For five seasons beginning in 1987, MTV produced a goofy but smart trivia game show called “Remote Control.” Three contestants sat in leather La-Z-Boys and answered questions under headers like “Bald Guys,” “Brady Physics,” and the trickiest of them all–“Dead or Canadian.” Rich Little: dead or Canadian? PBS’s Robert McNeil: dead or Canadian? (Answers: They’re both Canadian.) Why was “Dead or Canadian” such a stumper category? Because we Americans assume that all famous people were born here, and if you’re not famous, you might as well be dead. When asked to name a Canadian, the proverbial man on the street usually draws a blank.
As part of its redesign series, “Studio 360,” a radio program hosted by Kurt Andersen and produced by WNYC and PRI, decided to tackle Canada’s image problem, particularly in the U.S., and commissioned Bruce Mau Design to head up the project. The fact that BMD had offices in both New York and Toronto made it a particularly appropriate choice, even though the final design team was comprised solely of transplanted Americans. “Initially, we had Canadians and Americans participating in it,” says Hunter Tura, the studio’s president and CEO. “At a certain point, we made the decision to ban Canadians from working on it, because we felt that the discussion was bogging down into a number of the clichés we felt we wanted to get past. The idea was to look at the problem in a fresh and clear-eyed way.”
BMD began the six-week creative process by interviewing both everyday and notable Canadians, including Mark McKinney and Scott Thompson from the comedy-sketch TV show Kids in the Hall and the author and artist Douglas Coupland, who declined to participate, saying “I like the way we are.” The BMD team ultimately subscribed to the view that Canada didn’t need to be rebranded, Americans just needed to be educated, hence the tagline: “Know Canada” (inspired by “You Ottawana get to know us,” a slogan submitted by a “360” listener).
Creating a new visual language meant jettisoning images of beavers, hockey, snowshoes, and even the beloved maple leaf. Early on in the exercise, one of the designers drew a Canadian flag, placing a question mark where the maple leaf would be. That turned out to be a breakthrough moment, with the designers deciding to retain the iconic bars of the flag to frame 21st-century symbols of Canadian culture–everything from Arcade Fire and Justin Bieber to socialized health care and Ryan Gosling. “By removing the maple leaf and adding imagery, the system became totally flexible,” says Sarah Foelske, the associate creative director who headed the team. “We could speak to politicians. We could speak to creatives. We could speak to so many different things while also staying true to what Canada really was.”
BMD hopes that the Canadian government will be interested in adopting the campaign, now that the materials have been made public at KnowCanada.org, just in time for July 4th–uh, I mean Canada Day on July 1st. I didn’t know there was such a thing, either.
[All photo credits at KnowCanada.org]