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Canadian designer gone NYC, the interview | DesignNotes by Michael Surtees

Canadian designer gone NYC, the interview


A couple weeks ago I received an email from Rani Razeli asking me if I’d like to do an interview for the magazine D.O. Magazine -Design Only- that’s published in Israel, discussing Canadian design and what it’s like working in NYC. With his permission I’ve posted our discussion here on my blog as the final text will be in Hebrew. At the end of the interview is more information about D.O. Magazine…

Rani Radzeli: Where do you live?

Michael Surtees: I’m currently living in Manhattan (NYC) and working at an agency called Renegade (renegade.com). I’m originally from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (Canada) and had been living in Edmonton, Alberta (Canada) for the past nine years before the move.

RR: Where did you study design?

MS: My first three years of design school was at Medicine Hat College, then I moved to Edmonton and earned a Bachelor of Design in Visual Communication Design from the University of Alberta.

RR: What do you design?

MS: Before moving to NYC when I designed in Edmonton I divided my time evenly between print and interaction design. On the print side there were annual reports, brochures, posters etc. On the interaction side there was websites and interfaces for software applications. Ultimately it was about asking the right questions for the design issue and implementing the appropriate action whether it was for print or web. Now in NYC it’s almost all interaction design. At Renegade I’m part of the team that is redesigning Panasonic’s website. Another project that’s almost complete is the design for the non profit Children for Children’s website. I’m really happy to be able to have designed a community based website that CFC will ultimately change the way they communicate to their various audiences.

RR: What are the graphic elements that characterize Canada graphic design?

MS: That’s a really tough question to answer, but since I’ve had some time away from Canada now that I live in NYC it might be easier to answer. We’re in an interesting period of time where a lot of the usual print communications are going online. First and foremost there’s a practical desire to solve problems without a lot of flashy graphics. There are always exceptions to generalizations, but the work that tends to get published in design annuals from Canada seem to reward clean sans serif typography, strong photography or illustration and attempt to connect it with a strong message. Sometimes it works, sometimes it seems a bit contrived.

RR: What is it’s influence?

MS: I think it depends on the time period. If you look back thirty or forty years ago the influence would be strongly European. Most of the colleges and Universities that were accredited in design had teachers from Switzerland, Germany, England among many other countries. The past couple of decades would suggest a strong American presence. As commercial art evolved into graphic arts and then into graphic design, the big companies that created corporate design like IBM, CBS or International Paper were looked at as examples of what to do. For myself as a design student in the late 90’s, I Iooked to the ideas published in Emigre and social activists like Grapus from France. That evolved to looking at people that were more on the strategic side like Clement Mok, IDEO and Frog and more recently those upcoming designers that aren’t really well known but are the ones that are really defining what it means to be a designer today.

RR: Is there any change in Canada graphic design in the past few years?

MS: Technology is the biggest difference. Like I mentioned before a lot of the print work is moving towards the web. A lot of communication pieces may start of as a brochure or poster, but it will also find it’s way into an email or website download. Sadly annual reports are not treated with the same priority as they once were. Part of that argument could be attributed to the Enron scandal, but a more likely reason is that the financial information is available quickly on the web. But on the flip side there’s also a swing back to the art of silkscreening which is a direct reaction to all the digital output today.

RR: Which are the most important and biggest schools of graphic design in Canada?

MS: If I were to go from the east coast to the west coast, these are some of the schools that I’m familiar with: NASCAD, OCAD, York/Sheridan, Red River College, the University of Alberta, ACAD, MHC, Kwantlen, and the Emily Carr Institute of Art + Design. The thing is, there’s a lot of other schools out there, it’s just that you don’t hear about their programs as much and hence their not talked about as much as they’re deserved to be.

RR: Which city is “the capital of graphic design” in Canada?

MS: That’s a bit of a contentious question (for me at least). I think it depends on where you live in Canada for the answer. Most of the national companies reside in Ontario, so Toronto get’s a large piece of that business. In terms of of a city doing the most challenging and aesthetically pleasing work, Montreal is definitely up there. Vancouver and Calgary also have strong business communities and hence have a lot of design studios with recognizable names.

RR: Do you have some information about Canada graphic design history?

MS: A good place to start would be the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada website at www.gdc.net. It’s not a perfect, but it’s a resource that’s out there.

RR: Who are the most important designers in Canadian graphic design history?

MS: That’s a tough question too, a lot of Canadians would look to American designers before their own. But for me, Allan Fleming’s name should be high up on the list – his railroad identity for CN is one of those timeless works that should never be changed. Other studios that I respect include Herrainco Skipp Herrainco, Samata Mason, Rethink, karacters design group, paprika, TAXI and GOTTSCHALK+ASH. Where they land in Canadian graphic design history is too soon to say.

RR: What’s the difference between Canada and the USA from graphic design aspects

MS: Most of my Canadian design experience comes from Edmonton, so if I had lived in Vancouver or Montreal my Canadian perspective would have been different in terms of comparison to designing in NYC probably. The biggest difference is scale, size and speed. The largest Canadian design company that I worked for peaked at twenty I think. Renegade where I work in NYC is over seventy people. That sounds like a lot of people, but I know most of them. Work wise, things move incredibly fast. I think in any job you need to get better everyday or you risk moving backwards, but here in NYC it really is about being better than the day before. The people I work with are quite professional and you don’t want to let them down b/c you know how hard they’re working too. There’s visual stimulation everywhere. Whether you’re on the street or inside a building, there’s so much to take and file away for an idea at a later date. For the most part I’ve found people extremely helpful, especially designers I don’t know. I do a lot of interviews on my blog (designnotes.info) and people are quite open to talking. On a practical side, project budgets are a lot more, but there’s also more people working on the typical project and the cost of business is a lot higher.


D.O. Magazine -Design Only- is the premier design magazine published in Israel. D.O. is a member of a large magazine network, publishing over 30 leading local and international magazines including: Forbes, Cosmopolitan and P.C Magazine.

D.O. Magazine covers all aspects of design in an elegant, bi-monthly publication of 180 chromo pages. Among the areas covered are interior design, industrial design, architecture, graphic design, textile and fashion. The magazine also features international and local news, innovations and trends, and provides a highly regarded platform for designers to share ideas, concepts and knowledge.

D.O. Magazine targets the business and professional communities, as well as affluent readers with an appreciation for fine design interested in keeping up with the latest trends.

Senior Editor for D.O. Magazine is Tali Barzilai – Sonnenfeld, whose twenty years of journalistic experience include Forbes Magazine and Maariv, Israel’s second largest daily newspaper, as senior economic journalist. Before joining D.O. Magazine, Ms. Barzilai – Sonnenfeld was Manager of Israel’s largest loyalty club retailer. She holds academic degrees in Arts and Design.

D.O. Magazine’s unique, well-balanced and knowledgeable team of contributing writers include Israel’s leading design journalists, with hundreds of years of combined journalistic experience and a variety of backgrounds

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  • http://www.spintechnologies.ca Randy Troppmann

    Good answers Michael.

  • http://monctonpixels.blogspot.com Brian Branch

    Great interview!

  • http://www.swiss-miss.com swissmiss

    that headline looks awfully familiar…

  • http://designnotes.info/ michael

    you think : )