Born in Milan, Italy, in 1931, he left school at sixteen to work as an architectural draftsman, then studied architecture in Milan and Venice between 1950 and 1953. Inspired by Swiss Modernists such as Max Huber and Antonio Boggeri, however, he was drawn to graphic design.
From 1953 he was employed as a designer at Venini Glass in Venice, while freelancing on editorial projects such as festival catalogues, newspapers, books and packaging.
In 1965, Vignelli became co-founder and design director of Unimark International Corporation. With Lella Vignelli, he established the offices of Vignelli Associates in 1971, and Vignelli Designs in 1978. His work includes graphic and corporate identity programs, publication designs, architectural graphics, and exhibition, interior, furniture, and consumer product designs for many leading American and European companies and institutions.
Vignelli has had his work published and exhibited throughout the world and entered in the permanent collections of several museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Brooklyn Museum.