A maple leaf, a beaver nestled amongst a garland of leaves, and a standing figure morphing into an eyeball. These symbols and many more permeate our daily lives and consciousness as Canadians. Yet most of us have absolutely no idea the stories and deeper meanings behind these logos that adorn our flags, trains, planes and clothes. Designer-turned-Filmmaker Gregory Durrell has opened a veritable Pandora’s box on the subject in his stellar new documentary, Design Canada.
Following two World Wars and approaching it’s centennial as a nation, the Canada of the early 1960s found itself in want of a flag it could call it’s own. A bipartisan committee was struck by then Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson to replace the faithful old Red Ensign with a new symbol which our still young nation could be proud of. Fuelled by a postwar wave of European immigrants who brought along clean and simple modernist design principles with them, the committee sifted through hundreds of designs before settling on a red thirteen-point maple leaf bordered by red on both sides. The leaf was subsequently slimmed down to eleven points and in 1965, a national icon was born.
The newfound sense of identity as well as Canada’s increasing “hip and happening” reputation abroad carried forward into Expo 67 in Montreal where international-friendly pictograms were the order of the day. Soon, Canadian companies and institutions from coast to coast were updating their image with fresh new logos including CN (Allan Fleming, 1966), CBC (Burton Kramer, 1974), and Roots (Heather Cooper, 1973). Even the Government of Canada got into the game with it’s Federal Identity Program which standardized Federal services across the country in a simple layout incorporating both official languages.
The film covers a vast wealth of material, belying it’s scant 75 minutes. The talking heads are drawn from both the designers themselves (Heather Cooper, Burton Kramer, Stuart Ash) as well as more recognizable cultural commentators (Douglas Couplan and George Stroumboulopoulos). Through them, the audience is granted access to the secrets and meaning behind these logos. The Expo 67 logo is in fact two stick figures joined as one. The Montreal Olympic logo renders a podium upon the five Olympic rings and the “D” in the Government of Canada wordmark essentially acts as a flagpole for a mini Canadian flag. All this and more shows the painstaking thought and care that go into graphic design work that most of us usually just take for granted.
The film also delves into how the design world has evolved over the past century from a largely male-dominate Euro-centric workplace to an increasingly diverse field of men and women from backgrounds all over the globe. One highlight is Heather Cooper who’s designs rejected the streamline modernism of her day and instead embraced more rich and detailed classical forms. This mindset paid off as her beaver logo for Roots has been embraced for generations and is still one of the most recognizable Canadian logos the world over.
In the end, one can’t help but wish that the film had an extra half hour to share as several famous Canadian logos are seen only fleetingly without a backstory (National Film Board, Bank of Montreal) while others are missing in action entirely (No love for the ubiquitous Canada Post logo?). At our screening Q&A, director Greg Durrell made reference to hours of footage and interviews regarding more recenr Canadian graphic design that didn’t make the final cut. Perhaps a sequel is in the cards?
“America is like a solo artist. Canada is more like a band. And I think we’re at our best when we’re a band.” muses George Stroumboulopoulos near the film’s opening. Design Canadais a long overdue study on the symbols that have come to define modern Canada in our emancipation from our British roots. The stories and people behind them are fascinating. Together, they ensure you’ll never look at graphic design quite the same way ever again.
Design Canada can be seen at the Pacific Cinematheque Wed, July 11 7:00pm