For those of us of a certain age—namely, anyone who can remember the '60s and '70s—the subject of Canadian graphic design evokes vivid memories of bold pictograms and a sea of Swiss-inspired type.
And decades later, the distinct logos for organizations like the CBC, the National Film Board, and the Montreal Olympics are still seared into our brains, archived on an almost cellular level. There's a collective unity, a group consciousness, residing in this imagery, and it can be argued that it's deeply shaped the way post-British and post-colonial Canadians see their own national identity.
Of course, it begs the question: did Canadians design these symbols, or did these symbols design modern Canada?
In his new film Design Canada, opening today (July 5) at the Cinematheque, director Greg Durrell examines the idea, and takes a detailed look at what Canada's graphics boom meant to the nation.
"These designs have definitely played a role in how I identify as a Canadian," he says, during a call to the Straight. "There's something about them that's optimistic, that's inclusive, that's about embracing our roots while being forward-thinking too. And what makes this story unique is that there was such a profound sense that design could make this world a better place, and that it could solve the social challenges of the day."
A graphic designer by trade, Durrell found himself thrust into the role of filmmaker when it became obvious that no one else was going to tell the story.
"I realized that our country risked losing this incredibly rich period of history that has never been properly documented," he explains. "But when I started this project I'd never made a film before. I didn't even know anyone who'd made a film before. I really had no idea what I was doing. The night before I hit the road for the first time I was Googling 'How do you direct a film?'"
You’d never know it from the finished product, however. Perhaps it was partly luck, pluck, or divine intervention, but Durrell has crafted a superlative documentary, intelligently written, filmed, edited, and scored. It may be a beginner’s effort, but with Durrell coaxing real passion out of his interview subjects it easily stands on par with the works of master documentarians.
There’s no getting around the fact that Durrell’s an accomplished guy, though, and if anyone were going to succeed at something like this, it would certainly be him. Gregarious, thoughtful, precise, and extremely motivated, he has a boundless enthusiasm for the subject—and a drive which fueled a $100,000 Kickstarter campaign, roped-in on-screen talent like Douglas Copeland and George Stroumboulopoulos, and created a top-notch film out of, well, pretty much just his own sheer will.
Even after labouring years to make Design Canada a reality, you can still hear the excitement in Durrell’s voice, especially when he speaks of the foreign-born and trained designers who were responsible for so much of the groundbreaking work.
“It’s a beautiful part of the story, that some of our most cherished national symbols were designed by people who weren't born in Canada at all. Although this film is about design, it's also about immigration. The style may have come from Europe, but there was something magical about the place and moment that really allowed it to flourish, and Canadians embraced it.”
“In Canada,” Durrell continues, “this design movement just found the right soil. It literally, truly, was a perfect storm of social and political events. You had a young country that was questioning everything, questioning its path, but even more importantly, looking to forge a new future for itself.”
With the film covering such far-reaching subjects as the 1960 CN Logo redesign—the starting point of this golden age of Canadian design—and the 1964 flag debate, Durrell is very clear about the power of positive imagery.
“We were a country trying to break from our colonial roots, and design was the tool that allowed us to think of ourselves as Canadians. We no longer had a flag that contained a Union Jack. Our national banks now had their own symbols, as did our broadcaster, and trains, and transportation companies.”
Which brings us back to the burning question, did Canadians design these symbols, or did these symbols design modern Canada?
In the end, it's a tough nut to crack, and even Durrell hedges a bit when pressed.
"I think it's both, to be honest," he says, "but at the same time design is not just design. In this case it has affected all our lives and shaped the country. It was nation-building at a really subconscious level.”
Design Canada screens at the Cinematheque on July 5, 8, 11 with director Greg Durrell appearing in person:More