How a supposedly uniting logo – to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary – kicked off a firestorm of protestation, internet skirmishes and a whole lot of jostling for attention. And let’s not mention those $40K focus groups.

Anniversary logos are actually quite common. On special occasions, 10, 25, 50 years and the like, companies add little celebratory flourishes to their logos all the time. We’ve done quite a few over our years, including several for major companies like Exxon for refinery birthdays. We designed one for our own 10th. Not a big deal.

exxon birthday logo

Countries do it too, but unlike their corporate counterparts, there’s often no official logo to speak of. With nothing to add the flourish onto, the birthday designs get a ‘ground up’ treatment. In all instances, the design is supposed to mark the celebration of a significant milestone – in this case, Canada’s 150th year, starting July 1, 2017. Like most logos, the design is used to promote celebratory events, sell widgets, trinkets and generally create a good buzz that people can rally round. The country’s no stranger to the concept either, having been down this road before for Canada’s 100th back in 1966. That centennial logo (below,) a stylized maple leaf (the symbol from Canada’s flag) made up of 11 multi-coloured equilateral triangles representing the 10 provinces and the territories, was lauded as brilliant work. Still is. Designed in 1966 by Hamilton-born Stuart Ash while at the firm Cooper & Beatty Ltd, the design is a classic example of design simplicity, with enough of a back-story to make it representative.
canada centennial logo designThis time shouldn’t have been any different. Canada boasts a ton of talented designers, firms and several graphic design organizations from which to glean expertise and consultation. You’d have thought coming up with a decent design wouldn’t have been an issue. However, things have changed since 1966. Everybody has a copy of Adobe Illustrator so everyone’s a designer. That makes everyone an art critic too. Accordingly, Canada’s attempt to brand its upcoming sesquicentennial birthday got a little weird. And continues to get weirder.

$40,000 focus groups.

Apparently the design proposals that became the target of such scorn and ridicule were quietly designed by Heritage Canada staffers back in May. However, it wasn’t until news about focus groups – tasked with evaluating the five initial logos – starting hitting the press early December, did anyone really notice. According to the CBC, the research project, carried out by TNS Canadian Facts Inc. at a cost of about $40,000, tested groups in Montreal, Mississauga, Ont., and Chilliwack, B.C. and included a balance of genders, household incomes and ethnic origins. As detailed in the news reports, members of the focus groups were underwhelmed by the choices they were given. No real surprise there. The logo options available are remarkably lackluster and generic, lacking any imagination or artistic vitality. Technically, several of the designs would be next to, if not totally, impossible to embroider – a definite no-no for most logos, but certainly a deal-breaker for a country like Canada were (at the risk of sounding winterist) many of the 150th trinkets would be polar-fleece pullovers, woolen mitts, berets, toques and the like. All in all, they were the kind of designs you’d expect when a harried designer was instructed to design five logos by end of business, when it was 3:30 on a Friday afternoon. In this age of scrutiny of government over-spending, the reports of forty-grand being spent to see whether people liked 5 crappy designs or not, ticked off a lot of people (no word on the actual budget for the designs, or whether the $40K covered them.) But what really revved up the public – particularly designers – wasn’t limited to the cost of the studies. It was the designs themselves. Reaction was swift. A fuss was kicked up on Twitter. Petitions were launched. Open letters of protest were published on graphic organization websites, while the media piled on left and right. The National Post‘s Steve Murray chimed in with a pretty snarky review of the choices.
National Post on Canada's Birthday Logo

Backlashes and skirmishes.

When Boston-based Canadian illustrator and designer Ibraheem Youssef, along with Toronto-based David Watson, took notice of the developing hubbub, they decided to do something about it, launching a pet project called, matter-of-factly, The 150 Logo.
Canada 150 logoYoussef’s and Watson’s concept was fairly simple – contact Canadian designers and design firms and get them to come up with alternative logos that were ostensibly better than the proposals. In pretty short order too. In a week and a half, Youssef, Watson and their fellow creatives had put together the website which showcased 17 alternative designs, then 31, apparently culled from hundreds.
canada logo 150 proposalsTheir rationale was outlined thusly:

“The whole purpose of this activity, is to prove good design does exist in Canada, and as Canadian designers, we believe Canada deserves better than what is being offered.”

A cool idea? Lots of media thought so. Lots and lots of media. Meanwhile, the RGD (Association of Registered Graphic Designers of Canada) organization, a design lobby group (that I’ve never really understood the point of) had taken notice of the original CBC article, prompting president Lionel Gadoury to post a comment on the website, part of which said this:

“Rather than engaging Canada’s highly talented graphic design professionals, a decision was made to hire a firm that runs focus groups, presenting the public with a problematic selection of designs and putting them to a vote. Unfortunately, focus groups can describe their general likes and dislikes in terms of what they are being shown, but at best this can only achieve a better sameness. Big wins and beloved designs come from those who invest professional knowledge, talent and passion.”

Fair enough. All valid points and if graphic design orgs can’t bitch about the designs, would can? The RGD also set up a template letter (yeah, cause politicians love those) that members could download from the site and fire off to their local member of Parliament. While organizing designers has always been akin to herding cats, I get the sentiment and efforts. Here was a big time design event, and the RGD were being seriously left out in the cold, ignored by the Federal Government, for arguably the biggest Canadian design gig in 50 years. Trouble is, the RGD folks also seemed to take umbrage with Youssef and Watson’s The 150 Logo project, with Gadoury penning a letter on the organization’s site that warned designers about “The Siren Call” of participating in a collective like The 150 Logo, and how “crowdsourcing ultimately undervalues our profession.” No argument from me on the grim realities of crowdsourcing – for both client and designer – but was The 150 Logo a typical crowdsourcing project? The folks at The 150 Logo certainly didn’t think so, firing back an open letter of their own which in places, got a little testy:

“We applaud your letter to Heritage Canada but we feel that the days open letters and passive complaining hasn’t gotten us anywhere. In the span of 5 days project has had close to 400,000 hits. We have been interviewed by numerous national and international media outlets including the CBC news, The Huffington Post, Fast Company and Creative Review. The response from both the design and business community has been nothing short of astonishing.

These logos are our version of a protest sign. And our protest seems to be working. Considering the results we have achieved and the fact that our efforts and unity as a group of Designers have obviously strongly contributed to directing the discussion regarding Good Canadian Design, front and centre into the public sphere, we believe that instead of belittling our efforts and discrediting the unity we’ve established between hundreds of Designers and Creatives from all across Canada, we’d appreciate your support and acknowledgment of our efforts.”

Ouch. Now, while I understand and agree with the RGD’s position on spec work & design contests (basically, unpaid, no contract pitching of artwork to clients,) The 150 Logo initiative seemed to illustrate how badly the original 5 logo proposal’s sucked, rather than free-pitching logos to the Canadian Federal Government. No money was being promised to a “winning” logo, as this wasn’t, and isn’t, a logo design contest in the now-understood sense of the word. At the very worst, designers had taken a logo design dust-up from the news, and utilized it to stir up some juice, get interviewed and featured in newspapers, magazines, websites and on the TV. I get the RGD’s “zero tolerance” for design contests, spec work and crowdsourcing, but while harping on a couple of guys making a statement on a website about lousy focus-grouped logo proposals, I wonder what the RGD has to say about major crowdsourcing threats, 99designs for example? Let’s take a look:
RGD 99designs search
That’s right. Nada. And when 99designs, an Australian design contest platform, decided to launch their own “community” design contest for Canada’s 150th logo, potentially dwarfing any other efforts, initiatives and letter-writing campaigns, the RGD would remain strangely silent. Speaking of which…

Yay! Another 99designs community design contest

We last discussed contest sites and their pretend or community design contests last summer. Basically, whenever there’s a controversial logo design story in the press, or an upcoming brand release, contest sites will host pretend (they like to call them “community”) contests to get the jump on, or even better, the official version. It’s a fairly cheap publicity stunt, only costs them several hundred bucks in prize money to host, and because (unlike The 150 Logo initiative) many designers aren’t aware that the contest isn’t real, participation in these events is usually quite high. It allows outfits like 99designs to throw their hat into the publicity ring, often futzing up who officially designed what for whom, while snagging some of the media buzz going on at the time. It wasn’t a great surprise then, that when the Canada’s 150 controversy started to unspool on various social media outlets, 99designs quickly announced that they were having a design contest for it.
99designs canada 150th logo
The irony was implicit from the hop, because nothing screams “Canada” like a whole bunch of unpaid designers from Indonesia, South East Asia and parts of Europe, working on a distinctly Canadian logo, for an Australian based company. And while the winning page (above) states that “Canada 150 picked a winning logo” they, being Canada 150, actually didn’t (unofficial, community contest, remember?) In any case, the contest gathered over 2500 logos, from 513 designers, one of whom was paid $500 for their efforts (while the front end of 99designs’ contest pages states what the contest holder paid – in this case $715 – when logged in, the price changes to what the winning designer will receive – in this case $500. Yeah, I know it doesn’t make sense because 99designs held the contest, but whatever.)
canada 150 winning logo 99designs
The winning logo isn’t too bad actually – other than the goose being a little overwrought as a Canadian symbol – and hey, whaddaya know, it was actually designed by a Canadian after all. That’s groovy and everything, negates any nationalistic criticism too, but what are the chances? Actually, if you know anything about 99designs, the odds are fairly, nay extremely, slim. For what it’s worth, the runner up designers – listed here – are from Mexico, Serbia, Ukraine, Indonesia, India, Costa Rica, Bangladesh, Croatia and Slovenia. Say, why don’t we check the poll that 99designs ran to select the winning logo?

canada 150 99designs pollOh dear.

What happens now?

You gotta keep in mind that all of this happened starting the first week in December. Right before the Christmas and New Year’s holidays when everything traditionally winds down. First week into the New Year and the controversy is already starting to ramp up again. Why, just yesterday, The Toronto Star published yet another story about the controversy, this time detailing how Bruce MacLellan, president of a leading PR firm, Environics Communications, is willing to ante up the prize by chipping in $25,000 to the person or team who comes up with the best logo (Yay! Another design contest!) As this is the age of social media, the offer was made via a Tweet to Heritage Minister Shelly Glover.

canada 150 logo tweet
According to The Star (and checking on Twitter) Glover never responded to the offer, and a spokesperson from her office would only say this:

“There have been no decisions taken on next steps for the selection of a visual identity.”

The feds are probably as confused about the hubbub as everyone else and scratching heads about what to do next. It’s still relatively early days – the birthday is still three years away – but launch and promotional placement deadlines are most certainly getting closer. So far we’ve had 5 logos that were totally panned, 31 proposals on one site, a couple of thousand on another. Graphic design organizations losing their collective minds while a minimum of forty-grand in Canadian taxpayer money has evaporated. And still no logo. At this point, everyone has an opinion and everybody else wants a piece of the pie. And all I can say is when this logo gets finally, and officially announced, it better be a good one.

Or just turn the gig over to Ricky, Bubbles and Julian and be done with it.

trailer park boys


I’d be remiss in my duties, if I didn’t at least mention national design organization The GDC (Society of Graphic Designers of Canada,) and their position on the Canadian 150th logo circus too. As you can imagine, they weren’t terribly thrilled (they were the outfit that launched the online petition mentioned upstairs – a petition that at time of writing had just over 1,500 signatures.) Their main beef? Like the chap at the RGD, they didn’t dig the The 150 Logo initiative.
GDC Canada 150th logo convo


Update 2:

Almost a year after this post was written, the Heritage branch of the Canadian government have now launched a $5000 logo design contest for Canada’s 150th logo. You can just imagine how well that went over.