Donnelly, Graphic Design in Canada Since 1945
This article/essay was written to accompany an exhibition of post 1945 Canadian graphic design at the Carlton University Art Gallery in 1996. The work begins with a note from the gallery director, Michael Bell, who notes that there had (as of 1996) not existed any significant work done on the history of graphic design in Canada. This is followed by acknowledgements by Brian Donnelly, who organized the exhibit, and who did so with the help of several prominent Canadian designers including Rolf Harder, Ernst Roch, Frank Davies, and Clair Stewart.
In his introduction, Donnelly notes that since 1945 graphic design in Canada, while populated by artists who are largely unknown outside of their own field, has not only grown but has been immensely effective in how it has been able to graphically motivate people to follow directions, buy products, or receive important information. Indeed, its success and its growth as a profession has allowed it to distinguish itself from the fields of advertising and commercial art, as well as from printing, engraving, and publishing. While it has its roots in these separate fields, graphic design is now (1996) viewed as not being limited to simply being a function of one of those fields, but as something which can be applied through all of them.
Just as Cramsie argues in his The Story of Graphic Design, Donnelly claims that the starting point for many post-war graphic designers was print. Indeed, many began as typographers, either designing or setting and arranging type, agonizing over the best arrangement of the words and letters, or the choice of the best typeface, in order to obtain the desired affect upon their audience. While beginning with type, graphic design also includes the selection, placement, and creation of images, the placement of text, and the arrangement of all such elements in a manner which will communicate a particular message or have a particular meaning. Thus, the exhibition tells the story of technicians who, realizing the power which elements of the printed page could have if manipulated in particular ways, used their positions to create a distinct profession.
Many of the works in the exhibition, and thus which Donnelly uses to explain the development of the profession, were chosen by graphic designers themselves, and thus, represent what they understood to be the significant pieces of the field in Canada. He also made use of the Art Director's Club of Toronto annuals, which began publishing an annual show booklet in 1949, as well as that of the Typographic Designers of Canada, which began less than a decade later. The annuals of these Toronto-based organizations reflect, according to Donnelly, what the designers valued in both their own work and that of others. However, Donnelly also notes that the works selected for the exhibit were also chosen because they stood for, or reflected, significant changes about how designers and the public thought about the visual realm. While intended to explain the works selected for the exhibition, the paper is also intended to outline the historical context in which these representative images were made, how they fit into art history and were affected by modernism, modernity, image/printing production methods, and the politics of their day. Donnelly concludes his introduction by noting that it was his hope that an exhibition on the history of Canadian graphic design would foster an interest in additional research on the field.
The Eveleigh-Dair Studio
Beginning with the work of the graphic designer Carl Dair, Donnelly explains that Dair was a largely self-taught designer, who worked largely on advertising layouts before the war. However, during the war he worked for the National Film Board in Montreal. The NFB had expanded during the war from simply making propaganda films and movie posters, to being the government's own design department, designing a wide array of printed and graphic materials for the war effort. Dair met Henry Eveleigh after the war through mutual professional and communist friends. Eveleigh, who was three years older, had been trained in art at the Slade School of Fine Art in London and had recently won the United Nations international poster competition (1947). From 1947 until 1951 they combined Eveleigh's skills at illustration and creating good concepts, and Dair's knowledge of typography and modern European design to build a modern design studio. Such a studio, being independent from advertising agencies, although they did do extensive work for such agencies, would be the archetype for Canadian graphic design studios. The studio became known for producing work which made use of simplified illustrations by Eveleigh and off-centred, asymmetrical modern type which was arranged by Dair. Examples include the redesign of Canadian Business magazine, as well a significant series of advertisements for the E.B. Eddy Pulp and Paper Company of Hull, Quebec.
In the case of the Eddy ads, the company interested in targeting both the printing and commercial art market and recognized that this could be done through attempting to both educate customers about and promote their products with modern, attractive advertisements. Rather than overwhelm the customer with large numbers of images of their products, or copy ubiquitous "realistic" and/or dramatized scenes showing the use of their products, Dair and Eveleigh used limited illustrations which depicted symbolic objects, solid colours, and offset blocks of type to give customers clear ideas about what the product was, and that those products and the company which made them was stable and reliable, while also being current and modern.
Dair and Eveleigh split with hostility in 1951, with Dair relocating in Toronto. The break had occurred just as the two were negotiating with a third potential partner so as to start an advertising agency. Rejecting the possible loss of his freedom, Dair worked by himself for the rest of his life, with a brief exception when he was made a partner in a Toronto-based firm (Goodis, Goldberg, Dair), as well as when he was teaching. Also, in Toronto, Dair moved away from the influence of interwar European experimentalism, returning to more traditional typographic and graphic design principles. Gone was the emphasis upon contrast or the geometric asymmetry of his work. In 1956 Dair toured Europe, meeting with the then Art Director of Hoffman-LaRoche, Jan Tschichold, for more than four-and-a-half hours. Interestingly, Tschichold, who had attempted to codify the principles of modernist typographic design in his 1927 Die neue Typographie, had also abandoned modernism, allowing for the use of more classical typography, and seeing his former views as having been too authoritarian.
In 1960 Dair and his fellow Toronto Designer Leslie (Sam) Smart won the silver and bronze design medals from the Leipzig Internationale Buchkunst-Ausstellung for the four-page folios they produced, A Cry from an Indian Wife and The Shooting of Dan McGraw. These works had elements which were being advocated by professional design associations of the day, including precise type spacing, use of open white space, and good use of traditional lay-out principles. Those principles were a reaction to the predominant communication medium of the 1950s: illustration. Such illustrations, which were used to sell and illustrate all kinds of products, were pictorial and often had an emotional narrative. Text was often hand drawn and was made part of the illustration.
Other Toronto-based designers who were working for larger firms (such as Clair Stewart at Rolph Clark Stone printers, and Les Trevor at Rous and Mann Press), also attempted designs which were counter to the illustrative, busy, and emotional trends of the period. An example were the brochures for the Garamond and Janson typesetting company (included in the exhibit), which Dair praised in Canadian Art as being good examples of design that attempted to advance ideas or concepts without literally showing the audience images of those ideas or concepts.
Dair's articles called "Type Talks" influenced a young Allan Fleming in the 1940s, who also undertook a study tour of the English publishing and typography industry and by the mid-1950s was working for the Toronto advertising firm of Cooper & Beatty. Often simple in structure, Flemming's work built upon the modernist principles of the period, as well as his understanding that humans are affected by all of the elements of a designed page, and that they all carry meaning. As Donnelly notes, Flemming had a "natural understanding of the semiotic qualities of type, shape, colour, space, and form, and of our natural tendency to 'read' even the most abstract elements." (page 17) However, Fleming was not as formal or rule driven as his European contemporaries, and borrowed more from the playfulness of the American designer Paul Rand than any one European designer. Furthermore, Fleming did not have a single style, but was more interested in using the best means possible to communicate particular concepts to the public. As his posters in the collection show, Fleming’s main concern was not only getting across specific messages, but doing so with particular accompanying feelings.
Indeed, it was Fleming’s ability to recognize how text, shapes, colours, and space can all be used to communicate both messages and ideas which led him to designing one of the first and most influential corporate images which would communicate the organization's name and function with modernist simplicity: the Canadian National Railways logo. The simplicity and strength of the logo, Donnelly claims, illustrated the post-war economic strength of the country, as well as the dynamism and importance of the crown corporation. In addition, unlike mush minimalist design of the period, it was very easy for people to both read the logo as consisting of a "C" and "N" and to understand that it represented a train track snaking its way across Canada.
Fleming had been hired to work on the CN account by James Valkus, a New York designer who had won the contract and presumably wanted to have some Canadian input. Initially Fleming considered calligraphic letters for the design, while Valkus imitated the design Herbert Matter had made for the New York, New Haven Railroad (1954), which made use of slab-serif letters. The first version which attached the "C" and the "N" actually came from Carl Ramirez, a staff artist working for Valkus. Yet, the final design, which borrowed the connecting of the letters was the work of Fleming. However, as Donnelly notes, Fleming also provided the persona of a Canadian, "modern, bright, corporate designer, to identify with the symbol." (p 20) What is more, Donnelly emphasizes that the success of the CN design also owes a great deal to both the railway's full commitment to its rebranding campaign, as well as the thoroughness of the rebranding process which Valkus insisted upon.
While Fleming would go on to work for MacLearn Advertising in the early 1960s, he, like Dair, was more content to work on "small clever pieces which showed his intelligence, control of space, type, and pacing." (page 21)
Self-Promotion and Self-Awareness: Societies and Other Experiments
Donnelly begins the second section of the paper, "Self-Promotion and Self-Awareness: Societies and Other Experiments," by discussing the establishment of the Typographic Designers of Canada association in 1956. The four founding members included two British graphic designers who had been members of similar organizations before immigrating to Canada: Sam Smart and Frank Davies. The other two founders were the Canadian graphic designers John Gibson and Frank Newfeld. (Both Newfeld and Smart worked mostly in book design. Newfeld worked for many years with McClelland and Stewart, creating cover designs for the publisher’s children's books.) Funded by the Rolland Paper Company of Quebec, the association launched its annual Typography exhibits in 1957, which were accompanied by catalogues of the exhibits. Claiming to be a national organization, the Typographic Designers of Canada was originally a Toronto-based and membered club, holding its first meeting at the city's Arts and Letters Club. However, over the following decades the organization would become truly national in character. The Typographic Designers of Canada eventually changed its name to the Graphic Designers of Canada. The organization provided a forum for designers to not only make important social and professional contacts, but also to share and develop design ideas and techniques.
Another association formed in the late 1950s was the Guild of Hand Printers (1959). The Guild was an association for designers who still used the obsolete technology of metal type, hand typesetting, and hand-operated letter presses. This organization sporadically printed collections of its work between 1960 and 1976. Nine editions of Wrongfount were eventually published.
An influential Canadian journal of the late 1950s and early 1960s was a magazine produced for the employees and shareholders of Imperial Oil. Under the art directorship of Gerry Moses, Imperial Oil Review began to include images in the mid-late 1950s which were both modern and experimental. These included a 1956 feature illustration by Arnaud Maggs and a 1958 cover collage by Michael Snow. In 1960 the graphic designer/typographer John Richmond joined the journal's staff, allowing Moses to incorporate experimental typography into his layouts. By the following year, the journal's covers included both modern and semi-abstract designs.
Also, by 1960, international attention was being paid to innovations in Canadian graphic design, leading to a special edition of the Tokyo-based graphic design journal, Idea, on Canadian graphic design. The cover design was by Theo Dimson. It made use of a relevant period image (Victorian eyes) which were contrasted against the large amount of white space and the use of tightly controlled bold lettering. Donnelly stresses that Dimson's cover was a good representation of Canadian modern design of the period. He claims that, "it is important to note that Canadian awareness and acceptance of modern experimentation was always balanced by an engagement with traditional values, as well, even if in a humorous or ironic way." (page 28) However, Donnelly claims that the traditional elements of Canadian graphic design, those elements which made its creations recognizable and readable, were fully challenged after 1960 with the arrival of two German immigrants to Montreal, Rolf Harder and Ernst Roch.
The Modernist Vision: A Sans-Serif Steamroller
Donnelly begins the section "The Modernist Vision: A Sans-Serif Steamroller" by noting that in the 1950s and 1960s Canadian designers were well aware of, using, and adapting various European modernist design styles which were being developed and heavily used by their European contemporaries. The influence of such European styles was partially furthered with the end of the war and the large number of European emigrés coming to Canada in the early-mid 1950s. Already influenced by English design, by the 1960s Canada was being heavily influenced by other European traditions, especially by the styles of German-speaking countries, which, Donnelly claims, were the most dynamic and openly modern of all European graphic design. The post-war economic boom helped fuel design experimentation in Canada, as the public, publishers, and producers of all kinds were increasingly willing to abandon traditional domestic themes of advertising and illustration. However, in abandoning traditional typographic ideas and values, modernist inspired designers were abandoning the very roots of their growing Canadian professionalization.
When Rolf Harder arrived in Canada in 1955 his work displayed some of the same North American styles as many of his Canadian contemporaries, including using antique engravings and playful collage. However, by the early-mid 1960s he had begun to adopt a more geometric approach and started incorporating photography. These changes were part of a desire to gain a rational control of the designed space, a trend which follows from the international style of architecture, which attempted to incorporate productivity into every space within its structures. This was a transition from eclectic and personal experimentation, which had become the Canadian norm, to one which was much more constrained or refined. This is also exemplified by the work of another European emigré, Ernst Roch, who made use of photography that was highly cropped so as to be purely utilitarian in nature, typography which was controlled, and white space that was used as contrast to other parts of his images. These new immigrant European designers were making use of a very specific aesthetic, one which carefully defined the audience's visual range and which eliminated all excessive decoration so as to clearly communicate the intended message and ideas of the designer.
Donnelly claims that while European modernism, which began at the time of Jan Tschichold and was adopted in the Soviet Union and Weimar Germany, had undergone significant refinement over the decades to evolve into the International Style which was being used and manipulated by Canadian designers and others around the world, it contained two central ironies to its development. The first was that, although modern style had been meant to free designers from the formal and traditional conventions of design, it was also authoritarian in that its exponents believed that its geometric simplicity and use of sans-serif fonts should be the totality of what one should need to overcome most design problems and communicate most messages. The second irony is how the authoritarian, ordered intelligence of the international style, and its formulaic elimination of much of the personal expression of the creator, does not match the anti-authoritarian, counter-cultural mood of the 1960s and the first half of the 1970s. More structuralist than care-free and diverse, the international style was popular at exactly the time that much of society was challenging established conventions. This may have been that, while being conventional, it was also seen as a reaction to convention.
The success of the international style, which began to dominate Canadian graphic design shows in 1964 (page 34), also attracted governments and corporations, who liked its clear and authoritative communication of ideas. Interestingly, Donnelly notes that it was with such authority of style that the graphic design community in Canada began to exhibit a growing sense of professionalism as it moved away from the domestic and emotional styles of the 1950s. This professionalism was demonstrated in its shows and publications, as well as its interaction with the larger international design community. As Donnelly notes, it was in the early 1960s that Ken Rodmell called for submissions to the Typomundus 20 exhibition in Toronto which attracted Eastern European talent which was barred entry in participating in some American exhibitions. Federally, the National Design Council and Design Canada hired Frank Davies, Burton Kramer, and Gerhard Doerrié to illustrate Canadian product design, while the Federal Identity Program used modernist design to give the federal government a rational, balanced, and standardized image with which all Canadians could identify. As Donnelly notes, in the case of the Federal Identity Program, the largest problem was to both accommodate and represent the wide array of identities and names which existed within the country's largest institution. Furthermore, the shape and composition of the federal government changes with new political programs and policies. (page 34-5)
The New Synthesis: A Decorative Revival
Donnelly begins the section "The New Synthesis: A Decorative Revival," by explaining that, following the popularity of reductionist and precise modernism in the 1960s to mid-1970s, much like in the 1950s, period styles and decorative elaboration began to be incorporated in graphic design. Donnelly uses the example of the heraldic Roots clothing logo as an example of an adoption of illustration and detail, arguing that as of the later 1970s organizations recognized that consistency, rather than restraint, was important to having a strong corporate identity. Donnelly also argues that part of the impetus for this change to a more decorative style of design was the life-styles of the baby-boom dominated society whose countercultural movements, with their elements of environmentalism and spiritualism, were having an effect upon even the staunchest modernists. Yet, he also suggests that the turn towards the evocative and the fantastic may have been influenced by the change in the post-war fortunes of the mid-1970s. While the economic prosperity, confidence, and sense of rebellion of the 1960s may have allowed for many in the society to gravitate towards a form of visual communication which was bold and objective looking, the recessions, inflation, growing ecological anxiety, and oil shortages of the mid-late 1970s attracted designers and the public to more complex, confusing, and even escapist imagery. Furthermore, larger design budgets and new printing technology allowed for the easier reproduction of such designs.
Having examined the work of many of the major modern Canadian graphic designers of the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s, Donnelly questions whether one can claim modernism to really have a single overarching form. He points out that modernism borrows from various languages and traditions, and while it may use them in a highly restrained and ordered way, it is still informed by them. Yet, "[w]ithout a stylistic teleology, or a single formal consensus, what then, if anything can be said to have been gained by the concept of modernism? Has design become an empty, postmodern end-in-itself, or does it simply respond, in however decorative or unusual form, to the demands of the client and the message?" (page 39)
An Argument for Modernism
In the final section of his paper, "An Argument for Modernism," Donnelly argues that modernism can be understood as a fusing of technology and art, a process which he claims is the essence of socialism. Without this fusion, without an avant-garde to challenge and manipulate accepted ideas of tradition, large forces of production (cultural or material) will dominate cultural production. Those producing the products will not have a connection to the creation, which only has an economic value. While commodification does encourage change and evolution, it only does so in order to obtain more consumer variety. It does not challenge the values or preconceptions of the market. As a once avant-garde movement, Modernism did challenge traditional ideas of design. However, by the late 1950s and especially in the 1960s and 1970s its characteristics were viewed as not only acceptable, but as desirable in that when applied to a product, be it a government or a cereal box, they would foster the acceptability and even the desire for that product. Donnelly claims that the same had occurred with postmodernism by the mid-1990s. Where once it was radical and shocking, it had become the latest means of commodification. However, since the role of artists is to find and explore new means of expressing ideas, Donnelly calls for an avant-garde reappropriation of modernism's attempt to use simple, functional, reductionist graphics in order to express the inexpressible. Combined with evolving technologies, this could only result in benefits to society. Yet, I would point out that since postmodernism rejects all structure or meta-narrative, one is left in a situation where any avant-garde can be easily attacked as simply attempting to impose such a meta-narrative or structure upon society.