One of the great enduring mysteries of contemporary cultural history is the definition of what design is, and how we come to recognize and sustain it as a distinct practice and profession. As the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada (GDC) marks its 50th anniversary in 2006, it is instructive to look at the relationship between professional organizations and the broader, shared visual culture they are part of.
The origins of the GDC can be traced to a number of objective factors: the economic boom of the 1950s that trailed in the wake of World War II; the size and global reach of corporate production and marketing efforts; and many new or greatly improved technologies. Among the latter, the most important surely include inexpensive, quality color printing (along with the rise of color in film and television), more efficient and precise typesetting methods and powerful modern font designs. But the biggest factor was no doubt developments in the technology of design itself—the conventions that govern the visual language of the page.
Canadian design is a creole language, a distinct mix of foreign and local cultures arising through the happy accident of shared geography. Native cultural traditions surrounded and mixed with those of the European settlers. The British first brought presses here, just as John Baskerville was applying his skills and personal fortune to type design. Canada is also a former French colony; while France transplanted many artisans, craftsmen and designers, there is no decisive evidence that they ever brought printing here. The often inhospitable landscape and its wildlife (especially that persistent rodent, the beaver) have also played a role in shaping the icons of our visual identity. Even the American revolutionary Benjamin Franklin left his mark. Attempting to take advantage of anti-British sentiment in recently-conquered Montréal, he helped establish the press that became The Gazette, which remains in daily circulation today.
Printing in Canada reflected and reinterpreted foreign trends, especially the Victorian commercial spectacle, with its ornate type styles and loudly sentimental color lithography. But Canadians also played a leading role in new developments; the world’s first commercial application of the revolutionary half-tone process appeared with the first issue of The Canadian Illustrated News, on October 30, 1869. Fittingly for a loyal colony, publisher Georges-Edouard Desbarats reproduced a photographic portrait, from William Notman’s noted Montréal studio, of Victoria’s son, the teenage Prince Arthur.
Perhaps early Canadian designers were guilty of too much innovation. By 1875, Montréal (then Canada’s largest city) had passed a law to control the spread of postering, and 1902 saw a major public campaign to eliminate theater posters on the grounds of public decency. The industry grew in spite of opposition, and The Canadian Printer and Publisher was founded in 1892, four years after Printer’s Ink, its American counterpart. The Toronto Ad Club emerged in 1911, and, like other advertising societies of the time, gained credibility and goodwill for its patriotic propaganda efforts in World War I.
Other associations, distant predecessors to the GDC, helped build awareness of “good” design. The Canadian Society of Graphic Art (itself an outgrowth of the Art Students League of the late nineteenth century) held a 1947 exhibition at the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario). Primarily an association for the fine art of hand printmaking, it expanded its mandate in the immediate postwar years to include commercial production, recognizing “the important part the designer plays in the preparation, display and advertising of the things we use.”
As a measure of their modernist internationalism, the graphic artists asked Paul Rand to speak (although he regretfully declined). The exhibition was extraordinarily crowded, reflecting the general postwar optimism and desire for a better life. Visitors were presented with hundreds of examples of the creative use of illustration, typography and layout in everyday items. Clair Stewart, who, with Ted Morrison, would later build the important firm of Stewart Morrison, won the $25 Sampson Matthews prize for a series of menu illustrations done for Canadian Steamship Lines.
Canadian design thus emerged in the postwar years out of many sources, absorbing many different influences and taking a variety of institutional and commercial forms. Russell Johnson suggested that by the mid-twentieth century, Canadian visual culture lay between the “wit and erudition” of Britain and the “garish sales pitch” of the United States. However, Johnson also noted that, “while North America formed a continental market for many ideas, goods and services, the border remained jealously guarded.” Part of that home guard, one might say, was the foundation in 1956 of the Society of Typographic Designers of Canada.
A postwar British immigrant, Leslie (Sam) Smart, often recalled how in 1954 the Manchester Guardian declared that Canadian publication design was, “in dullness, second only to the books of the Soviet Union.” Harsh words indeed, especially at the height of the Cold War (which was always as much a cultural and ideological competition as it was economic or military). Drawing on previous experience with professional trade associations, Smart responded by pulling together three other British-trained, Toronto type men, Frank Davies, John Gibson and the Czech-born Frank Newfeld. Their intention was to build a common understanding and clear direction for design in Canada, to set high visual standards and turn printers and compositors into proper designers.
By adding the “C” to TDC, they had adopted the common Toronto habit of calling a local organization national. Name it, however, and they will come: a Montréal chapter opened, with a single member, in 1957; the Society also spread west to Edmonton, Vancouver and Victoria, and east to Halifax. Legally incorporated in 1958, the TDC grew primarily through typographic exhibitions, which it held annually through 1964. Typography ’59, for example, resulted in an exhibition of 300 designs at the Royal Ontario Museum. What did they consider worthy design? The TDC was not at first interested, for example, in newspaper design. (It was eventually included as an award category with Typography ’60.) Then as now, the awards shows were dominated by the singular and the extraordinary, and less by examples of everyday excellence.
By 1961, after five years of growth, the Society had elevated 3 of their members to the status of Fellow, but only listed 32 other members, not counting the 11 licentiates and 6 students. Despite their small membership numbers, TDC workshops and courses, as well as monthly evening meetings, were becoming an important part of the life of type and design professionals. The TDC was one of the many ways, in effect, that printers and typesetters came to identify and differentiate the skills of creative visualization and specification we now call design. And TDC efforts were certainly well received by regular Globe and Mail columnist Pearl McCarthy, who publicized their meetings and exhibitions, marveled at the growing importance of this new field, and praised their restraint and control in the face of popular and consumer tastes.
A milestone was reached with Typomundus 20, a global exhibition held in Toronto in 1964. (Intended for New York, the show was diverted north when it became known that designers from the Eastern Bloc would not be able to enter the U.S.A.) A project that stretched the resources of the nascent TDC, members worked for almost two years, collecting thousands of pieces of design from the international community—the best available examples of modern design from around the world. The jury chose 583 works, the best-of-the-best for the show, stored them away, and then saw them all be trashed when $50 in back rent went unpaid.
With a name change in 1968, the TDC became the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada. Graphic, rather than Typographic, in Burton Kramer’s words, better reflected design’s concern with “all aspects of visual communication.” This same year saw a major traveling exhibition of GDC designers’ work, mounted with federal government funding and exhibited in the national Design Centers run (briefly) by the department of Industry, Trade and Commerce. Reflecting the excitement generated by Expo 67, the centerpiece event in Canada’s centennial celebrations, Carl Brett, GDC president in 1968, wrote that the GDC had become “the major force” contributing to the improvement of design.
Such hyperbole is understandable. The GDC had established itself as a much-needed piece of the professional puzzle. But graphic design is too broad, and drawn from too many different sources, to be claimed by any one organization. In the 1960s, art schools right across Canada were changing radically, reworking curricula and hiring modernist designers from Britain and Europe. AGI and ICOGRADA conferences, often organized Hans Kleefeld, Stewart & Morrison, Air Canada symbol, 1963. Stewart & Morrison developed by faculty in developing design programs such as those at the University of Alberta and York University, were important to the emerging Canadian field.
The GDC itself took full advantage of the support of printing and paper companies. E.B. Eddy was an early patron of Carl Dair’s tireless promotion of graphic design, and Rolland paper sponsored the TDC/GDC Typography exhibitions. Donations of paper and printing have been important over the years in many of the publications of this largely volunteer organization. Even the Royal Canadian Academy (an offshoot, of course, of the British Royal Academy) has inducted designers. The 1971 RCA exhibition, for example, had a separate section for graphic design, with work by Allan Fleming, Ernst Roch and Burton Kramer, among others.
While design in Canada has never enjoyed government support at anything like the level typical of many European or Asian countries, the National Design Council was established in 1961 by an act of Parliament. (It was disbanded in 1985.) Although focused largely on promoting industrial design and manufacturing, it did run the Look of Books competitions. Design Canada also produced a 1974 booklet, Profit by Design, educating the industry on how to avoid the high-failure rate of new designs and products. Chairperson Sonja Bata argued that Canada could not compete based on low labor cost, and so must emphasize efficiency and originality—in other words, design.
The time seemed right to relaunch the GDC as a truly national organization. With federal support, it set out to write a new constitution. Giles Talbot Kelly drafted bylaws, and the University of Toronto Press also donated staff time and resources. With a trace of irony, UTP designer Laurie Lewis has suggested that the government department, Industry, Trade and Commerce, funded the graphic design association not because books are high added-value, beautifully designed objects, but rather because they are wood products, part of the large Canadian forest industry.
While Toronto was leading the move to create a national association in the early ’70s, in February, 1973, an initial meeting was held with over 100 designers, to launch the Société des Graphistes du Québec. Later that year, a committee of senior designers, including Georges Beaupré and Claude Cossette, mounted a large colloquium in the Laurentian hills north of Montréal. Incorporated in June, 1974, the SGQ formed a secretariat and held its first annual general meeting. Although long ago conquered by the British, Québec clearly remains a separate nation within Canada—the term in English discussions becomes ‘distinct society’—and the French language and its design traditions remain vital and unique.
GDC marked its 25th anniversary in 1981 with another exhibition and publication, again sponsored by Design Canada. Some 300 members were listed in the back. Exhibitions and judging have remained a mainstay of GDC life; a major annual exhibition organized by the British Columbia chapter of the GDC, Graphex, is one particularly strong example; in Québec, the SGQ has added ‘Designers’ to its name, becoming SDGQ, and holds its Grafika competitions.
In the early 1990s, GDC members in Ontario led a seven-year-long process to become accredited under provincial legislation. A bill passed in 1996 gave the four Ontario chapters of the GDC control over use of the designation “Registered Graphic Designer” and the letters R.G.D. This change in status might seem minor—it has no other regulatory effect— but it has had national implications. On the RGD Ontario Web site today there is no mention of the GDC as the national organization of design in Canada.
Effectively, achievement of a new, government-accredited basis for the organization of design at the provincial level has led to the creation of a third, distinct design organization, which has assumed the representation of some two-thirds of the GDC membership. As it was at its founding, the GDC remains a national organization in name, but with only 22 Fellows and 18 Members at Large from the two largest provinces—again, two-thirds of the country’s population. Active and important though it remains, the GDC faces a challenging period of redefinition in the professional life of design in Canada.
Debates continue over the idea of certification. Ellen Shapiro has argued that certification and testing of designers are costly and aggravating, “a tricky business for a design organization to be in.” She nonetheless concludes that some form of self-regulation is necessary, although it must be voluntary and supportive. Application of any aesthetic judgment as the basis for a design organization, however, is a similarly tricky business; an organization would be simply irrelevant today if founded, as the original GDC partly was, on strict visual standards or ideas of an acceptable level of professional visual “quality.” Nor is any organization likely to emerge that is mandatory or prohibitive, given the diffuse and popular nature of graphics. Other critics reject any move to formal recognition or accreditation, arguing design is simply too changeable, diverse or anarchic for regulation.
But the industry, however organized, continues to grow. There are some 1,750 professional members of graphic design associations in Canada. RGD Ontario claims about 700 of those (and an additional 1,800 student members enrolled largely by their schools). A recent study, Design Matters, gives a bigger picture: it suggests that, in all fields (including architecture, industrial and interior design), there are some 40,000 designers in Ontario alone. With 25,000 of those, Toronto is the third largest design center in North America, after New York and Boston. There is clearly a need for a national voice and a centralized organization for graphic designers and design in general. The mandate of both the GDC and RGD Ontario reflects the many important, non-regulatory efforts needed in support of design: promotion, advocacy, advising, liaison, education, research, connection.
Design is its history: an unstable and informal visual consensus that has arisen through the exchange of opinions, and the accumulation of a highly uneven and incomplete historical record. It is, roughly, equal parts radical innovation and convention; as much individual memory as published information. Looking at that history it might also be said that, paradoxically, design’s definition becomes more complicated when designers undertake the historic process of self-definition. But throughout its first 50 years, the GDC has clearly shown that designers are individually stronger when they get organized. ca
DESIGNING CANADA FOR 50 YEARS: 1956-2006
In its 50-year history, the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada has had its fair share of challenges. The country's great size, diverse cultures and two official languages present their own set of obstacles in creating a cohesive design community. The value of Canada’s national graphic design association lies in being a communication network, connecting the heart of the organization—its regional chapters.
With well-established and grass-roots communities from Halifax to Whitehorse (the Arctic is the youngest GDC regional chapter—just two years old), the GDC finds itself playing a more important day-to-day role for designers across the country, but remaining a national voice for Canadian design- ers requires creative solutions in light of today’s challenges. Above and beyond Canada’s vast geography, the most populated provinces—Québec and Ontario—are not part of the GDC (although the Société des designers graphiques du Québec [SDGQ] is closely allied with the GDC, and the Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario [RGDON] shares information and sponsor opportunities).
Peggy Cady, MGDC, GDC national president 2004–2006, Matthew Warburton, FGDC, GDC past president 2002–2004, and Walter Jungkind, FGDC, past president of ICOGRADA 1974–1977 and GDC past president 1978–1981, share some of their thoughts on the strength, value and future of the GDC.
“A self-regulating association and nonprofit society, the GDC encompasses regions from the Arctic to the Atlantic and Pacific, with 875 members today,” says Cady. “Our members are professional designers, graduates, educators, students and associates. Our Professional Members—Fellows (FGDC), Professional (MGDC) and Licentiates (LGDC)—are certified for membership by passing a review of their portfolio, education and work experience and agreeing to abide by the GDC Code of Ethics.
“Many employers and clients now ask for or require a professional credential. For instance, it is now official Canada Post policy that they will only commission stamp design contracts to professional members of the GDC or the provincial associations: SDGQ or RGDON,” says Cady. National certification remains a top priority and an area where the GDC advocates for the profession, raising awareness and value.
“The GDC Chapters serve a very important role in the lives of many designers across Canada,” explains Warburton. “As always, population numbers here are lower than the U.S., so comparisons to the AIGA are difficult, but proportionate to the Canadian population. The GDC actually has a pretty good the local voice for designers speaking out on issues of conflict (i.e., the 2010 Olympic spec logo contest), but more importantly creating a local community of peers who can be looked to for advice or support.
“While I was living and working in Toronto in the 1980s, I didn’t see a need to join the GDC. Events were being put on all the time by not only the GDC, but also the Toronto Art Directors Club (now the Advertising & Design Club of Canada), CAPIC (Canadian Association of Photographers and Illustrators) and the major printers and type houses. Designers didn’t really need help or advice because there was so much work—only a complete fool couldn’t make money in Toronto in the ’80s!
“It wasn’t until I moved west [to Vancouver in 1989] that I felt the need to connect with my fellow designers and start to give something back to my profession. The GDC was the perfect vehicle for both pursuits.
“The GDC is only as strong and influential as its members make it. It is a bottom-up organization, not a top-down one. Members are empowered at the chapter level to do things; they are not controlled by the executive (other than ensuring membership requirements are adhered to). As a result, activity waxes and wanes as people get burned out or as new enthusiastic people come on board wanting to make their mark.”
“[While] the loss of RGD Ontario to the national body has had a deleterious effect on the GDC through loss of membership and membership fees,” Jungkind says, “there is a somewhat compensatory effect at work. The regional chapters of the GDC remnant have had to, and have, made great efforts to shrug off the defection of the center. Vancouver and Vancouver Island, Calgary and Edmonton, and perhaps to a lesser degree Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Halifax on the East Coast, have chapters with some of the liveliest programs today.”
Warburton concludes, “The recurring theme for me when I try to describe the GDC is “connect”. That’s what the GDC does best—it connects people who are passionate about their profession, either as practicing designers or as students. The venues and platforms are varied, but in a country like Canada, that’s a necessity!”
On the following pages is a sampling of work from most GDC Regional Chapters. —Rebecca Bedrossian