Brand Identity

TEXT Ian Chodikoff
PHOTO Courtesy the Watt Family

“I have been born with the designer’s curse, or blessing, seeing how everything could be improved.”

–Don Watt

The presence of “starchitecture” or iconic architecture ascribed to celebrity architects fills the imaginations of designers and the pages of glossy magazines. However, no iconic architecture can match the widespread proliferation of recognizable commercial store signage that is inescapable in our daily lives. Although we may not know the names of the designers that created these aspects of our built environment, their achievements are seen everywhere. For example, drive through any community in Canada and you will encounter the influence of one particular individual who was responsible for the brands, logos and retail identities of everyday landmarks such as Loblaws, The Beer Store, Wal-Mart and The Home Depot. Trained as an industrial designer, Don Watt developed the visual identity of some of the most recognizable brands in Canada over the past 50 years. And he even designed our vibrant Canadian flag.

To honour Watt’s lifelong career after his death in 2009 at the age of 73, the Watt family, in partnership with DW+Partners, Gottschalk+Ash International, and the Communication Designers of Toronto assembled an exhibition to document his work. Remembering Don Watt ran in April 2010 at the Ontario College of Art & Design.

Born in Regina, one of Watt’s first jobs upon graduating from the Ontario College of Art (as it was then known) was at A.V. Roe Company in the late 1950s, where he worked on the design of the fabled Arrow, Canada’s first supersonic fighter jet that was cancelled in 1959, leaving Watt without a job. Following a brief stint as a cartoon animator, he returned to Toronto and in 1966 he opened his first design office–Don Watt and Associates.

Perhaps Watt’s most famous design is the current version of the Canadian flag. When Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson’s government held a competition for a new flag in 1965, Watt submitted a design featuring a realistic representation of a red maple leaf flanked by two solid blue bands, symbolizing Canada’s motto–“from sea to sea.” Pearson had the design modified to its current state, and Watt’s role remained uncredited only until recently.

After spending years designing and developing packaging for Salada tea, Nescaf and others, Watt was given the opportunity to transform the identity of Loblaws supermarkets in 1973. This proved to be one of his most celebrated accounts, where he directed the design development of the triple-L Loblaws symbol, along with a revolutionary new retail layout and design, and an in-store communication program that included large-scale photography and televisions promoting Loblaws’ No Name brand. Subsequently, Watt helped develop the supermarket chain’s “President’s Choice” brand with then-president Dave Nichol. Late in his life, he continued to help major supermarket retailers like Metro and Food Basics develop their own store designs and visual identities.

Watt’s ubiquitous talent spread elsewhere to include updating The Beer Store into an accessible and friendly retail outlet. Interestingly, many consumers still believe that The Beer Store is operated by the Ontario provincial government when in fact, the chain is run by the province’s largest breweries: Molson, Labatt and Sleeman.

It is inconceivable to imagine what our cities would look like without the influence of Don Watt. Although he is no “starchitect,” his creative genius in developing iconic symbols found in our everyday lives is readily apparent. CA