The Six Basic Typefaces of Massimo Vignelli

I remember that at one time there was a thread about how many typefaces a designer really needs.
I just came across one famous list of a very few typefaces - by the noted designer Massimo Vignelli.
His list was: Garamond, Bodoni, Century Expanded, Futura, Times Roman and Helvetica.
In my opinion, that is an excellent list. These six typefaces are all very popular, and they're popular for good reason. (Even if Times Roman and Helvetica are so overused that they will draw some negativity!)
Of course, though, it's also easy to think of a second-string list of typefaces that are still also very worthwhile; for example, Centaur, Bembo, Baskerville, Caledonia, and Gill Sans. (Although, personally, I don't like Gill Sans.)


  • It depends on what sort of work you do. Being active more in the traditional matters of typography (books, leaflets, posters, cards) myself I hardly use more than 5 typefaces, the majority of them I have created myself, to be on the safe side. However, Helvetica is a no-brainer (for decades), of course.
  • Adobe Garamond Premiere Pro, Adobe Caslon, Whitney, Proxima Nova, Franklin Gothic. I’m pretty sure most people would say that none of those would pair for shit but whatever.
  • Even with Vignelli’s list as given, my first question is… WHICH Garamond and which Bodoni?

    Also, I would put a humanist sans serif (e.g. Myriad) on the list and drop one of the non-Garamond serif faces to make room for it.
  • John SavardJohn Savard Posts: 1,073
    Hmm. Whitney, according to the Wikipedia article about it, is intended to fit in the gap between typefaces like News Gothic on the one side, and Frutiger on the other (presumably, that other side also includes Univers and Helvetica). Proxima Nova is definitely a striking sans-serif typeface suitable for advertising use.
  • Given branding needs, most designers don't have the luxury of choice. When gifted with artistic freedom, I enjoy a design that evolves with well-curated typography from a myriad of typefaces.

    That's totally different to desert island types!
    Bely is a current favourite, versatile for text or display. 
  • Christian ThalmannChristian Thalmann Posts: 1,896
    edited November 2022
    Adobe Garamond Premiere Pro
    Certainly the best Garamond far and wide!
    Yes, something like Myriad or Frutiger belongs on the list. I'd toss out TNR to make space. And Century Expanded looks pretty stuffy, but maybe that's an important design space...?
    (Disclaimer: I am not a designer)
  • Even with Vignelli’s list as given, my first question is… WHICH Garamond and which Bodoni?
    Since Massimo was credited with that selection in the 1960s, he was probably looking at types earlier than that.
    Right, and there were at least half a dozen major versions of Garamond available at the time. I guess if you were using phototype or hot metal, it would be whatever your particular machinery maker offered. But those Garamond flavors could differ rather dramatically, IMO.
  • Stephen ColesStephen Coles Posts: 992
    edited November 2022
    Here’s more about his “few basic typefaces”. It helps to remember that Vignelli was a modernist and a purist. For his 1991 iteration of this edict he was mainly responding to the explosion of experimentation in digital type design, and he was frightened of what the new kids were doing. Ironically, some of my favorite Vignelli work didn’t use any of the chosen six typefaces. This amazing packaging for men’s toiletries, for example:

  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 2,098
    To put Massimo Vignelli in context, in his day most graphic designers and art directors had access to very few text faces, and these were the classic serif designs, plus Helvetica, Univers and Futura. According to the reductive principle of modernism, one would specify a display face to match. 

    So the idea that Vignelli represented the philosophy of “what one really needs” should be tempered with the practicality of “what was really available to one”.   
  • If you want to go there — what does «need» even mean...? Would poster design be impossible if all you had was Garamond? Strictly speaking, one font is necessary; every additional font expands the possibility space, with diminishing returns. Perhaps what Vignelli meant was that 6 was the characteristic length of the decay function of the diminishing returns. ;)
  • Alex VisiAlex Visi Posts: 185
    edited November 2022
    I’d argue that every single project needs a custom font to communicate its unique message and using a font twice is a compromise.

    they're popular for good reason.
    If you consider some far-from-design right owners making piles of money by promoting and romanticizing “legendary classics”, which would’ve sunk long time ago if not for their monopolized platforms, to be a good reason. Excuse me my skepticism.
  • Cory MaylettCory Maylett Posts: 245
    edited December 2022
    As an art director and graphic designer, I probably use five or six typefaces most of the time. That list isn't static, though; it evolves over the years. Of course, I'll use something else when a project calls for something else. In addition, several of my clients use specific typefaces as part of their branding. In those cases, I'll use what they've already chosen.

    I think most experienced designers settle on their favorite handful of typefaces they've learned to use to their best advantage and feel comfortable using. Massimo Vignelli had his favorites, which don't overlap with mine.

  • John SavardJohn Savard Posts: 1,073
    Alex Visi said:
    I’d argue that every single project needs a custom font to communicate its unique message and using a font twice is a compromise.
    I would be in partial agreement with you: while there are certain types of projects to which the choice of typeface is not critical, other types of project would, indeed, be best served by a unique custom typeface. Unfortunately, the cost of that is usually prohibitive.

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