April 20, 2006

Canadian, eh? What makes Canadian design Canadian?

(This column originally aired on CBC Radio One AM 690, On The Coast, April 3, 2006)

A recent exhibition called "Graphex '06 - Do The Thing That You Do - Canadian Style" at the Pendulum Gallery in Vancouver asked, "Is there such a thing as a Canadian graphic design aesthetic?"

The Graphic Designers of Canada organized the show as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations. An international jury including Rick Poynor, an influential design writer and founder of Eye magazine, selected over 60 works from over 600 submissions by Canadian graphic design firms.

Representing the best works from 2005, a great local winner was Rethink. They're mostly known for their cheeky ads (a personal favourite is Rethink's TV campaign for Junior Achievers of BC featuring ethically-challenged business people teaching school kids shady, Enron-like practices and the tag line, "Teach kids everything you know about business...Well, almost everything.") but the agency has branched out into graphic and communication design.

Rethink received a Judge's Choice award for their promotion of the Contemporary Art Gallery. It created a giant billboard made of 50 000 buttons on the exterior of the gallery that said, "THIS IS CONTEMPORARY ART." Each button sported a word conveying a possible reaction to contemporary art like "Stoked" or "Awake." And in an effort to make a lasting impression, passers-by were welcome to take buttons from the wall.

But what does this work or any of the other winners say about the Canadianess of design?

Competition co-chairs and local designers, Marian Bantjes and Yves Rouselle, couldn't point anything distinctly Canadian about Rethink's projects. However, Tan Le, one of the judges from Seattle apparently insisted he could spot Canadian graphic design from a mile away.

Perhaps, one must be on the outside looking in to see it. That said, Bantjes, Rouselle, and Mark Busse, who is the president-elect for the GDC in BC, all agreed Quebecois designers have an identifiable style. Busse says, "It just has a flair, a stylishness."

Bantjes says, "They're less conservative and have a European feel to it."

Outside of Quebec, there were regionally distinctive works. One example is the annual report of the Nisga'a Nation designed by the firm, Herrainco Skipp Herrainco.

The business document actually went by the bold title, "Collected Wisdom." More like a coffee table book, it captured life after the First nation signed a treaty with the federal and provincial government. Instead of a dry report on things post-Nisga'a treaty, the book featured lush photographs and stories reflecting the world through the eyes of tribal elders.

The designers here demonstrate a sensitivity to how the Nisga'a people regard themselves and how they wish to represent themselves to others. It suggests a regional knowledge and a design response indicative of how much urban British Columbians, like the designers, have a high regard for First Nations and their accomplishments.

One the national front, it's a mug's game to pinpoint a Canadian style, colour, font, or method. There is no formalistic language embedding Canadianess within the rectangle of paper or the computer screen. However, Canadian designers do fill them up with cultural icons and motifs that are unmistakedly Canadian.

One website design winner used the metaphor of an old-school hockey team to describe themselves. The site has the texture of O-Pee-Chee hockey cards. Another selection, featured an anti-war poster with a Flanders Field red poppy growing out of a bomb.

Call them cliches, call them Canadian archetypes, they are as culturally specific as a BC pot plant, which by the way, you could find tucked away in a thick knot of foliage found in the environmental graphics at the exhibition. Thanks to Canadian designer Marian Bantjes.

(The exhibition will travel across the country later this year. Check out the GDC's site for more info.)

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