Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

Canadian identity... through graphic design?

Is there such a thing as a Canadian identity, and can it be expressed though a medium like graphic design? That was the question addressed by four speakers at a “Perspectives in Canadian Graphic Design” seminar held at the Royal Ontario Museum’s McLaughlin Planetarium [in 1993], and the answer appeared to be “Yes, but.”

Robert Stacey, billed as “author, curator and editor,” opened the seminar with a speech entitled “Defining Canada: Anniversaries of 1867,” which examined postage stamps, posters, and advertisements from various anniversaries of Canada’s birth. Though marred by a stumbling, too-fast vocal delivery, Stavey’s speech shed some light on how beavers, canoes, outdoorsmen, and rugged wilds in general have functioned as graphic symbols for a country that was, and still is, growing into its own skin. Many of the images Stacey chose to accompany his presentation would now be considered kitsch, but that, of course, is testimony to their iconic power. A vintage postage stamp featuring a beaver gnawing a tree trunk into a point would work fine on the wall of a Roots store in a suburban mall, as would a poster of a heroic worker rolling up his sleeves to perform the physical labour that made Canada what it is (a style Stacey calls “capitalist realism”).

Stacey’s presentation was heavy on examples from the 1800s to the late 1920s in part because “the ephemera of the last decade is a lot harder to track down than the last century’s.” He did spend some time disparaging Expo 67, whose designers he accused of erasing “anything provincial or archetypally Canadian” by using European sansserif typefaces like Univers – a font that is admittedly about as rustic as the cooling towers of a nuclear plant. But Stacey overlooked the fact that French-Canadian designers respected the traditions of French-speaking Europe – Univers’s designer, Adrian Frutiger, is Swiss – and could only be expected to emulate their heroes. Presumably a nation composed largely of immigrants could make a foreign-born typeface its own too.

A more cohesive presentation came from the British-born Michael Large, coordinator of the graphic-design program at Sheridan College, who followed in Stacey’s footsteps in his own slide-show parade of ephemera. Large cracked up the audience by observing that “coming from London, of course, all the postcards have punk rockers on them, but here they use more old-fashioned symbols,” like beavers and Mounties. Indeed, a Mountie, particularly one actually riding a horse, is a perfect graphical ambassador of Canada because he (they’re always men in these images) is “a conservative symbol of order and control. He’s not the Marlboro man.” Mounties even represent the country in British beer ads – Malcolm the Mountie delivering beer in a canoe, wearing snowshoes at the Wimbledon tennis courts, that sort of thing.

Large also examined corporate identity programs, with “corporate” taken to include governments as well as juggernauts like Bell Canada that in a different world might function as de facto governments. He talked about how the Federal Identity Program, a graphical style epitomized by the “Canada wordmark” seen on virtually every document produced, commercial aired, and vehicle owned by the federal government, came into being in 1970 and has been used and misused by a highly decentralized civil service. Inconsistency, he says, is inevitable because policing the use of corporate symbols requires more diligence, money, and graphical acumen than exist in the real world.

Pictogram pioneer Paul Arthur, designer of some 450 of the wordless signs found in airports and other public and private spaces worldwide, showed some other examples of best-made graphical plans gone awry. Even with an official Canadian standard and reams of how-to books backing them up, Arthur routinely finds pictograms being misused. The standard no-smoking symbol – a cigarette inside a red ring with a left-to-right bar dexter through it – is no problem, but a sign intended to mean “smoking permitted” can actually mean “smoking required“ with a simple change of background colour from blue to green. Arthur is working on a new pictogram system for Toronto subways, though the decorative, not-at-all-obvious prototypes he showed left one yearning for something simple, like the Montreal metro’s downward-pointing arrow.

Isabel Hoffmann of the University of Toronto’s Information Technology Design Centre closed the seminar with an abbreviated lecture on where technology is leading the design profession – in a nutshell, it’s toward a world where people have even lower three-Rs literacy than today, where documents are designed on computer screens for ultimate reading on computer screens (“digital media for graphical publishing”), and where designers and readers are linked by fiberoptic cables and other artifacts of cyberspace.

POSTSCRIPT: Arthur’s wayfinding design for the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) was erected in half of St. George station for more than six months, then allowed to decay, then finally decommissioned entirely, except for the lighted outdoor sign with its lion icon symbolizing St. George. The TTC has since completely ignored the lessons of Arthur’s design and whipped up its own signs featuring white Helvetica Bold on a black ground with a wee strip of colour at the top to suggest (not indicate) the line you’re on. This, of course, is exactly what you’d expect from the jumped-up motormen who run the Toronto Transit Commission, who see anything related to writing, “design,” or art as insufferably twee and beneath their dignity. (“Signs? Oh, hell. I never have a problem with the signs... I’ll have my girl type up something.”) 400,000 Toronto tax dollars well spent.

Originally published 1993 ¶ Updated here 1999.07.25, 2007.03.19

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