Industry Insights: Rod McDonald RGD

Type designer, lettering artist, educator, historian and writer Rod McDonald RGD was among the first designers to switch to drawing typefaces on the computer in the mid-1980s. His commercial typefaces include the Cartier Book™ typeface design, his interpretation of Canada’s first typeface; the Laurentian™ family, a highly successful design originally developed for Maclean’s magazine; the Smart Sans™ typeface, named after Canadian design pioneer Sam Smart; the best-selling Slate™ and Egyptian Slate™ families; the ITC Handel Gothic™ design and Classic Grotesque™, which is used for the RGD logo.  


Where do you look for job-related inspiration?
I look at the job. What is the design supposed to do and who is going to be reading or using it? I have learned to avoid looking at design magazines and books. They have their value, but if I find myself frantically looking through a magazine for an idea, then I know I don’t understand the job well enough.


What is your most valuable design tool?
I don’t mean to sound glib but it has taken me a long time to realize that my most valuable tool is actually my own mind. If (big if) it is functioning properly then I can handle almost any external tool, whether it is a pencil or a program. I just wish I had worked a little harder on improving my mind when I was younger. 


What recent tasks/knowledge/skill sets are part of the job description now that did not exist for designers when you first entered the industry?
Obviously the computer has been the major change in our industry. But in my world an even bigger change has been the increase in true international design. If you are going to succeed in today’s world, you have to understand other societies and cultures. A designer's life and work is no longer confined to the area where you happen to live. 


What is your favourite work-related book?
I have many work-related books that are also favourites. Right now I am reading The Eternal Letter: Two Millennia of the Classical Roman Capital, edited by Paul Shaw and released by MIT a few months ago. It is an incredible book and I highly recommend it.


What advice would you offer a graduate looking for a job in graphic design?
Make sure you truly understand what design is.


Who do you consider to be today’s ‘design icons’?
In type design, I think Matthew Carter is still the ‘industry leader’, and he has been for quite a few years because he knowns how to produce typefaces that simply work better than what the rest of us have been able to produce. 


What current or past design trends do you love?
I try to avoid trends, but that might be because designing and making typefaces takes a great deal of time, and usually by the time the face is finished, so is the trend.


What current or past design trends do you hate?
I carry a strong dislike for ‘Grunge type’, not because the typefaces are necessarily bad, often they can be quite good, but because they are usually used inappropriately.


What is the biggest challenge the industry currently faces?
That’s a pretty tough question, but I’ll give it a try. I’m not sure we have ever successfully been able to show people why design is important – or exactly what it is. The RGD have certainly done more in this area than perhaps any other organization, but lately I’ve come to think that we may have to do even more.


We still think of ourselves largely as problem solvers, which certainly is part of our job, but my accountant is also a problem solver. When you look back over the last 75 years, you can see that designers are also agents of cultural change. Design is an integral part of the cultural matrix of this country. We even use our symbols and logos to identify ourselves as Canadians when we are outside the country. So it strikes me as strange when I learn that many designers don’t know who designed some of the most visible symbols in our society, and sadly, even fewer students know. As long as we remain an invisible industry we shouldn’t act too surprised when governments and organizations basically bypass us and decide to hold a contest to have a logo designed.


What are some strategies for improving the way designers communicate about design with the public?

I don’t know if I can give you a real strategy but I do have a few thoughts that I have been toying with. Most designers wouldn’t think twice about telling a client; “You make great stuff, but no one knows who you are.” That is partly what I mean when I say design is an invisible industry. That’s not meant to be critical, that is how our business functions. We provide identities and presence for others. In fact, we are supposed to stay in the background.


The problem today is that the tools for creating design are now available to everyone, and the companies making those tools are telling people that they can do all these great things if they have the same tools. In our current society the emphasis is on the tools – not the skill of the people who use those tools. We need to show society, not just our clients, that professional designers are the people responsible for almost everything they read or see, from tax forms to entertainment. Our cities are covered with what I think of as ‘cultural markers': the logos, symbols and signs that make up the visual fabric of our society. For most people these markers are ‘just there’, they have always ‘just been there’.


Somehow we have to make graphic design come alive for people. Maybe we could do a series of spot ads, a kind of ‘Graphic Moment’, where we could show a freight train with the CN logo winding it’s way through the Rockies and then tell people that this logo, this cultural marker they have been looking at all their lives, was designed by a man named Allan Fleming in Toronto in 1959. Or a beautiful shot of a large downtown office building with Hans Kleefeld’s TD Bank logo on the top. We have a pretty long list of symbols that we could draw upon. I suspect we would not only be educating the public but, to some degree, ourselves. This might be a good time to partner with other cultural organizations to establish ourselves as the important contributors to the cultural landscape of Canada that we have been since the formation of this country. We need to show people why we are proud to be designers.


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