Off-the-shelf look

The following column examines and critiques commercial design, as well as provides commentary on current issues and trends in the design industry.It began in the bus shelters.Over the course of a month or so, the beacon that Barton Myers built (along...

The following column examines and critiques commercial design, as well as provides commentary on current issues and trends in the design industry.

It began in the bus shelters.

Over the course of a month or so, the beacon that Barton Myers built (along with Kuwabara, Payne, McKenna, Blumberg) appeared and reappeared on one Toronto Transit Commission kiosk after another as the Art Gallery of Ontario announced its long-awaited reopening.

Excitement palpable

For regular worshippers at the public altar of visual art, the excitement was palpable.

Talk of curatorial innovation and architectural feats of grandeur (heralded by the much earlier opening of the magnificent Tannenbaum Sculpture Atrium) gave rise to great expectations.

More than fulfilled

And, as a proud ago unveiled the face that launched ten thousand cocktails, those expectations were more than fulfilled.

Breathtaking architecture and bold curatorship combined to thrill anxious throngs of visitors.

In a show of uncharacteristic unison, critics spewed forth columns of praise for the newly risen phoenix. It was, and is, a magnificent success.

While all the attention has rightly been focussed on the contents of the 30 new and 20 renovated galleries, one thing seems to have gone unnoticed: the ago’s new corporate identity.

Along with the architectural and curatorial rebirth of this venerable institution, we were to witness the appearance of a freshly created visual symbol that would properly reflect the gallery’s re-emergence as one of the 10 largest art museums in North America.

What we got were two lines of off-the-shelf typesetting.

Two years ago or so, when the gallery cast its net in search of a suitable candidate to undertake the redesign of its identity, it settled on a u.s. firm. Rightfully indignant, the Canadian candidates raised hell about it, but to no avail.

Supporters of the Canadian contingent would argue that the decision smacked of parochialism and prejudice against a resident design community, many members of which have established international reputations of their own.

They would also argue that it was unacceptable for an institution funded by Canadian tax dollars to be hiring Americans to execute a project of such cultural significance.


Supporters of the gallery’s decision would argue that Canadian taxpayers would be most properly served if the best firm won, no matter what its national origin.

It is an argument that has become a ritual in Canadian design, and one that is destined to continue as free trade matures.

Best firm

But let us put aside the issue of local pride for a moment; let us suspend any nationalistic sentiment. Let us accept the possibility that the ago really did pick the best firm for the job.

Not to belabor the point, but what the winners gave us were two lines of off-the-shelf typesetting.

How much high-priced consultation did it take to produce such an inconsequential visual statement? How far afield must we go in search of such a prosaic image?

It reflects none of the curatorial innovation or architectural bravura of the gallery’s reincarnation.

It even fails to signify the idea of rebirth. Just how are we to interpret these plainly juxtaposed lines of type?

One possible reading is that the confrontation between a bitmapped font (Oakland Six) and a classic serif (Perpetua) is meant to convey a balance between tradition and innovation.

But is that all there is to say? And to anyone not familiar with typographic trends, is there even that much of a message here?

Ironically, to anyone who happens to be familiar with typography, Oakland Six is hardly suitable as a reference to innovation.

It was designed in the bad old days of Mac technology, when screen and printer resolution were neolithically crude. It is a face that has already fallen out of fashion.

Who knows what the communications objectives were? Who knows what agendas were really on the table (or hidden underneath it)?

Anyone who has been through the process of corporate identity design will know how complicated it can get, and with an institution the size of the ago, the process may well have been labyrinthine.

At the end of the day, what is really at issue here is not that a u.s. firm designed this identity, but that it was designed at all.

Having ignored an abundance of local talent, the ago proceeded to squander the expertise of the winning firm on a trademark that could have been designed by an office clerk.

Will Novosedlik and Bob Russell are principals of Russell Design in Toronto.