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New documentary focuses on how symbols from the 1960s and '70s retain their power in the 21st century


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Amid all the nostalgic logos and memories shown in the new documentary Design Canada, it is the crux of the film that will have Canadians scratching their heads.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/07/2018 (1666 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Amid all the nostalgic logos and memories shown in the new documentary Design Canada, it is the crux of the film that will have Canadians scratching their heads.

“Did Canadians design these symbols or did these symbols, in fact, design Canada?”

The film, made by Vancouver-based graphic designer Greg Durrell and showing Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Park Theatre as part of a national tour, looks beyond the surface of some of the most famous symbols in our country’s history, from hockey jerseys and corporate images to Canada’s famous flag. It reveals the countless hours of work that went into creating such simple and recognizable images.

Prior to the 1960s, Canada had taken a back seat, globally, to the United Kingdom and the United States. But its role in two world wars and a flourishing economy helped the country emerge from its sleepy shell during the 1960s and ‘70s, with major events and a new focus on what made Canada a country.

Helping push that ideal along were graphic designers who used new European concepts to create logos that continue to resonate decades later.

“Canadians at large really felt good about what we contributed, and there was a growing sense that Canada was becoming its own nation, and it was no longer a colony,” says Durrell, who will be attending Tuesday’s screening.

Pierre-Yves Pelletier, design director for the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

The film hearkens back to some of the era’s famous moments — the flag debate of 1964, Canada’s centennial and the Expo in Montreal in 1967, the Canada-Soviet Summit Series of 1972, and the Montreal Olympics of 1976 are just some that are revisited — but it also drops in on some of the not-so-famous graphic designers of the period.

“Design is not just something you do on a piece of paper,” graphic designer Burton Kramer, who designed the CBC’s distinctive “pizza” logo in 1974, says in Design Canada. “Design is how you think, how you see, how you act, what you buy, what you surround yourself with, what you listen to, what you don’t listen to.

“Design for me is a kind of way of life and a substitute for any other kind of religion.”

It’s certainly all that and more for the 35-year-old Durrell, a graphic designer who used his spare time over the course of six years to work on Design Canada. He learned filmmaking as he went, criss-crossing the country to speak to graphic designers — often in their lovely designed environs — and used his enthusiasm for the film to overcome the steep learning curve he faced.

“When I started this process, I didn’t even know I was making a documentary film,” Durrell says. “I’m not from a film background, I’ve never made a film before; I didn’t even know anyone who had made a film.

“We all know that feeling when you travel overseas when you see someone with a Blue Jays hat or a Winnipeg Jets jersey. It tugs on your heartstrings, and I wanted to understand why I felt that way.

“I wanted to get out there (and see) why they were made and what it was about this era that seemed to produce so many pieces of iconic Canadian design.”

CNS MISSISSAUGA, ONT: JUNE 7, 2010: Former Team Canada player Paul Henderson's jersey that he wore during the famous 1972 hockey game series against Russia, June 7th, 2010.

A Kickstarter campaign launched earlier this year raised $100,000 to help distribute the independent film. A partnership with Telus brought Durrell’s dream to reality.

In the film, the graphic designers recount the process on how some famous logos began, sometimes even as a few pencil scratches on a restaurant napkin. Dozens of ideas for the logo for Canadian National Railway are shown, all of which were quickly discarded before Allan Fleming came up with the final design in 1960. Other designers are shown completely fascinated with its simplicity, and its complexity.

“These symbols are so deceivingly simple, but they are not,” says Durrell. “You can kind of close your mind and draw the TD Bank logo or the CN logo. If I ask you to draw Canada’s 150th symbol, I don’t think you can do that.”

Durrell says much of the graphic-design magic of those early years has been lost. In the 21st century, he says, designers armed with dazzling technology don’t know how to leave well enough alone, and society grows more enamoured with what’s new rather than what works.

“When you look at this work… it’s less about the tools and more about the philosophy of the time,” Durrell says. “Fortunately, we have Photoshop now; if you want to make a complex curve with gradient shadows and even a sparkly lens flare, anybody can do that in a couple of minutes… The tools have just provided too many opportunities to add gimmicks when those things aren’t necessarily required.

A 1980s Winnipeg Jets team jersey logo. (Ken Gigliotti / Winnipeg Free Press files)

“We live in society today that thinks new is better. New isn’t always better; new is just new.”

One example is probably Winnipeg’s most famous logo — the Jets. Durrell maintains something was lost when the resurrected National Hockey League franchise left the its 1970s-designed logo off its new jersey and replaced it with the roundel that has since become ubiquitous throughout Manitoba.

“That original Winnipeg Jets logo, it’s a classic, it’s an icon,” Durrell says. “Is it the most stunning piece of graphic design and typography? No. But it has a wonderful charm to it.

“The new one to me feels really cold. When I look at it, I see the Royal Canadian Air Force. I see war and that’s not the Canada I know and it’s not the Canada I love.”

alan.small@freepress.mb.ca Twitter:@AlanDSmall

CNS Former Team Canada player Paul Henderson poses with the jersey he wore in 1972 (CNS)
Alan Small

Alan Small

Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.

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