Is There Anything Canadian About Our Design?

Mark Busse – 9 Comments

by Mark Busse

Nov. 18, 2015 marked the launch of the much anticipated Society of Graphic Designers of Canada [GDC] biennial Graphex National Design Competition. The panel of renowned international judges consisted of Rick Poynor, Min Wang, Debbie Millman, Robert Sarner and Tan Le. GDC BC Chapter VP of Communications Marian Bantjes moderated as a near sell out crowd was given unique and intimate access to five of the world’s foremost experts on design, discussing regionalism and the factors that might create a definitive Canadian style in our graphic design.

The regional question is certainly not a new debate, but the longer the discussion continued, the more it started to seem less important. The emerging general sentiment on this issue being “does it really matter?” and “is it this even relevant?” As my friend and colleague Kevin Broome commented:

We live in a postmodern and globalized world. As communication designers, we are more aware than most about the decentralization of cultural influence and the influx of pluralism. While the 20th century can be considered the century of ‘movements’ and ‘isms’, our century has started to play itself out more as a collective database, an accumulation of digital fragments, images, sounds and verbiage that we all share and from which we collect, re-read and re-assemble to form something that we then call ‘new’.

As the evening continued, the mediator’s queries began to feel more like pleas for validation as a reaction to an identity crisis – a seemingly popular topic among Canadians. Don’t get me wrong, I am very proud to be a Canadian designer, but it began to feel that the fundamental components of the graphic design equation, such as the brief, brand strategy, target audience, and creative process were passed over to focus too closely on the weak proposition that geographic or cultural idiosyncrasies in Canada would overpower our educations or design process. I’m sure all Canadian designers would be very proud to be recognized for a progressive style or design movement as an important moment in the history of graphic design, but do we want to credit our mountains, oceans, maple trees and colder climate for the way we use form elements and design principles in our compositions? A better argument might be that our ideology, politics and cultural biases tend to create an underlying tone in our work, but I think that might be more a result from the influence of our European ancestry and reaction to our ‘Big Brother’ south of the border as we struggle to find our own identity and voice.

Canada is a very big country, but our population, just twice the size of most of the world’s major cities, is concentrated primarily in three urban centres with vast bodies of water, prairies and mountain ranges separating them. Added to these factors are the dizzying array of cultures, religions and languages our mostly immigrant populace brought with them, it would be easier to argue that these geographic factors would lead to regionalism within Canada more than producing any common style. Perhaps any “Canadian style” is a direct result of post modernism and the mix of these many backgrounds, perspectives and cultural predilection for travel and exploration which makes us flexible, skilled (if not rather underpaid) producers of high quality design. This celebration of diversity is our key strength, and is arguably the only real Canadian truism.

A great example of this would be the talented and acclaimed Wei Yew who has been producing effective and award-winning communication designs in Canada for over 25 years. He’s not even originally from Canada. After practising design for many years in his native Singapore, Wei emigrated to Canada in 1976, forming his own firm Studio 3 Graphics in Edmonton, Alberta. Mr. Yew has extensive experience with a variety of regional design problems as well as international projects such as the Calgary 1988 Olympic Arts Festival. He was even commissioned by the President of the IOC to produce a centennial publication entitled The Olympic Image – The First 100 Years about the history of Olympic design. To browse through Celebrating 25 Years of Design Practice in Canada, the recently published retrospective of his body of work, is an humbling experience for even an accomplished Canadian designer. There exists in his designs the ever present focused message or strong concept alongside elegant, clean executions while at times becoming expressive and ornamental. Never does Mr. Yew’s background or the local influence of living in the chilly environs of Northern Alberta affect the visual language solutions he created for his staggering client list – unless appropriate to the project itself. His work has won numerous international design awards and been profiled in various publications such as the prestigious Communication Arts magazine.

So there it is. After another close look at this often contentious issue, it seems that Andrew Blauvelt’s comments on Speak Up once again ring true.

It’s difficult to locate [design] work that has a distinctively regional character. Most [design] work is informed by things happening around the world

Blauvelt is the Design Director at the prestigious Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota where he blends the actual practice of graphic design with opportunities to further interests in the history and theory of all design disciplines. His contention is that communication design in the modern, globalized world isn’t as affected and regional as it once may have been. The application of visual language to create a focused message or concept to a particular audience is indeed influenced by a myriad of factors, but none uniquely Canadian other than the notion of diversity itself. Perhaps it’s not our uniqueness as Canadians, but our diverse worldly perspective, ideology and willingness to take risks that IS what makes Canadian design so successful. I don’t really think that our mountains, oceans, maple trees and colder climate cause us to use the basic form elements and design principles in any particular way. If an identity, advertisement, package, website or annual report design WORKS, then it works. If it pushes the boundaries and breaks new ground, that’s great, but it has to be functional. Letting regional influences affect our design solutions are the evil nemesis of successful design – assumption and bias – clouding our ability to create appropriate, effective design solutions for our customers. Otherwise, it is just art isn’t it? I’m happy to admit that influences such as geography and culture have a much stronger impact on fine artists such as The Group of Seven with their subject matter taking on a uniquely Canadian look. I love how their paintings of the “Great North” spread the message and showed millions across the world just how beautiful our great nation’s landscapes are. But I don’t think that means we need to put those same images in our work – unless our clients or audience ask for that.

Though many attendees were left wondering what all the fuss about Canadian design identity about, many commented on how “authentic” and “unpretentious” the evening was. Others praised the GDC for hosting the best example of intelligent design discourse in Vancouver in recent memory. What were the expectations of the Graphex judges? Visually striking work? Yes. Conceptually strong messaging? Absolutely. Maple leaves, beavers, toques, bacon and beer? Uh, no. In fact, it was a thrill to hear these five experienced veterans of design competitions mention how strong Canadian design is overall, and that they would expect our submissions to perform well in international competitions. With the exception of Tan Le, who still claims he can spot Canadian design, the consensus from the judges was that there was nothing particularly “Canadian” about our design except its high level of quality. Congratulations Canada – whatever your style.

Regardless of the outcome, it was encouraging to see this type of formal discussion taking place in Canada, by Canadian designers (albeit, alongside an international panel) and hope more designers get involved in future GDC events.