Responses by Carolyn Centeno Milton, strategy director; and Benoit Lemoine, lead designer, AREA 17.
Background: As Canada’s pre-eminent visual arts organization—and comprising the largest collection of contemporary Indigenous art in the world, as well as the country’s largest Canadian and European collections of art—The National Gallery of Canada represents Canadian cultural identity on a world stage. Coinciding with the launch of its strategic plan to address systemic shifts in its institution, the Gallery engaged AREA 17 to transform its brand to reflect the decolonization of the museum, decenter narratives, amplify new voices, and reframe art within a more inclusive context. The new brand needed to reflect the organization’s reconciliation efforts with First Nations, Inuit and Métis people, and encompass an inclusive perspective of Canadian art and culture.
Design thinking: “We started with a deep listening of 300 interviews with employees; heads of other Canadian museums; Canadians; museum members; board members; leadership; youth artists; transformation consultants; justice, equity, diversity and inclusion consultants; Indigenous elders; and artists,” says Carolyn Centeno Milton. “From the interviews, it was clear that the National Gallery was in the process of shifting from a square—linear, apart, separate, monolithic, Western dominant—to a permeable circle—inclusive, connected, collective, Indigenous worldview. This shift extended to the way it’s organized, the way it wanted to engage with the community, and how it approached art and culture. We had to make that shift clear through the brand pillars, experience principles, visual identity and behavioral drivers.
“Once the Indigenous elder advisory committee shared the word ankosé, we knew the project had changed,” Centeno Milton continues. “Ankosé means ‘everything is connected,’ and it summed up everything we were hoping to express. It is a call to action for the museum and its viewers to understand the limitless connections that exist behind the frame of art, the building, the dominant narrative, and space and time.”
“We tried to represent the effort of the museum and its collection opening up through the use of circular, open forms,” said Benoit Lemoine. “We decided to work on connections, visual links that unfold in time and space. The different symbols link to each other through a common matrix and morphing animations. Each form transforms into another within a large loop, playing with the ideas of circles and cycles. We set up a graphic vocabulary from which many variations can emerge. Each shape is unique but part of a harmonious whole. We like the idea that the series of symbols is open and can evolve by accommodating new shapes over time.
“We decided not to limit the color palette to one color but to use a varied palette that runs through the entire color wheel, further reinforcing diversity and openness,” Lemoine continues. “Our system includes several color pairs and gradients. The use of gradients and the shape of the morphs serve the same purpose—to create links, connect elements of composition and connect shapes.”
Challenges: “How can you visualize and put words to a leading arts organization of a nation in evolution? A very controversial topic? An organization’s evolving effort to be better? It was incredibly challenging,” says Centeno Milton. “But once we focused on the limitless connections that exist beyond the frame of one perspective—moving from a square to a permeable circle—ankosé became a guiding light to everything else.”
Favorite details: “We create systems that allow our clients to live into their intention through the way their organization and products are expressed, as well as the behavior they drive,” says Centeno Milton. “Brand is so much more than a logo or statement; it is a core expression of what the organization wants to be, could be and will be, as well as the behaviors that expression drives through the organization and the actions of its users. When our team was invited to witness the employee brand launch, it was humbling to hear poet Albert Dumont’s beautiful words and watch the beautiful video the National Gallery of Canada created. It was humbling to hear what it meant to each of the employee’s lives. There were tears and heartfelt exchanges. The meeting became a permeable circle. We are excited to see how the National Gallery of Canada will continue to live into their future.”
“It’s a delight to see how the public and museum staff have made the identity their own, sometimes in very creative ways,” says Lemoine. “On social media, we have seen the logo appear on cakes, hats and beadwork.”
New lessons: “I remember when Angela Cassie, the vice president of strategic transformation and inclusion at the Gallery, said something to the effect that being afraid to be wrong is an excuse that has been used to keep the dominant narrative unchallenged for too long,” Centeno Milton recalls. “This is all an evolution.”
Visual influences: “Our influences were many and varied,” says Lemoine. “They included the images of geometrical forms in movement from kaleidoscopes, the omnipresence of the circle and patterns in Indigenous art, and the shapes of the glass ceiling of the National Gallery’s building itself.
“Color plays a significant role in the visual identity and supports the strategic decision to move away from a single, monolithic perspective,” Lemoine continues. “We intentionally moved away from red to a more inclusive palette. The Northern Lights inspire the color system—we are all connected under the night sky. By using gradients, we create more open, fluid spaces. In practice, the color pulls from the artwork and content that surrounds it, enabling a multiplicity of voices to be heard.”