Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
A documentary by Vancouver-based graphic designer Greg Durrell explores the surprisingly rich history behind the nation’s postwar design culture.
Change swept through Canada in the 1960s: Immigration policy was liberalized, a separatist movement burgeoned in Quebec, and indigenous communities could finally vote. Starting with its flag, Canada’s design culture changed, too.
In 1964, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson committed to finding a true first flag for Canada—ditching the British Red Ensign that had been used since confederation in 1867. Of three finalist designs, a 15-person parliamentary flag committee chose a vertical red-and-white triband with a red maple leaf. Designed by Alberta native, Rhodes scholar, and military veteran George Stanley, the new flag specifically avoided references to the British Union Jack and French fleur-de-lis in the name of national unity. Fittingly, Stanley’s 13-point maple leaf was modified by Jacques Saint-Cyr, a Quebec separatist and graphic artist, to an 11-point leaf for the final, adopted design.
The political and artistic origins of Canada’s flag were a surprise to Toronto-raised and Vancouver-based graphic designer Greg Durrell, who uses the story to start his new 74-minute documentary, Design Canada. His quest to document the symbols and design objects he grew up in awe of and the people who made them has led to a project that thoughtfully integrates the ideas of national identity, cultural diversity, and the value of graphic design into one nation’s postwar history.
“I didn’t necessarily set out to make a film, but I wanted to preserve this history,” said Durrell, who is one half of the Hulse & Durrell design duo responsible for much of the visual identity for Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Games as well as Team Canada’s current look, projects that inspired him to create Design Canada. “These symbols played a huge role in my life and how I see myself as a Canadian. The practitioners are reaching the end of their lives, so it was now or never.”
But before Durrell was sure he had a great project on his hands, he checked in with Massimo Vignelli. “I was trying to gauge if it was just me, so I asked him if he remembered these works. He said, ‘Of course!’ and that the best design of the ‘60s was coming from Canada and he’d love to talk about it. That helped me believe I was on the right path.” Like his appearances in the 2007 documentary Helvetica, Vignelli’s strong opinions add tremendous color to Design Canada. Vignelli died in 2014.
The documentary presents the ideas behind an impressive range of cultural and corporate symbols, including those for the 1967 Canada Centennial, the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, Montreal’s Expo 67 and 1976 Olympics, Toronto-Dominion Bank, the Canadian National Railroad, Roots Canada, and the “No Name” food brand—often through the voices of the designers responsible for them. It also looks at some of the logos that lost their way in years since, including those of the Toronto Blue Jays, the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, and the Province of Ontario (which draws the strongest negative reaction from Vignelli in the film).
“Because of the technology and the design tools we all have today, it’s so easy to create these things and then add more,” Durrell told CityLab. “We want the newest thing because it’s new, but that doesn’t mean it’s better.” Making Design Canada has helped the life-long graphic designer see the importance in distilled communication. “We live in a world bombarded with images, so to make one simple icon that matters is more important than when these logos we highlight were created.”
Durrell sees a similarity in the approach to form and color between the indigenous Pacific Northwest art he’s surrounded by in British Columbia and the Modernism he grew up with. So while many of the featured logos were created by white men from North America and Europe, Design Canada also notes the significance of the Indians of Canada pavilion at Expo 67, which gave the nation’s indigenous population a chance to tell their story to Canada and the world. “A lot of Canadians didn’t know about their history, their struggle; they only learned about them through an English and French perspective,” Durrell noted. “It’s not that relations between First Nations people and the Canadian government are great now, but I think that pavilion did open peoples’ eyes to the injustices of the past and put us on a path to a better understanding.”
That topic has made for rewarding conversations after screenings of Design Canada in the country it’s dedicated to. Said Durrell, “I’m fortunate to play small role in getting people to ask themselves and each other what kind of country we want to live in. What are our values? Does our design represent that? How do we use design to connect people?”