agenda by Zosia Swidlicka

reading time 4 minutes

The curious “know-it-all” of humble beginnings who went on to inspire some of the giants of modern business goes under the microscope as we examine the achievements and legacy of one of the most influential graphic designers of the past century.

Born in Sardinia in 1912, Giovanni Pintori’s childhood was modest in material terms but rich in creative stimuli. He devoured anything that contained the written word, from old newspapers repurposed as packaging to dictionaries and old Sunday supplements. It was of no surprise to anyone when in 1930 he won a scholarship to the progressive L’Istituto Superiore per le Industrie Artistiche (Higher Institute for Artistic Industries). Like Italy’s answer to Bauhaus, it fused together several artistic disciplines, including decorative and publicity painting, intaglio, ceramics, weaving and embroidery, woodwork and metalwork.

It was against this vibrant backdrop that Pintori met Renato Zveteremich, then director of publicity at Olivetti. Known for manufacturing typewriters with a strong design aesthetic, the Italian heritage company seamlessly blended product and graphic design at every opportunity, ensuring a continuous flow between the design and its intended use, as well as the company and its customers.

At the peak of mass industrialisation, when the hum of new machinery and world-class engineering in Italy was cranked up to the max, Olivetti pioneered with its understated branding. It made a conscious choice not to celebrate the machine for its own sake, but to bring to life the way in which it could enhance the human condition, becoming an extension of the mind and body.

Crucial to conveying the humanity at the heart of a lifeless machine was the broad range of artistic references that led to the creation of the publicity campaigns. Poetry, painting, illustration and mechanical engineering all provided ideas, inspiration and resources. As explained by Zveteremich:

“If artists are called upon to interpret, express, and defend the functional purity of a machine, it is truly a sign that the machine has entered the human spirit and that the problem of forms and relationships is still of an intuitive nature.”

Pintori echoed this philosophy, emphasising its role in meeting commercial objectives:

“In our day and age, publicity has become an art form, and increasingly needs to live up to this name. Publicity is a form of discourse that should eschew vagueness in favour of brevity, clarity and persuasiveness. Those who engage in publicity (writers, painters, architects) need logic and imagination in equal measure.”

Pintori built on the “publicity as art” legacy of the 1930s to arrive at a new visual language that rendered it familiar. The consumer challenge was his starting point. “First it was important to encourage the public to pass from the pen to the typewriter, then to prompt them to choose the typewriter by showcasing its advantages. To do this, I devised different approaches, images and pretexts.” His aim was to show the passage from handwriting to typing as naturally as possible. “I do not attempt to speak on behalf of the machines. Instead, I have tried to make them speak for themselves, through the graphic presentation of their elements, their operations and their use.” And so he employed subtle visual metaphors to imply various benefits by association. Feathers, birds in flight and sailing ships all suggest a lightness and portability; features that weren’t typically associated with typewriters at the time. As encapsulated by the influential writer Elio Vittorini: “They have taken the product as an element to be developed in images, not as a dogma to be imposed.”

Over the course of 30 years, Pintori defined the company’s image during its most crucial phase of expansion. His flair for communicating complex, extensive information through a bold, simplified aesthetic seeped into other areas of the business, including the interior design and architecture of its stores. In fact, the faultless consistency and homogeneity inspired Thomas Watson Jr., President at IBM in 1956 to start a formal Corporate Design Program to improve the company’s visual identity, spearheaded by Paul Rand. Pintori understood that while there may be multiple touchpoints, there was only one public:

“I believe that an advertising campaign which lacks clarity and coherence in its ideas, notwithstanding sporadic instances of good design, is destined to lose a large part of its effectiveness with regard to the public, because the company’s style might assert itself in the solid and strict quality of its products, but it presents and makes itself known through the focused and consistent insights of its message to the public.”

The book Giovanni Pintori is available here.

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