President's Message | July 7, 2021
The National Gallery of Canada unveiled a shiny, new visual identity last month. It’s based on a new strategic direction that aims to decolonize the institution and can be summarized using a single Anishinaabemowin word, “Ankosé,” which means “everything is connected.” The visual identity, created by Area 17, a brand and digital-product agency based in New York and Paris, has been warmly received. And with good reason, it’s great work.
But the unveiling has raised one big question for the RGD and the Canadian design community: what does it mean when a national cultural institution, supported by Canadian tax-payer dollars, engages a foreign agency?
Before diving into the topic, the RGD reached out to The National Gallery for some context. We spoke with Rosemary Thompson, VP Corporate, Public Affairs and Marketing at The National Gallery, to learn about their process for engaging a creative partner. She explained that four Canadian firms were invited, as well as two from the US. Area 17 was selected based on the firm’s ties to Canada (two of their three Founding Partners are Canadian), their bilingual team, their work in Canada and abroad and their extensive experience working with cultural organizations around the world.
Armed with this context, we recognized that there are many perspectives on the issue so we reached out to Members on Slack and invited you to share your thoughts. These were collected in an article that we have published to the RGD website.
The RGD and our Members are in agreement: this was a missed opportunity for an institution to invest in the creative talent it aims to celebrate.
As Jennifer Taback RGD points out, the decision to award this work to an international agency “suggests that no one in Canada is capable of performing this important work and makes it difficult to encourage Indigenous business to continue.” As Matthew Clark RGD says, “a Canadian firm absolutely should have been awarded this contract, not for some symbolic tokenism, but because it aligns with the Gallery’s vision AND because there is plenty of talent to choose from right here at home.” And as Diti Katona RGD and her team states, “This project provided a highly visible canvas to showcase and celebrate the talents of Canadian branding. It was a missed opportunity.”
The lack of any reference to the NGC’s in-house design team is disappointing, too. Collaboration between in-house teams and outside agencies can be an important part of ensuring the rebrand is practical. But, as Eric Pellerin points out, “While our processes ensure a fair look at all proposals, it can also look like a vacuum where fundamental aspects of a project are overlooked.”
While we want our institutions to make it a priority to hire Canadian talent, Canadian design firms also want international clients. “Which one of us could honestly say that we would not jump at the chance to re-brand the MoMA?” asks Vida Jurcic RGD. Howard Poon RGD adds: “And, while working with a Canadian firm would have checked off the ‘Support Local’ box on a list of procurement selection criteria, I support an open competitive talent market—I want the opportunity for Canadian agencies to be considered for global projects."
And beyond the desire for Canadian firms to be considered for work globally, the question of borders themselves is raised. Franziska Ehlrebach RGD asks, “Why should the National Gallery restrict itself based on artificially created territories to make the selection process harder than it is already? Certainly, cultural institutions may make a conscious decision to work only with firms located in their own country, even locally, but should that be the standard for all?" Or as Laura Stein RGD suggests, “There can be value in bringing in outsiders – with fresh eyes and without deeply ingrained ideas.”
Unfortunately we can’t change the fact that a non-Canadian design firm developed the National Gallery’s new identity. We can let them know we’re upset, as my colleague, Mark Rutledge RGD CGD, has done with his open letter to The National Gallery earlier this week. And we can take comfort in the fact that the Gallery followed a respectable bidding process (there was no logo contest or spec-filled RFP) and professional designers conducted a consultative, collaborative design process to create a world-class rebrand.
John Furneaux RGD suggests another possible solution: “on large publicly-funded branding projects, any design firms based outside of Canada must partner with a Canadian-run (and owned) firm on the project.” Ashlea Spitz RGD refers to the Government of Canada’s own “Creative Canada Policy Framework”, which defines the blueprint for federal policy tools that support our creative industries. Perhaps we find solutions and support there.
We are grateful for the many Members who, on very short notice, took time to reflect on the situation and offer their perspectives. The collective efforts of our community can make a difference when we work together on constructive solutions.
Moving forward, the RGD recognizes that we need to advocate for our world-class Canadian creative talent. We need to ensure Canadian designers are competitive and sought-after both at home and abroad. And we need to ensure that open, transparent processes are employed to select the most qualified, representative and appropriate firms. The question that remains is how do we go about achieving all of this. There’s no quick fix or easy answer. RGD’s Board and Committees will be working to strategize initiatives to ensure this does not continue to happen. And, as always, we invite you to contribute your thoughts and ideas now and in the future.
Nicola Hamilton RGD
Nicola is an independent art director and graphic designer, who specializes in editorial design. Her work has been internationally recognized by the D&AD, the Society of Publication Designers, and the National Magazine Awards, among others. She has held positions as art director at Studio Wyse, deputy art director at Chatelaine and associate art director at The Grid. An educator as well, Nicola teaches design at both Humber College and George Brown College.
Photo Credit: May Truong