In late 2019, we asked about twenty graphic designers working in Toronto to describe the characteristics and evolution of the city’s design community. Their survey answers were compiled into an article published in Live Magazine. To learn more about the magazine and to read Bruce Mau’s comments introducing this article, buy the print edition here.
Jay Wall RGD (principal & creative director, RallyRally): After collaborating on a project in Scarborough, Zahra Ebrahim—who runs a social-design practice—became a dear friend and mentor. She helped me learn how to embed my values in the way I work.
Spencer Cathcart (partner & creative director, Puncture Design): During my time at Bruce Mau Design, I learned I was a designer, not just a graphic designer.
Whitney Geller (partner & creative director, Whitman Emorson): Working at Bruce Mau Design was essential to shaping my understanding of design as a fluid process. I learned the value of multiple perspectives and that there is never one right way to do something.
Dzung Tran RGD (founder, Dzung Tran Design): My big break was at Tudhope Associates. Chris Campbell was the creative director and a powerhouse in the design community. He played a huge part in my creative development.
It was exciting to see an architect work alongside a graphic designer—that just wasn’t done at the time.Megan Oldfield RGD
Ryan Booth RGD (creative director, design, Zulu Alpha Kilo): Back in the day I loved what Bruce Mau was doing. Another influence on me, and I’ve never told him this, was Stéphane Monnet. Working with him helped me grow as a designer.
Megan Oldfield RGD (creative director, Field Design Office): The most revolutionary ideas came from Bruce Mau. It was exciting to see an architect work alongside a graphic designer—that just wasn’t done at the time.
Gilbert Li RGD (founder, The Office of Gilbert Li): Susan McCallum and Claude Martel, who were art directing C Magazine, turned heads—including mine, at a young age—with their distinct experimental typography.
Fidel Peña RGD (co-founding partner & creative director, Underline Studio): I found my way in the Toronto design scene by landing a job as a designer at Concrete. That opened so many doors for me later on.
Jim Shedden (manager of publishing, Art Gallery of Ontario): Lisa Naftolin’s work and thinking turned me on to graphic design, industrial design, and architecture.
Jan Avendano (design director, Art & Mechanical): A group of creatives I met through Threadless—designers, illustrators, and hobbyists—were instrumental in my growth as a designer.
Amanda Happé (founder & creative director, Working Session): I grew up as a designer within Bruce Mau Design and I learned the most from people like Kevin Sugden and Laura Stein RGD. It’s easy to focus only on the name on the door.
David Nuff RGD (founder, Design by Nuff): Sharon Lockwood RGD of Line of Sight was the first person I knew with a design firm; she showed me it is possible to do this thing and has been a reference point and mentor.
Dominic Ayre RGD (creative director, Hambly & Woolley): My first internship was six weeks at Concrete. I was thrilled, inspired, and scared by Diti Katona RGD. She reinforced for me the need to hold true to my convictions.
On Important Projects
Spencer Cathcart: Sid Lee’s work for the Raptors is an early example of the design and advertising worlds overlapping. And it demonstrated the importance of creating culture.
Paddy Harrington RGD (founder, Frontier): Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind’s designs for our two biggest museums brought contemporary architecture into this city’s conversation in a new way. And let’s not forget the big impact Drake is having, too—he’s giving Toronto design an attitude of its own.
Whitney Geller: Brand Canada has had a good run in communicating our progressive values. It has helped to attract international designers to our city.
Jim Shedden: When we did the Michael Snow Project at the AGO in the mid-1990s, I knew I would eventually work for Bruce Mau Design. I joined the team in 1998.
Nicola Hamilton RGD (art director, Studio Wyse): The Grid, a beloved city weekly, and its founding creative director, Vanessa Wyse, changed my career. I loved its massive aspirations and shared its love for Toronto—messy bits and all.
Honestly—and I’d advise you not to dismiss this as trivial— what makes design in Toronto unique is that we’re kind.Amanda Happé
Ryan Booth: There are so many moments that moved design forward in this city. Umbra and the work it did with Karim Rashid, Bruce Mau being a pioneer of the whole “design star” thing, the consistency and longevity of studios like Concrete … there are so many.
Dominic Ayre RGD: Toronto’s profile increased when Tyler Brûlé launched Monocle—we were suddenly in the mix with all the other destination cities.
Gilbert Li RGD: S,M,L,XL is my milestone. Having a groundbreaking cultural phenomenon from Toronto lit up my aspirations.
On Our Culture
Dominic Ayre RGD: The community-building that has flourished here in the last two decades drives my interest in this city. I knew no one when I got here; watching younger generations receive support and collective love has been great.
Jan Avendano: Is there a “Toronto” design aesthetic? Perhaps the mix of people coming from all around the world makes that impossible.
Megan Oldfield RGD: The city’s diversity means so many voices and perspectives contribute to culture and design in Toronto; it’s at the core of what makes our city amazing.
Whitney Geller: So many talented people have started their own studios in the past ten years. It’s an exciting addition to our scene.
Ryan Booth RGD: I’m sure this can be said about many design communities, but Toronto is a big city with a small design community.
Amanda Happé: Honestly—and I’d advise you not to dismiss this as trivial—what makes design in Toronto unique is that we’re kind. I don’t know what us not being kind would look like, but you can bet it would be a darker place.
Jim Shedden: Ontario Place changed so many corners of design in Toronto, from planning and architecture to environmental graphics and identity work.
Tom Koukodimos: Hanging around my dad’s barbershop on Queen West, next to the iconic Bamboo night-club, was my first exposure to Toronto creative culture.
David Nuff RGD: I look at the hospitality industry as emblematic of Toronto’s vibe. Coffee joints, restaurants, and cocktail bars seem to be very influential creative voices.
Tom Koukodimos: The biggest change is the integration of design practice and design thinking into advertising and communications agencies.
Gilbert Li RGD: When I started out in the ’90s, the industry seemed impenetrable. But now there are so many opportunities for designers to get together: RGD events, Dominic Ayre’s Words & Pitchers, Margot Trudell’s Toronto Design Directory.
Fidel Peña RGD: Since I arrived in 1990, I’ve seen a shift from hyper- commercialized design to more holistic approaches in our discipline. Large firms still do large-scale projects, but I appreciate the self- initiated projects, pro-bono work, and social and art projects of smaller studios.
Nicola Hamilton RGD: It’s a shame the magazine industry has withered away. But the gap in the market means there are exciting opportunities to support new initiatives.
David Nuff RGD: The in-housification of design has peaked in the last few years, with ever more agencies being acquired and freelancers taking full-time gigs. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
Alison Garnett RGD (principal & creative director, Field Trip & Co.): Everything moves so much faster now and unfortunately speed to market often trumps quality.
We’re the fourth-largest city in North America and one of the most culturally diverse. It’s problematic that the design community doesn’t reflect that yet.Dominic Ayre RGD
Jim Shedden: The most obvious change is the omnipresence of the internet, which has opened up huge opportunities for designers. I have to remind myself that it’s a huge, human-designed miracle. I wouldn’t trade away the freedom and community it has helped facilitate, no matter its other problems.
Paddy Harrington RGD: There’s much higher awareness and understanding of the value of design and design thinking. It’s not just graphics and colour. Design is now seen as a way to shape and tell the stories that are at the heart of an organization’s purpose.
Megan Oldfield RGD: The redevelopment of historic areas and the repurposing of buildings—The Distillery District, The Power Plant, Wychwood Barns, The Bentway—has shown how design-led projects enhance our city.
Amanda Happé: I’ve seen a shift toward clients wanting more holistic, strategically grounded brand and design work. That sounds fancy, but it comes down to everyone realizing how linked things are. The most exciting studios that have launched in the past five years are powerhouses of broadband design.
Dominic Ayre RGD: We’re the fourth-largest city in North America and one of the most culturally diverse. It’s problematic that the design community doesn’t reflect that yet, but I think that youth is on our side. We are a young city, a teething city, and we can expect more to come.
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