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(Natalie Vineberg / McGill Tribune)

Design in the university context: The ethical implications of McGill’s iconography

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The world is saturated with imagery that dictates ideologies. Brand loyalty cultivated by familiar icons affects cultural, political, and individual identity. 

“There’s a reason that Coca Cola has barely changed its logo in 120 years,” Christopher Moore, professor of Design and Computation Arts at Concordia University said. “It gives a sense of establishment, and establishment can lead to trust and familiarity.”  

For good or for bad, over hundreds of years these organizations have built up a lexicon of associations to particular shapes and colours that now influence how we act as a society. Maybe your family has voted conservative in every election for 100 years, or maybe you wouldn’t dream of using a Canon camera over a Nikon. These preferences, although sometimes arbitrary, are a result of many years and hundreds of thousands of dollars put into creating brand loyalty. Graphic designers are essential in creating this relationship. 

“We tend to have lifelong associations with brands based on how we were raised and the kind of products that our family would purchase,” Moore explained. “The designer has to interpret [an organization’s] ideas into something concrete.”

This task becomes quite complex, as the graphic designer’s toolbox (line, color, shape, contrast, etc.) is inherently influenced by power structures that have been evolving and compounding over hundreds, and even thousands, of years. 

As a type of visual language, graphic design at its core comes from a human understanding of what linguist Ferdinand de Saussure called the signifier (the shape of a word, order of letters, and phonetic sound) and the signified (the concept or object associated with the signifier). The signifier-signified relationship has evolved via historical events and social movements, especially in the visual context. For example, colonialism has had a major influence on our perception of particular visual signifiers. 

The perception of color is inherent to the colonial experience according to Sajdeep Soomal a graphic designer who has worked with the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) and McGill Athletics. 

“[Colonialism has] produced this relationship and particular understanding of color, to the terms civilized and primitive.” Soomal said. “It assigned those dichotomies. So that’s what we have to play with when we’re producing graphic design here in this space.” 

 “I need to use the ‘McGill red,’ there’s no getting around that,” Soomal said of his work for McGill Athletics. “And in this localized context that signifies a particular politics.” 

Political, religious, and First Nations associations are all important factors to consider in analyzing what McGill is representing through their use of the colour red. It may be that McGill doesn’t intend to represent any of these factors, but nevertheless, they play into McGill’s image. 

“All of the visual language we have is already inebriated with value,” Soomal explained. “And that value exists along, and has been produced through, axes of power.”

With all these implications involved in visual design, a graphic designer has the hard task of reconciling social and professional responsibility. Sometimes, it’s impossible to avoid doing work for clients whose message you don’t necessarily agree with. Liz Sulmont, a freelance graphic designer who has worked with Campus Life & Engagement, SSMU, and other campus organizations, said that she at first didn’t totally grasp the impact her work would have. 

“I realized when I grew more as a designer, that the work you create for your clients is essentially bringing their ideas to life,” Sulmont said. “That means you have to acknowledge some responsibility for the consequences of those ideas. It’s definitely a tricky situation because your job is on the line and the mixture of personal issues and work is always uncomfortable.” 

Soomal echoed these concerns, citing the lack of job security in his field. 

“The jobs are precarious enough that they can easily be replaced,” he said, “it’s more of a matter of just producing what you’re asked to produce, and negotiating over smaller things.” 

Graphic design can be a tool for both good and evil, and in both cases can have tremendous impact. Social movements can garner loyalty with branding just as much as corporations can. 

“All graphic design is inherently social and political,” Soomal said. “It’s a social technology, a means of communication, which means it’s inevitably implicated in power relations.” 

In activism, graphic design can be manipulated in powerful ways to challenge power relations. 

“It becomes a rallying point, something that’s identifiable,” Moore elaborated. “It demonstrates your values, your beliefs. It’s a way of creating tribes around certain ideals and ideologies, for better or for worse.”

Locally, 2012’s Maple Spring protests could be identified by the striking graphic design done by a group formed at UQAM called the École de la Montagne Rouge. Their red square symbol and dynamic posters made the movement identifiable and unified. A global example is the pink triangle, which was reclaimed in the 1980s from its original usage by the Nazis as a way to identify homosexual men and women, and reformatted into an icon for the gay rights movement. While the end result is deceptively simple, the development of activist graphics is thorough and carefully crafted. In his work for F*ck Austerity, Soomal chose each colour very carefully. 

“The use of yellow and red there was to signify solidarity between diverse coalition groups, like radical coalition groups,” Soomal said. “I tried to invoke these two colors in the context of radical activism.” 

Every organization, be it a business, movement, or school, creates a visual identity to communicate and represent unique values and history. Universities often use a crest or similar logo to create this identity. The aesthetic construction of that image is key in the formation of a relationship between the consumer and the organization. McGill’s crest, adopted in 1821, sports three red martlets, a mythical bird with no legs that is always shown in flight. At the top is an open book inscribed with the words “In Domino Confido,” or “I trust in the Lord,” the motto of founder James McGill. Two crowns topped with fleur-de-lis flank the open book- a reminder of Montreal’s French origins. Finally, the three peaks represent Montreal’s three mountains. The crest has formal meanings attached to it, and of course, the religious and colonial connotations are present, but it’s more relevant to note that the use of the crest signifies a school grounded in tradition. 

“[McGill’s modern word mark] reflects a way of trying to link the traditions of the institutions but modernize and demonstrate the relevance to today’s world,” Moore commented. This is something that he noted a lot of newer schools, such as Concordia, are trying to do. 

Graphic design is a vital component in considering the legacy and impact of an institution. A few shapes and lines must be relevant, impactful, sensitive, and distinct. The graphic designer’s livelihood is based on the knowledge of and the ability to manipulate these tools. But the consumer’s familiarity is equally important; it holds institutions accountable for their public image. Moore and Soomal agreed that too few graphic designers as well as consumers are trained in this context of critical thinking, which was why Soomal reached out to Moore to help start Design Cooperative. The Cooperative holds free workshops on design techniques, Photoshop, and Illustrator, while discussing the social and political implications of design. 

“As a designer, it becomes your task to reimagine whatever you’re trying to represent and create possibilities,”  Soomal said,  “that way, you can build a future that you want to live in.” 

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