Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

Last Gasp of Originality (ADCC 1994)

At the Advertising and Design Club of Canada’s annual awards extravaganza in Toronto [in October 1994], you could scarcely find a wall, slide-projection screen, or leaflet that wasn’t typeset in a faux typewriter font. That was not a reassuring sign. Hundreds of attendees paid up to $70 to see the best examples of the year’s Canadian graphic design, and in large part what they got was an epidemic of typewriter fonts and other warmed-over graphic tropes.

With a total of 1,847 entries, you don’t need to be Stephen Hawking to calculate that there simply had to be some original, meticulously-crafted work on display. However, it was hard to find, and hard to appreciate once you found it. Instead of displaying these exemplars of graphic design in their original medium (print), the Club organized a slideshow of winning entries (awards were gold, silver, bronze, and “merit”) on a network of screens in a darkened room in the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. For some reason, the computer-controlled slide projectors were programmed to show a given work for about ten seconds – hardly enough time to assimilate the piece, check for details, and read the credits alongside. And a note to event organizers: Not everyone attending the event has perfect hearing or vision. Next year let’s crank up the lights from poseur dimness to a level actually useful to visually-impaired people, and let’s caption the videoclips.

Anyway, some diamonds in the rough were:

The Globe and Mail itself won two awards, including an undeserved gold for editorial design for the paper’s Saturday cover pages, which are almost identical to the weekday cover pages except for a wide-aspect-ratio photo that isn’t always editorially related to a story inside the paper. If slapping a big photograph into a grey, hidebound front-page layout is all you need to take home the gold, maybe it’s a good thing that the Globe is facing a redesign soon. Safe money is on the paper’s keeping the big-photo concept anyway despite its banality.

The poverty of excellence in the show was vividly illustrated by a two contrasting sets of works which each won awards in multiple categories. A gold award was presented to Viva Dolan Communications & Design for Butterfield & Robinson’s iconic stationery. Since the firm organizes biking and walking trips for the gentry, it was only appropriate for Viva Dolan to combine a decorative light-yellow fringe at the edges of letterhead and business-card stock with charmingly retro photos of a globe, a camera, a suitcase, and other travel icons. A catalogue by the same designers for the same firm won another gold, with its Vellekoop-like cover illustration (the book’s drawings were actually done by Frank Viva and Shawn Murenbeeld) and just-a-hair-short-of-too-tasteful typography. Other Butterfield & Robinson publications garnered silver awards; all were deserved.

Then there’s the Red Dog beer campaign from Molson Breweries, masterminded by the MBL/BBDO agency. You’ve probably run across it: The print ads and billboards feature the face of a bulldog (or whatever the hell those ugly dogs are – they’re clearly used as a device that hosers and frat boys can identify with) along with some haphazardly-spaced headlines set in Trixie, the cutesy typewriter face that resembles a bad fax of a bad photocopy of a weak carbon copy of a FedEx waybill hacked out on a manual typewriter. Judges simply could not get enough of the ads; they took home armfuls of awards in print advertising and multimedia (i.e., radio and TV) categories.

Sorry to rain on the two-four parade here, but the entire campaign save the radio ads, brought to life by the sexiest voice this side of a 976 phone line (Tommy Lee Jones’, no less), is annoying and an insult to the intelligence. Is it radical even in 1994 to object in principle to promoting alcohol, which of course is a perfectly legal product but arguably a damaging and pernicious one? Judges in the print category are to be faulted for shovelling awards onto a derivative design.

The Red Dog bulldog is in fact lifted wholesale from a book of trademarks I once perused and now cannot locate. Sure, the logo was reworked into an entire system (dogs in TV commercials, sexy schnauzer-like voices in radio ads), but the underpinnings of the system are borrowed, not new. The wholesale deployment of Trixie amounts to vernacular typography – using a typeface or layout for its specific “Oh, I’ve seen that before” connotations. The mark of true creativity is fashioning your own connotations out of typefaces not burdened by specific antecedents. Yes, all design builds on previous work (at least on the 26 letters of the alphabet), but to achieve a gestalt takes a spark of originality. Red Dog ads are merely the sum of two clichéd parts.

Here’s hoping for some daring and freshness next year.

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