Bold colours and a modern aesthetic bring CAMH history to life in permanent exhibition

Case Study by Jacob Lucs RGD, Senior Graphic Designer, Vilnis Cultural Design Works

Construction of a number of new buildings for the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health on Queen Street in Toronto offered an opportunity to tell the story of CAMH to the public. The history of the Centre is colourful and at times controversial. A presentation was needed that was comprehensive, historically balanced and spoke to CAMH’s current mission to “Care, Discover, Learn and Build – to Transform Lives.”


As part of the redevelopment of CAMH, an exhibition of graphic panels, describing 150 years of the institution’s history, was mounted in the newly built Doctors Association Building. Breaking Down Barriers: The CAMH Story, consisting of 80 linear feet of interpretive panels, details the transformation of the site from asylum to an integrated community within one of Toronto’s vibrant west-end neighbourhoods.



The Audience

Installed in a publicly accessible, central location on the CAMH grounds, the exhibition receives a wide range of visitors. Both mental health professionals and clients pass through the building regularly, with varying amounts of time to spend with differing levels of physical and mental ability.


The Concept / Design Process
It was decided early on in the process that a chronological approach would be appropriate for the project. The changes in mental health treatment over time have been mirrored in CAMH’s history as a facility, and this timeline is a useful jumping-off point to explore these developments.



Vilnis Cultural Design Works worked closely with Workman Arts, a not-for-profit professional arts company working in partnership with and located at the Queen Street site of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and John Court, CAMH archivist and Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto. A steering committee comprised of historians, doctors, patient advocates, and people with lived experience was formed and met regularly with the designers to review interpretive graphics. This team was integral to ensuring historical accuracy and that patient voices and viewpoints were included in the exhibition.


When the graphic template for the exhibition was created, close attention was paid to the existing CAMH brand. Utilizing bright colour and a modern, clean aesthetic, the exhibition panels emulated the CAMH brand while respecting the sometimes controversial history of the institution.



Vilnis Cultural Design Works is proud to have been a part of a major rebuilding and relaunching of the CAMH site. We feel the exhibition accurately portrays the ongoing mission of CAMH to “Care, Discover, Learn and Build — to Transform Lives.”


“The Vilnis creativity and expertise ensured that our exhibit, Breaking Down Barriers: The CAMH Story, informs and engages visitors, who are delighted to discover it.” — John P.M. Court, CAMH archivist



Designer Takeaways

  1. As a project gets moving forward, things become very exciting and new ideas emerge constantly. Make sure everyone involved knows when and how to bring these ideas forward and to whom. This will ensure a smooth workflow and that all points of view are respected.
  2. It is important to address difficult or controversial issues surrounding the subject. Leaving out or glossing over this information may only highlight it negatively in the viewer's mind.
  3. The human element is what makes a story relatable and interesting. Find the stories that speak to you as a human being, and they will surely speak to others as well.


Client Takeaways

  1. Dealing directly with a very attentive and organized CAMH archivist, we were fortunate to have full access to historical images in a timely fashion. Visitors are drawn to photographs, and including hi-res, high quality images will keep people interested and coming back to the exhibition time and again.
  2. Often it feels like a designer or copy-editor is chopping out important information that the public needs to know. In reality, brevity will be absorbed much more readily by visitors, as excessive amounts of text will only scare people away.
  3. Change is normal and each project has a life of its own. Late in the project can seem like a scary time to be making content changes, but often these changes are only revealed by listening to the story being told and adjusting the content to reflect this.



Jacob Lucs RGD – Graphic Design

Art Lucs – Spatial Design / Production

Sandra Lucs – Research / Interpretive Planning / Writing



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