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Canadian by Design: Interview with director Greg Durrell

By Charlotte Mickie

Magazine Issue: Spring/Summer 2022

Burton Kramer and Greg Durrell, behind the scenes of Design Canada. All images courtesy of Greg Durrell.

The 2018 documentary Design Canada, retraces Canada's design history and celebrates the golden era of Canadian graphic design. The film's director, Vancouver-based designer Greg Durrell, looks back at how the film came together, the designers who shared their perspectives, and the logos, elements and symbols that shaped Canada's identity.

Charlotte Mickie: Design Canada is so beautifully made. I felt great admiration for your craft, but also the movie made me surprisingly emotional. Is that common?

Greg Durrell: I think it surprisingly was and is, especially for a film about a bunch of logos. It was touching for me to have many people tell me that the movie made them feel proud to be Canadian or proud to be a Canadian designer.

I think it's cool to see the human stories behind icons that surround us every day. And it's interesting because the Modern style was supposed to be a style with no style. No human hand, no personal touch, it was about effective communication and the reduction of forms and messages, of simplification. But in the movie, you learn about the stories behind the logos and how they were made, even, in one case, on a napkin. I think it's very powerful to connect real people to things that surround us every day.

CM: Can you tell me more about how you feel Canadian design helped to build national identity at a time when it was just emerging, when there was strife in Quebec and we were just getting over being a colony?

GD: The thesis of the film is that these symbols and icons allowed Canada to see itself as its own unique nation. There is a real relationship in the timing: these symbols were created when the Official Languages Act came out and Canada changed its immigration policy to a point-based system, rather than a list of countries of origin. Progressive ideas about our society emerged that were about unity.

No longer was it beaver pelts, lumberjacks, and maple syrup—this was forward looking. It allowed Canadians to put a stake in the ground saying, “We're here!” an impulse that is entirely encapsulated by the Canadian flag.

CM: I agree, but the other side of the coin is that all this forward-looking can be deliberately ahistorical in a problematic way, a sort of white-washing. The flag is a perfect example: Pearson did not want the Union Jack there or the Fleur-de-Lis, because that would have pointed to division. The new flag neutralized and unified, but it also concealed real points of conflict.

Now, 50 years later, we saw our flag lowered after the discovery of bodies at residential schools, and we are reminded of a very painful history. Recently, we've seen the flag adopted by the convoy protestors. The flag is becoming a lot less neutral, but do you think that shift could be positive, a coming of age?

GD: That is a great question. As a Canadian, probably the saddest I've ever felt is over the historic tragedy of Indigenous children. I'm an accidental filmmaker; as a designer, a great symbol or logo is simple and easy to identify. Those two things make an icon memorable. That's what I love about the flag: because it is so simple, it becomes this vessel for meaning, and it's up to us as Canadians to determine what that meaning is.

CM: I’m in the film business myself, and I have to ask: "Okay, Greg, how the heck did you do this?” It's so accomplished for a first feature documentary. Had you made commercials before?

GD: Honestly, this all began because I wanted to watch this film. One of the real tipping points was when a designer that I wanted to interview, Theo Dimson, passed away. I thought, "I have no more time to waste. No one else is doing it, I'm going for it." Another inspiration was the film Helvetica (2007, directed by Gary Hustwit).

CM: And people love that movie.

GD: As a designer, Helvetica made me realize that you could make a film about niche subject matter and people would care if you told the story the right way. I have a mutual friend with Gary Hustwit's partner, Jessica Edwards, who put me in contact with them, and Jessica and Gary came on board as producers.

I contacted them around 2013, four years before the 150th anniversary of Canada. And we thought, "No problem, it’s going to be a slam dunk to get funding. There's all these grants." And we were rejected by everyone. But I thought, "This is why I have to make this film: to make people understand how design influences their lives."

CM: In the end Telus and Shopify came to the rescue?

GD: Before them, we ran this successful Kickstarter campaign, which allowed us to bring on a film editor and some expertise. We edited in New York, and we thought we were done. Then we did a screening with award-winning documentary film editors, who told us, "We don't think you have a film here." And it was a punch to the gut. But I work in design, so I'm not precious. I want to know what’s wrong, and we did another screening.

What came out of the second screening was one comment from a viewer: "As a Canadian, I've actually never seen someone from the 1960s speak before." And I suddenly realized, "I'm not making a film about logos, I’m making a film about how these logos are a window into our history and who we are as a people." Then I knew how to finish the film.

CM: Is that when you hunted down Telus and Shopify?

GD: Around the time of the Kickstarter launch, Shopify reached out to say, "We love what you're doing. If there's anything we could do to help you, let us know." And Telus said the same thing. If it wasn't for their support, this film would never have come out.

CM: I really liked what you did with the inter titles and graphics, using the grid, which is so consistent with the content of the film.

GD: I’m glad you noticed. I worked with a good friend of mine, Alexander Shoukas. We collaborated on the titles and other graphic elements. The intention was to be authentic to the period, down to the music.

CM: All the designers were charismatic. Did you have favorites among them?

GD: This film doesn't happen without Burton Kramer. I met Burton Kramer in 2007 at an exhibition of his paintings. He invited me over to his studio and we formed a friendship. One day I asked, "Hey, did you ever think about making a book?" and we ended up making a book. When I was making the movie, he was my first interview. Burton was amazing to give me the chance to record his story. The next designer was Rolf Harder, then Fritz Gottschalk—after interviewing him, I knew I had a film.

CM: You wanted people to be able to connect to the material. Still, you were willing to take on tough issues. You brought in Hannah Sung to talk about diversity and inclusivity. Can you talk about that?

GD: While I was making the movie, so much was happening in the world—the Time's Up and the Me Too movements and other actions. I realized was this was a film predominantly about white men, and if I didn't acknowledge this as discriminatory the film might never, justifiably, see the light of day. Hannah was amazing to come in and establish some of the hardships. And that's what excites me for the future: how Canada’s next wave of immigrants will shape design.

CM: The other issue that you take on is Swiss Style versus ornamental, more illustrative design. You included some ornamental designers, who are mainly women.

GD: When I got the critiques of the first cut, I knew there were issues I had to address, and one was including women, another was providing a counterpoint to modernism. That's exactly where Heather Cooper comes in. She flipped the whole industry upside down, at least within this country.

Canadian logos by Stuart Ash, Allan Robb Fleming, Burton Kramer, Heather Cooper, Hans Kleefeld, and more.

CM: We’ve touched on the playfulness of the logos: often type reveals a picture or is a pictogram. Some of the logos are like puzzles, giving the viewer a little rush of pleasure as the problem is solved. I think the CN logo is such a spectacular example and I loved the sequence where it’s deconstructed by Massimo Vignelli. How did that come to be?

GD: It was 2011, 2012, again, when I was just thinking about the iconic logos and how they helped form Canadian identity. I emailed Vignelli, "I'm thinking about making this documentary about design in Canada in the '60s. What do you remember? Was it exceptional?"

He wrote me back right away. I loved it. He knew every designer's name, more so than any Canadian designer that I interviewed. He responded, "Yes, the work was exceptional. I call the Canadian design scene the Switzerland of North America. If you ever come to New York, let me know and let's sit down."

When we started talking about CN, he just began drawing. But the way he just broke it down and distilled the logo and showed the proportions and how everything works and is connected, was a beautiful sequence.

CM: Both Douglas Copeland and Vignelli were very funny about the Trillium logo.

GD: Since the film they changed the Trillium logo back to the original, sort of.

CM: Speaking of that, at the end of the film your speakers talk about the current relentless drive to continually change logos. What's your feeling on that?

GD: This is what I do for a living. I'm going to go back to my job where we're rebranding a company. I think Fritz says it the best: "Things change because the world changes." Now, how they change and exactly why they change is a different story.

CM: In the movie your exploration of preservation versus innovation reaches a lovely conclusion with the enduring Canadian Wordmark. Do you think the way it happened, over time and with different designers involved, is part of the reason it’s been so resilient?

GD: It's interesting how that mark even came to be. Jim Donoahue was doing ads for Canadian Tourism, and he felt the ad was missing a logo. They came up with the mark, using the “d” as a flagpole. It wasn’t a strategy to represent Canada on every front into the future.

Just as the Canadian flag was something of an accident, the way they arrived at the maple leaf and went through a committee, the Canada Wordmark was also designed by accident.

CM: I’d love to know about your next movie?

GD: I'm a partner in a design studio and we've been insanely busy working on a few upcoming brand launches in 2022, stay tuned! When I do make another film, I’d like it to be a window, as Design Canada was, to having some challenging conversations.

Greg Durrell is co-founder of Hulse & Durrell, an independent studio in Vancouver that designs brands, products, and films for ambitious clients who want to leave a lasting impact.

Charlotte Mickie is the Vice-President of Celluloid Dreams, a Paris-based company specializing in the acquisition, sale, and production of independent arthouse films. She currently serves as an expert for the ACE Producers Network, an advisor for BlockFilm, and is a member of the CSDA/CCAD Board. Mickie is a Member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.


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