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Documentary review: ‘Design Canada’ explores a nation coming of age through icons

Heather Cooper, graphic designer and creator of the Roots logo, is interviewed in the documentary film, “Design Canada.” — "Design Canada" photo
Heather Cooper, graphic designer and creator of the Roots logo, is interviewed in the documentary film, “Design Canada.” — "Design Canada" photo

Film to be screened at the LSPU in St. John’s on Sept. 20

By Joshua Jamieson
Special to The Telegram

Vancouver-based graphic designer Greg Durrell has worked with many clients, including the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, and branding Team Canada — the most recognized Olympic team logo in the world.

He’s also a first-time filmmaker who set out to make a film he always wanted to watch. He embarked on “Design Canada” in April 2012 and six years later he’s got the finished documentary.
“I just felt privileged to be surrounded by these beautiful Canadian symbols and logos,” the 35-year-old Durrell said in a phone interview. “I was curious to understand where they came from, who made them and why; what it was about them that play a role in how I identify as a Canadian.”

Greg Durrell
Greg Durrell

“Design Canada” features commentary from some trailblazing stalwart graphic designers — some Canadian-born, others who made Canada home.

“I think the approach to design they share: the philosophy of modernism, rationality, structure, order, and communication — these larger principles are relevant to not only Canadian design, but design around the world.”

Designers like Burton Kramer, Stuart Ash and Hans Kleefeld, respectively, created the logos for CBC, the 1967 Canadian Centennial, and Air Canada, for example. Through discussions with them and others, Durrell highlights that “in the ’60s and ’70s, Canada was a young country finding its voice. (It) had been a colony of Europe, and after World War II started to speak for (itself). Blood was shed on battlefields under the emblem of the Maple Leaf and Canadians began to feel national pride. Design, at that time in Canada, allowed pride to transcend into iconography. A lot of the themes were about unity and social cohesion, innovation, and trying to create a better society.”

The film also includes Roots logo creator Heather Cooper.

She “essentially is the anti-modernist,” Durrell said. “Where Rolf Harder, Fritz Gottschalk, Kramer, and Ash are in pursuit of simplified, universally understood forms — Cooper was the opposite. Her work wasn’t as guided by structure. There was an element of the human hand. If you look at the Roots logo, that’s way more detailed and stylized than the Montreal 1976 Olympics beaver. Cooper added something different to design in that era, and became a trailblazer for females working in the industry.”

Telefilm, the Canada Council, CBC and the National Film Board all took a pass on Durrell’s project.

“They didn’t really understand why people would be interested in this design topic. Frankly, I think it was also (the fact that) as a first-time filmmaker, that’s risky for them.”

He self-financed, used Kickstarter, and, “near the end, we had TELUS on as an associate producer, and Shopify helped us finalize post-production.”

Aside from overcoming funding challenges, Durrell said “figuring out the story and structure — that was hard … to make it more approachable for anyone, not just designers.”

In this respect, Durrell had a help from a design documentary giant — Gary Hustwit. “When I saw ‘Helvetica,’ it was a game changer because I realized you could make a film about a small niche topic like graphic design that is accessible. When I started, I didn’t know anyone who’d ever made a film. Through a mutual friend I was introduced to Gary’s partner, Jessica Edwards.”

Involved with film herself, Edwards connected with Durrell in 2013 and became a producer for “Design Canada.” Hustwit was also involved as an executive producer and assisted Durrell with finding the film’s flow.

“To have someone (with) his experience and familiarity with the subject matter was hugely influential,” Durrell said. “He would come every six months to review and articulate things that weren’t working or needed to be restructured.”

Getting connected with the designers was something else.

“A lot of these guys aren’t really on Facebook, I had to use a phone book,” Durrell explained. “I was lucky so many were generous with their time. I had the opportunity to sit and learn. It was incredibly inspiring. Six people have passed away who are in the film and I wish they would’ve been able to see it.”

A memorable moment for Durrell was meeting Massimo Vignelli.

“He was incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about work being done in Canada; that was a really big day for me — to hear his passion for the subject matter — I knew I was on the right path.”

Durrell hopes it “gives (audiences) a new lens to critique the world. A lot of symbols in this film are ones we see every day. Hopefully this film can (be a legacy for these designers) and inspire us to challenge the symbols that will represent us in the future.”

“Design Canada” runs 74 minutes and screens at the LSPU Hall on Sept. 20 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $21.25 (fees included).

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