The Vignelli's

What to look for in a partner.

Running any business solo is tough. Running a design business solo has to be one of the toughest. It requires two distinct parts of the brain: a business brain and a creative brain shoved into the one head. While that’s far from impossible, it’s difficult to have both cogs turning, simultaneously, at the same speed.

That’s why many solo designers ponder the possibility of taking on a partner. Someone to share the load, divide the tasks and chew the fat. The problem is good partners in business – like in life – are hard to find.

And what attributes do you look for?

A clone isn’t the answer — if your weaknesses annoy you, imagine a business with twice your bad traits — inconceivable mayhem. The best partners are those with complementary skills. A ying to your yang.

Lella and Massimo Vignelli were, by all accounts, one of the greatest design partnerships ever, so it was sad to hear of Lella’s recent passing.

The Vignelli’s worked together for more than 40 years. They worked as architects, interior and product designers, but it was as graphic designers that they created the branding for companies like Knoll, American Airlines, the Ford Motor Company and Bloomingdale’s.

Design is one’ is a favourite on my bookshelves. It chronicles the Vignelli’s work from 1955 (when Massimo was working as a part-time freelancer for an architect) through to 2003. In the introduction Massimo writes

Somebody said that I perceive what could be done, Lella what can be done.

Massimo Vignelli, (who passed away in 2014) is also quoted as describing the couple’s working relationship as

I’m the engine, and Lella is the brakes.”

Michael Beirut (a long time employee) said that Massimo taught him how to be a good designer, but Lella taught him how to be a successful designer.

I learned from Lella that talent and passion were crucial, but that alone they were not enough. If a designer really wanted to make a difference in the world, you needed to also have brains, cunning, confidence and relentless drive.

Greg (Branson) and I may not have the same skills as the Vignelli’s but I think we share traits and have a similarly strong partnership. When we work together, Greg sees the big picture, while I look after the detail.

One example is when Greg landed a contract for what was then the largest publishing project in the Southern Hemisphere. While he managed a production budget that was greater than the value of our home and studio combined, it was it was my role to design and shepherd every single page of the monster through the studio on time and on budget.

And that’s how our partnership worked. Greg would develop annual planning budgets while I managed the day-to-day cashflow.

Fast forward 30 years and Greg and I are in the planning stage of a new venture that would see us flexing different design muscles. Our roles remain unchanged.

While sometimes I wish we could change roles, it’s as I heard recently; you can’t have a company of kites. Someone has to be on the ground holding the string firmly.

The moral.

The moral to this story is having a successful business partner relies on you knowing your strengths and weaknesses and being able to identify (and work with) the strengths and weaknesses in others. And even then, it’s not always plain sailing 😉

Identifying the right partner is hard, but if you can find the right business partner with the right complementary skills, your talents are instantly doubled.

And it’s great to have someone to share the highs (and lows).


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Carol Mackay

Carol is the owner of Mackay Branson, a design studio currently celebrating 32 years in business.  Her expertise is in the use of design to package complex content into bite-sized chunks of information that are easy to understand and digest. She does that with clients in the corporate, cultural, government and not-for-profit sectors. Connect in LinkedIn, or read more at