Friday, 15 July 2016


The Apex of Canadian Graphic Design

Musician Frank Zappa once said that ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture.’ Well, flying buttresses and gargoyles never fail to set my blue suede shoes a-tapping. In that spirit, I’m going to write 750 to 1000 words about symbols and logos, memorable Canadian graphic design from the 60s and 70s that has stayed with me.

Facebook was the prompt for this meGeoff entry. I am a member of a Montreal-centric digital nostalgia group because I enjoy looking at old photos of my hometown and enjoy sharing a memory with other posters from time to time. The other day I was struck by two posts. One showed a dated aerial picture of the construction of the then massive and very green Hydro-Quebec headquarters and the second reminded me that this Sunday would mark the 40th anniversary of Montreal’s Olympic summer games; the opening ceremony was staged on July 17, 1976.

Once the provincial government nationalized Montreal Light, Heat and Power, the company’s visual identity was reduced to a simple capital Q with the tail rendered as a lightning bolt, simple, elegant and descriptive. The design ethos of the same era also gave us the Canadian National Railways CN worm, two disparate red letters snaked together to suggest railway tracks and flowing movement as the eye followed the coursing logo. Consider too the recently minted (1965) Canadian flag: one prime colour, two traditional bars sandwiching a stylized variegated maple leaf which like any classic banner could be easily recognized from a distance; and easily and clearly reproduced for any print, embroidery, stencil or television application.

On a wall in this house is a framed Montreal summer games promotional poster I’ve carted around for 35 years. It’s a close-up of half a worn and slightly frayed jean jacket. There’s a harmonica in the pocket, a daisy in the buttonhole. The outside of the pocket is pinned with badges, there’s a rainbow globe, a yellow happy face, a green tree, a merged gender symbol and a black Canadian nickel beaver with a red stripe across its haunches: symbols and logos.

(The poster was part of the design portfolio that papered Montreal leading up to those Canadian summer games. The jean jacket poster was a gift to me from its designer, a man I met later under other circumstances – he’d been commissioned to design a stamp and I wrote a profile of him for various Canada Post publications in the early 80s.)

The denim image is half hippie, half punk, those were the times. The jacket badge that still strikes me from a design perspective is Montreal’s official Olympic logo. Humps were added to the top three rings of the official five, suggesting a lower case m with a volcanic indication of Mount Royal, the island of Montreal’s main geographical feature, rising up through the middle. Again, like the flag and the CN worm, just clean solid space against a clean solid background, a difficult execution in the primitive days of hand-drawn fonts, Pantone markers, hot wax, ruby tape, Letroset and X-acto knives – any application of which required an artisan’s skill, not only by the designer and the production artist but also by the printer’s film stripper.

M is for Montreal. The Montreal Expos began play in the National League in 1969. Their primary logo was similar to most other baseball teams’ in that it was a letter. The Expos’ M was a complicated letter though, formed by a lower case e and fishhooked to a lower case b by an upside down j. The e and the b stood for Expos baseball, a diamond homage to the H for hockey in the Montreal Canadiens’ famous CH logo. The small b also suggested a bat swatting a ball. While purists were offended by the usage of a puffy phantom font, the design aesthetic was messily lifted shortly thereafter by the Milwaukee Brewers who forced a lower case b into a capital M to suggest a ball in the pocket of a fielder’s mitt.

The Expos derived their nickname from the World’s Fair which was held in Montreal in 1967, Canada’s centennial. Expo ‘67’s theme was Man and His World. The graphic representation of this conceit was a circle of matchstick people with their arms upraised and holding hands. The design was stark, white on blue. And the matchstick people could also represent trees or high tension wire pylons, the design suggested an idealistic convergence of humanity, technology and nature. A badge featuring two of those hopeful matchstick souls is on the pocket of my jean jacket Olympics poster – maybe too close to the pot leaf.

Visual icons and logos with their type treatments and swooshes get blurry in a hurry. They’re everywhere and on everything, you cease seeing them. But what if you’re lost somewhere, anywhere? Maybe you’re shy, stubborn or you don’t speak the language. You look up and see a sign with no words, a graphic, but you understand it. Montreal did a fine job during the ’76 Olympics and Expo ’67 directing all comers with easy to grasp wayfaring and directional signage.

The genesis was the opening of the Metro subway system in 1966. A station entry was designated by a plain blue sign displaying a white circle with a downward pointing arrow within it. This was a simple graphic solution for a new service in a city riven by the province’s and country’s debate on official languages while anticipating an influx of tourists who may or may not speak French or English. Enter here.

Those decades were optimistic times. The country celebrated its centennial and the world was invited to visit twice. Major League Baseball expanded outside of the United States for the first time. The future had arrived, it looked bright and that was reflected in sleek, modern design. Even the Alouettes football club embraced the era’s design ethos. Their helmet logos were switched from traditional swooping wings to a delicate skylark’s head, two plump, curvy red lines suggesting the bird’s profile surrounding a green dot for an eye, a typographical hint of a lower case a, more avant-garde than gridiron, another sign of those heady times.

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