Massimo Vignelli: The role of design in society

We've had a lot of high points in our campaign, but the most incredible so far has been meeting Massimo Vignelli. For those of you who aren't design geeks, Mr. Vignelli is a graphic design legend who, among other outstanding achievements, designed a beautiful transit map for the MTA in the 1970's. Now, that map has made a resurgence on the MTA's Weekender website, where it lives as an incredibly functional, efficient, and in our eyes, lovely tool. 

When we left a voicemail for Massimo at his office, we never dreamed he would actually call us back. When the phone rang, we nearly fell out of our seats, and when he agreed to advise us on this project, we jumped on a plane to New York to interview him in person. Our project brought up many points of reflection for Mr. Vignelli about a designer's role in society.

Massimo reminds us to respond to needs over wants, which I believe are often confused. Our desire to respond to more needs is one of the reasons why George and I moved from corporate innovation to social innovation. We believe that public transit is a vital part of a sustainable future, and that whether you take it because you "want" to or because you "need" to, it's a force for positive change in society. So while the larger goal of this project may be to respond to a need (humans should slow their energy consumption), we know that the only way to get there is to respond to a want (let's raise the bar on the public transit experience). We believe that our concept is needed, but it will only gain traction if it's also wanted.

Finally, Massimo talks about having your own tools to do a "proper diagnosis." We couldn't agree more. The process we've created for Designing Chicago is our unique tool - gathering observational data from a huge community of users, inviting in a smaller team for a proper diagnosis of insights and ideas, then "forecasting the cure" with our core Greater Good Studio design and development team. We believe we're on the right track, and that with Mr. Vignelli's help, we just might be able to create something that society both wants and needs.

Do you agree with Massimo? Where does a designer's responsibility lie? How do we distinguish wants from needs? Should we even try?