers he knows little about.

  8. Giorgetta McRee

    Great article! Clearly Mr. Vignelli belongs in the Dark Ages. I agree that sometimes less is more, but it’s great to have a big pool of resources to choose from. There is artistry and talent in combining a variety of fonts, and great accomplishment in the unique result we can achieve by doing so. Imagine having a limited color palette to create with (though some minimalists are in favor of that too) how dull our world would be! Removing limitations and constraints makes creation more challenging, more innovative, more unique. Since we no longer have to chisel out every letter by hand, or even by industrial machine, we should let our imagination take the reign and grow with it. Don’t starve your imagination by limiting choice. The days of famine for artistic choice are over!

  9. Even if we take Massimo at fair value and say that his dozen faces are different than mine or yours, or anyone else’s, we still have no reason to make a totalitarian decision about a number. The exercise is futile, there is nothing to be gained by it. Good graphic designers will make good choices and use them well. Bad ones will not only make bad choices but even use the good selections poorly.

  10. I think what this boils down to is that variety is the spice of life, and without it we’d be creating everything in a utilitarian manner. What really interested me was John saying “True, a large number of them could be shredded tomorrow, and we’d probably be none the worse for their deletion. In fact, we might be better off as a consequence.”

    I think there’s a tremendous amount to be said for that. Imagine a place where our only means toward the variety we crave was through customizing, or creating our own typefaces from scratch.

  11. I couldn’t agree more, narrow-mindedness is deplorable, whether it’s socially or otherwise. It reminds me of what pioneering astrophysicist Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell said in a recent BBC documentary about close-mindedness in science, which I feel is applicable to what we do as designers too:

    ‘Nothing is static, nothing is final, everything is held provisionally. Science is a quest for understanding. A search for truth seems to me to be full of pitfalls. We all have different understandings of what truth is and we are in danger of each believing that our truth is the one and only absolute truth, which is why I said it is full of pitfalls. I think a search for understanding is much more serviceable to humankind and is a sufficiently ambitious goal of itself.
    There are people who believe they have got there, believe they understand it all, and they are no longer open to new experiences, ideas and revelations. And I don’t think you should be so closed. If we assume we’ve arrived, we stop searching, we stop developing.’

  12. I think Vignelli should be thankful that by not sharing his views, everyone else keeps his choices from losing their power.

  13. Colin

    So the things that come to mind when viewing El Maestro’s video (and I think we’ve all heard it before) is simply two things:

    1. In all the time I’ve been doing graphic design, no matter how many fonts I collect (just for fun), I still end up using only a few, because those few sum up my design aesthetic, and work with the designs I come up with for clients. Even though I will literally sit and drool over some new great font, when it comes right down to it, I tend to use a small set of fonts over and over. It’s not a rational choice, it’s just that those groupings of fonts work best for what I like and what I do.

    2. I think the real reason we have so many fonts is because … a lot more people can make them. Computers are ubiquitous, advanced design and typography programs are universally available for roman-based language speaking countries. All the tools … are everywhere! And as are host pointed out - we LOVE to be creative. So, when you combine creativity with the added possibility you get: explosion. And I doubt the explosion will ever end.

  14. Colin

    *of monetary remuneration

  15. It seems completely bizarre that anybody would allege that 12 is the maximum to be used. I mean: why 12? Why not 13, or 14, or 11? This is a typical finger in the wind moment.

    Also, the whole ideas of fonts is that it opens up a less-than-creative world to expression, emotion, design etc. etc. so why would somebody from within the field try to preach something like this?

    Very strange indeed.

  16. Atilla

    This is incredible. Cannot believe how petty one can get.

    By his logic, if people design type because it is a business etc etc, people must be doing graphic design too because it is a business and keeps professionals like him alive. What’s he so snobbish about?

  17. Atilla

    What if all one uses, finally, is a handful of typefaces?
    That is no reason to believe and preach that the rest of the work is useless and should be discarded. This is just fascistic thinking. The red-necks of graphic design are not particularly useful themselves, but I’ll be more accommodating and not demand their removal from the planet, just as yet.

  18. Perfectly normal vision for a modernist: his vision stems from the desire to clean up the visual cluster from the public space. Making society better organized and more functional. It still is a worthy goal.

    However, we live in a complex time were visual communication (especially in the area of branding) seeks to create uniqueness and in which boundaries are less static than in the past. Using only his selection would make a very bland and repetitive world.

    Beyond that “only 12 fonts” of his, I think he is an amazing man with a great body of work.

  19. Following Vignelli’s logic, why should we need more designers like Vignelli? The modernist style has produced so many alike designers, shouldn’t we have only twelve of them?

    I still get astonished with this kind of hegemonic thought.

    I’ts like saying that if type designers made a really intense effort to produce an excellent typeface it would end up being equal to Helvetica or Bodoni.

  20. Rudolf B

    I’m not a font maker myself, but I’m inclined to agree with Vignelli ot a certzin extend.
    I often sift through thousands of fonts to end up finally using a classic.
    Now, I have to agree that his statement is a bit over the top and I think he does that on purpose, so I wouldn’t get wound up about it.:-)

    Nevertheless, an interesting article with equally interesting comments. I enjoyed that video, by the way. Thanks!


  21. Vignelli is a master. There are thousands of mediocre designers who are not. They remain mediocre by thinking that if they use contemporary typefaces, they have some how become good designers. Just look at the amount of idiots using “Archer”. The only thing good about their other wise hopeless design is the choice of typeface. Which, although being part of a trend, far exceeds their capacity to understand why, in the first place, is Archer beautiful and what is it’s significance.

    Did you hear how Vignelli spoke about Helvetica and other classic typefaces? There is a deep reverence and respect to those typefaces. He does not think that they are disposable. How many designers do you know who hold such respect for typefaces they use?

    There are thousands of typefaces because there are thousands of mediocre designers who use them.

  22. Giorgetta McRee


    It is regrettable that in your opinion any designer who disagrees with the Vignelli doctrine is mediocre, and has no reverence or respect for typefaces.

    In today’s competitive world of design and typography, mediocrity is not tolerated for long by clients who are worth working for in the first place. If you don’t want to be around mediocre designers, seek better clients.

    Hero worship is fine up to a point, but there comes a time when we all have to establish our own identity, and hopefully having progressed a step or two further than Vignelli, inspire those who are just entering the field.

  23. Giorgetta,

    I disagree with Vignelli that the 12 typefaces he prefers are the only good ones around. My point is that knowing how to use a typeface is a craft, and that often comes with time spent with a select few typefaces.

    Someone who has learnt how to use a classic, will do particularly well when using contemporary typefaces, regardless of the type of client they’re working with. That is because they fully understand their significance and will use them most interestingly.

  24. Part of Mr. Vignelli’s conjecture — and there’s some merit to it — is that we take craft for granted these days, when we can look through a list of a thousand serif typefaces and just assume each one is designed competently. Mr. Vignelli is talking about typefaces used for copy and readability, which depends on certain strict functional requirements. He doesn’t specify this, but I think we can be fairly certain that he’s not talking about using ornate display fonts within graphical elements, which isn’t so much a typography task as it is an image-making task.

    I think, implicit in his conjecture, is that we don’t need a million display typefaces, because when we want a graphical element, we should find a way to craft it ourselves with lines and negative spaces, rather than leaning on a typeface; the point of having a full, multi-weight typeface is for actual typesetting tasks. And if you take this argument in this spirit, he has a point: why use any of the hundreds of similar but flawed serifed typefaces, when you can just use Garamond?

    I don’t practice what Vignelli is preaching… I use any resource I can to create a visual experience, and I have no shame about using crazy display typefaces. However, there’s something to be said: I should probably spend more time worrying about the arrangement of elements in my designs, and the details of the compositions, rather than stressing about which serif typeface I’m using for my captions on layout after layout. After all, the harder I think about the details of those typefaces each time, the more I convince myself that one of my favorite three typefaces was the best choice from the beginning.

  25. The first 40 years the printing press existed brought the world no less than 4600 different typefaces. We still use the Bembo and designs by Arrighi for Jenson.

    But if some-one wants to use one typeface … so what? It starts to get annoying when we get these dictates - always by modernists by the way - about what the rest of us must do. The world ‘needs’ six typefaces as much as it needs 6.000.000.

  26. Twelve is more than enough. If you don’t like my opinion, or Vignelli’s, wonder why you don’t like it, or call us idiots :)

  27. I love to hear the way Vignelli expresses himself. He’s got such fire and conviction, even if what he says is not true in every case, as he makes it out. I don’t think he can put it in any other way but with great passion.

    Instead of getting upset or thinking he’s closed-minded, we can take his statement as hyperbole teaching an important design principle: Can a designer do world-class work with only a handful of typefaces? Of course. Vignelli’s been doing it for years. Would we do well to step back and consider doing more with less (in terms of typefaces) sometimes? I think it could be very beneficial. It wouldn’t serve us to impose a 12-typeface limit on anyone, but I do think that becoming intimately acquainted with a few good faces will improve anyone’s craft.

  28. Patrick

    Wonderful article.

    Vignelli came to give a lecture at SCAD last Thursday. I was signed up to attend for a long time but a few days before the event I had to have a heart to heart with myself and decide it would not be in my best interest to attend. I still respect him as someone who is infinitely talented and knows so much more than I currently do. Yet, I am finished with attending lectures given by these rockstars (ahem, Kit Hinrichs) who have nothing but negative points of view about the future of design.

    When I hear someone say anything to the degree of “only 12 typefaces, period.” It offends me as a student of design. It is suddenly my fault for being born in the time period that I was and being eager to design something that i think is an improvement (or rather, a failure).

    This non-progressive thinking has got to go.

  29. Randy

    I can’t argue with this: designers need to understand the type they use, and use what is needed to job at hand.

    The issue I take with his view is that type is not wallpaper, because it is. It is not purely functional as he would have you believe. His functional approach leads to a style that is functional wallpaper. You cannot escape style, so embrace both.

  30. Neztra

    Bottom line: It is just his opinion. It might be a highly educated one, but at the end of the day - still opinion.

    To some, art comes in the form of font while to others, font is merely there to support the design. I believe on both philosophies - depending on what I am designing.

    I think, as long as the designer has a well-thought out and executed design that ultimately has a huge impact on the target viewer, that is all that matters.

    When all is said and done, I would hate to limit myself to 12 fonts, but I do find myself gravitating towards the same fonts time and again due to their beautiful readability and style, but my list of top ten fonts is different than my list two years ago. It is ever evolving and I think that is a good thing.

  31. Mossimo Vignelli was asked in a lecture: “Since you have a very particular style, What do you do if a client comes to you with a job that isn’t within your style boundaries.?”

    His answer was: “I don’t take the job.”

    That isn’t needing only 12 typefaces, that’s choosing to use only 12 typefaces.

  32. There is a lot of really great wisdom in that Massimo Vignelli interview. I wouldn’t suggest dismissing that by reading too deeply into one statement.

  33. i love and live by his quote “the life of a designer is a life of fight: fight against the ugliness.” I get a kick out of it!

  34. While I don’t agree with Vignelli, I think it’s great to have someone to remind us of what you can do with very few fonts.

    Great post as always.

  35. Massimo Vignelli is a master at throwing a grenade into a discussion, as the above posts prove. Vignelli’s point about 12 typefaces has more to do with the rise (and almost immidiate collapse) of post-modernist ideas in design.

    In isolation, there is little to ‘fear’ from the (relatively recent) explosion of new typefaces, but we need to understand their place in a more important ideological discussion: whether we need typefaces to express every nuance in ours and other languages.

    At the height of discussion, people tend towards the polemical. This is no bad thing, it demands that we take sides. I for one am on the side of Vignelli – designers would do well to spend more time concerning themselves with getting the ideas of others across – their role as visual mediators – and less time trying to express ‘themselves’.

    If it is a choice between Massimo Vignelli or David Carson I know who I’d rather learn from.

  36. I have to agree with him, 12 typefaces is plenty. In fact, I offer the following rules for a better world:

    1) Painters may only use 12 approved brushes and 12 approved colors.
    2) Novelists may only use 12 approved words.
    3) Short-form fiction shall have its own 12 words, not to be confused with novelist’s words.
    4) Wood-carvers may only use 12 approved chisels ( and NO chainsaws!).

  37. Cook

    a very well written article……loved the work

  38. I’ve always taken what Vignelli said about typefaces with interest. It used to be that I had probably every imaginable font form “top 40” font lists on the internet building the pile of 1,000+ on my computer. I finally took the plunge two years ago and whittled it down to 25. The funny part is, I didn’t miss the other 975…

  39. joe

    no matter how many fonts we have or use, if we don’t know how to use them, and disgrace them, we are disrespecting them by using any at all…i think he’s pointing to this as well.

    and…this is not his opinion or his prerogative, and it’s especially not a generalization—it’s his stance, his philosophy, and it’s not our place to question his motives or ideals, only to agree or disagree and discuss…and form our own philosophy’s and ideas on what works for us based on what we know or what we aspire to or what we hope to learn. the beauty of the design+art world is we’re all allowed to make statements like this and welcome responses, whether in written form or in the design of the words themselves.

  40. Garo

    In terms of type education I’m still in play school, so 12 type faces is quite a lot to me. I recently stripped my hard drive of every font except the ones I’ve used in the last 5 years. I was left with these 6;

    Bembo - Employers serif of choice.
    Gill Sans - Employers sans-serif of choice.
    Georgia - My website
    Museo - Just love it, and it’s contemporary
    Clarendon - Used for posters
    Trade Gothic - Seems to go with Clarendon quite nicely.

    It made my system slightly faster, though I know in a few years I will need more as my appreciation of type gets stronger, and my tastes change. The rest of the system fonts plus the countless downloaded ones now sit in a folder called excess_fonts on my harddrive.

    I can see the argument for only using a small set in a lifetime, but I wouldn’t advocate getting rid of every typeface completely. We all have personal preferences and they will always differ on a global scale.

  41. Colin

    I’d like to add one more thought to this discussion - we take it for granted that Vignelli is a great designer, simply because everyone says he is. RIght now, I’m looking at page 41 of his “Canon” pdf, and I have to say it’s one of the most unfriendly, illegible things I’ve ever seen. Bright red pictures, pink background and red or black text. Yuck. Talk about a typographic nightmare.

    I don’t necessarily want to get into the argument of whether modernism, itself, is worthwhile, because I happen to like grids and clean text, but the notion that it’s the end-all and be-all of graphic design seems laughable to me. I remember from my childhood looking at old books and magazines, created in that era, and all I could think about was how bleak they were. They seemed unfriendly, remote, impersonal, and above all, conveyed the message “I hate you”, to me, the reader. Sort of the way being in a room full of modernist furniture puts one in danger of being punctured by endless pointy corners and cut on cold steel surfaces.

    So, I’m not entirely convinced that the opinions of the great modernist designers are to be taken without some salt.

  42. Colin: I am sure the Vignelli Canon would look awesome in print, but I am not going to argue that it looks good on screen. My impression is that Vignelli has poor understanding of the media that is computer screen and internet. Just take a look at his website.

  43. thomas gravemaker

    Although I’m not too keen on Vignelli’s work, I do have to admit that an awful lot of typefaces could be scrapped tomorrow and we wouldn’t miss them for a second. I find that I tend to grab for the same fonts again and again. I call them my ‘work horses’. Doing a lot of design and typesetting for scientific publications, the Minion has become an ideal font, with its Greek and Cyrillic and accented glyphs. TheMix is another favourite, very legible and versatile. When I look at Gill on the other hand, I wouldn’t use that for a job. I have the Gill in metal and especially love the Gill light and roman, but am of the opinion that the digital version is not at all up to date. Vignelli is spot on in comparing in to playing the piano, the more you do it, the better you become. Typesetters who used metal type were very creative, because they knew what they could do with the limitations of the material, square bodies with, brass rules etc. and look what they managed to create with that!

  44. It’s always been my belief that the reason people make “rules” like this are you make you think about the reasons you break them.

    When Roger Black says, “The first color is white. The second color is black. The third color is red.” He’s not saying not to use other colors. He’s saying, “Be Careful.”

    Same here.

    I’ve always taken this quote (which was only 5 typefaces when I heard it the first time) to mean that a good designer can solve any problem with a handful of well-crafted typefaces. Those are the ones you should always keep active in the ol’ font manager. Be sure that when you go for something a little more specialized, you’re doing it to solve a problem and that it solves the problem BETTER than any of the ones on the short list.

  45. Stella

    I saw his lecture last Thursday at SCAD, and I must say that it was very inspirational. I think that many people take his statement too literally. The point he’s trying to get across is that with the proliferation of typefaces comes visual clutter. To support his first statement he made another point that evening - if you want to create an ugly design use several typefaces and sizes at once. Try it and you’ll see he’s totally right.

    I’m not advocating that there should only be 12 typefaces for us to use, but I do believe that a good designer has his or her choice of a few typefaces that they like to work with out of gazillion available typefaces out there. Yes I have tons of them in my collection too, but honestly, most of them are just useless to me.

    And of course he’s talking about 12 Latin typefaces - after all he’s from Italy!

  46. Lawrence

    Vignelli seems to be making a philosophical comment on limitation. How valuable are limitations for creativity? I know that I only ever get anything done because of the limitations of a given project. If there were none, I’d still be working on it! This certainly has value in itself, but probably not for productivity and creativity in the context of the project. As the possibilities become larger, so does the necessary filtering and decision making. Think of writing an essay—if you have four books to read, you’ll reach the actual, creative essay-writing process sooner. If you’ve got twenty books, you’ll spend a lot more time reading before creating. From Vignelli’s perspective, it would seem (continuing with the essay analogy) that there will be a point at with the essay can be no better, despite its author reading more books.

  47. Colin

    re:Lawrence and Stella …

    Well, I should point out that Vignelli wasn’t talking about general restrictions. He’s saying, specifically, that there are only about 12 good typefaces total, period, and that to consider any others is a waste of time. It is that specificity that is putting the wind up everyone’s bloomers.

    After all, if my twelve preferred typefaces are different than his, am I suddenly a irresponsible designer? Does it mean that, one day, the heavens opened up and let loose only 12 perfect, flawless font faces, and the rest should be relegated to the garbage can?

    That’s what people are railing against - Vignelli’s specificity when it comes to type-faces. If he had just said, “Yeah, I find it good to have restrictions and limitations” I don’t think there would have been any blog post about it, nor any replies. It would be either “meh”, that’s his opinion, or “wow”, that’s great advice!

  48. Giorgetta McRee


    Well put!
    At this point those who are trying to explain what the Maestro “meant” to those of us who dare to disagree with what he actually “said” have used up their quota of 12 tedious excuses.

  49. Rather than focusing on what number he is saying, look at the overall philosophy. It’s about the overall layout, not the look of the typeface itself.

    Focusing on 12 is a strawman. It’s about the layout, not about any specific number.

  50. A great read is from Michael Bierut about his time working at Vignelli.

    “For the first ten years of my career, I worked for Massimo Vignelli, a designer who is legendary for using a very limited number of typefaces. Between 1980 and 1990, most of my projects were set in five fonts: Helvetica (naturally), Futura, Garamond No. 3, Century Expanded, and, of course, Bodoni. “

  51. Stella


    Thank you for sharing this link. Excellent article!

  52. “Taking his statement at face value, imagine a Vignellian world in which only twelve typefaces exist…”
    Everyone has his own philosophy, which is like this because there is a context. With a different context, most of the times people would have a different opinion.

  53. Awful challenging to deny Vignelli’s cred and depth of thinking. Seems a common thread in these comments acknowledges his many contributions to the trade (I’m a fan of his Mod plastic picnicware). Unfortunately, taken at face value, the opportunity for criticism is low hanging fruit. But for the what it’s worth column, what I’ve always heard when Massimo speaks about this 12 font max thing (keep in mind, this is not a particularly new subject) is more about sticking to 12 fonts that work than anything else Yes, he claims 12 of his own in context, but in a broader sense his thinking is sound. To communicate what I believe he is getting at, you might say instead…: “use 12 fonts only.” You pick ‘em. But then the point would be to challenge yourself, and be disciplined enough to allow the fonts to do the heavy lifting. Like many designers, I have a handful of fonts that I enjoy using more than others, which change every now and again. Interestingly, I have noticed the times I start searching for fonts outside that short list is very often the times I find myself tripped up creatively. I bet Massimo understands the exceptions raised, and I suggest his point isn’t meant as narrowly as he states it. And even if it is, the part about having a more disciplined and intentional approach to design in general as opposed to a font-of-the-week mentality might even serve the most gluttonous font consumers well.

  54. Fundamentally I want to agree with Vignelli. It does make sense that if you picked out the best type from serif and sans, then you would come up with just a few really great ones. But what about that new type that you find and just fall in love with that lowercase a, or the way the decenders act. It is unfair to say that you should only use 12 typefaces. Given, there a great deal of really horrible ones out there, but the number 12 is just too low for the good ones. Perhaps there are 20-30 great ones, 50 cool ones. The point is, yes there are not very many usable typefaces compared to all the ones out there, but 12 is just too low of a number.

  55. I agree with Vignelli, 12 typefaces is enough.

    However 12,000 is nice.

    We could create all of the great works of literature with 12 typefaces and no designer would ever* need more than 12 fonts.

    12 is plenty, it’s just nicer to have more.

    I get the feeling Vignelli is simply pointing to the sometimes less obvious choice of less, that somehow forces us to be more creative.

    *there are exceptions I guess.

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