Applied Arts Interview

Some enterprising travel agent should organize a Jim Donoahue Logo Tour of Toronto. Design aficionados flying in on Wardair would have a choice of first-class lodgings: the Sutton Place Hotel, the Windsor Arms, the King Edward, or L’Hotel, next to the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. Those with business on their minds could discuss typesetting at AlphaGraphics, signage at Mediacom, impending movie deals at Telefilm Canada and postproduction work at Magnetic North. The rest, after picking up some cash at a TD Bank, would be free to indulge in some serious Donoahue-inspired shopping: expensive threads at Hazelton Lanes, stereos at Bay Bloor Radio, gifts for the family at the Eaton Centre (or for the in-laws, at Shoppers World), and objets d’art at the Isaacs Gallery or the Gardiner Museum.

Following a workout at the Bloor Park Club and a quick beer (from Carling O’Keefe, of course) at Quotes or Twenty-Two, the group would then select from an impressive array of restaurants: elegant fare at Winston’s or Three Small Rooms, pasta at Noodles, or a healthy salad at The Daily Planet. As a final logo fix, the well-fed design tourists would repair to their rooms for some late-night TV: the news on Global, a snooker tournament on TSN, a movie on First Choice. Then, after a call home courtesy of Telecom Canada, eager beavers could devote their last waking moments to a stack of government travel brochures, each emblazoned with Donoahue’s ubiquitous Canada logo.

Several such tours could be devised from the remarkable list of clients Jim Donoahue has assembled over the past three decades— not only in Toronto, but across the country from Newfoundland’s NewTel Enterprises to the Jasper Park Lodge, and internationally from New York’s Tino Fontana restaurant to Aquaworld in Jamaica. One of Canada’s most successful and prolific designers, Donoahue has won wide acclaim for his succinct, eye-catching logos, each perfectly attuned to the product or organization it represents. His best work is intelligent, impeccably crafted, varied in mood (alternately clever or sensitive, bold or playful) and incredibly diverse, with memorable subjects ranging from the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto to a Lada dealership, from a musician friend’s letterhead to the National Museums of Canada.

“Logo design is the thing that fascinates me the most,” Donoahue says in his third-floor studio in a house on Toronto’s Richmond Street West. “It’s what I do best, paring everything down to where you’ve got as simple a statement as possible, and as pure a statement as possible.” Donoahue’s repertoire extends to many other kinds of graphic design, but as long as his logo ideas keep hitting the mark, he isn’t worried about being typecast. “I really do love doing logos—I just find them so much fun.”

Born in the small town of Walkerton, Ontario, in 1934, James Thomas Donoahue first got serious about his love of drawing while attending high school in Hamilton. He switched from the Catholic Cathedral School to Central Tech in order to take more in-depth art courses, and with encouragement from an eccentric teacher (“a wonderful old fart called John Sloane, who was really a very good painter—and quite bizarre guy”), went on to the Ontario College of Art in 1952. It was here that Donoahue’s unformed talent became focused on graphic design, thanks in large part to the inspiration and support of a working designer who came to teach at the college every Wednesday afternoon—the legendary Allan Fleming.

“He had an enormous effect on me,” Donoahue says. “He was the first guy I’d ever met in my life who really understood what design was about. Other people could design things, but they didn’t understand what they were doing. He knew. He always asked, ‘What’s the idea behind it? What is it we’re trying to tell them?'”

The teacher-student connection soon grew into a close friendship that continued after Donoahue’s graduation in 1956, when he went to work for the National Film Board in Montreal. Fleming, meanwhile, was at Cooper & Beatty, helping to create a strong graphic image for the Toronto type house; he was also doing a number of design jobs on the side, and had more work coming in than he and his assistant, Ken Rodmell (now vice-president, creative at Key Publishers) could handle. When Donoahue complained that he wasn’t getting anywhere professionally in Montreal (despite a flourishing social life), Fleming offered the perfect solution: Why not come and work for him? Donoahue quickly accepted, moved his belongings back to Toronto in a beat-up Volkswagen, and relaunched his career at the staggering salary of $5,000 a year.

The Cooper & Beatty job gave Donoahue his real start in graphic design, as well as his first logo assignment, for Mutual Life. “That was a major logo for me to do at that time in my life,” he says. “I was just barely out of school.” Fleming, while nominally responsible as the designer hired for the job, unselfishly gave all the credit to his protege. But the older man’s influence is readily evident in a design that so clearly echoes the simple, continuous-line concept of his own CN logo. Donoahue, who attended at the birth of the famous railway insignia, remains unreserved in his admiration for Fleming’s masterpiece. “It’s as good today as it was 30 years ago, and that’s astounding, when you think about it.”

This concern for creating a symbol that lasts, that transcends mere fashion, is one of the key lessons Donoahue learned from his mentor: “The big mistake people make is that they often respond to a trend, and the logo ends up being a trendy logo. It has a look that says it’s 1988, and the risk there, of course, is that in 1990 the thing looks dated. I love the idea of a logo being good enough that you can get 25 years of service out of it.”

DONOAHUE’S FIRST FULLY credited logo bears out this commitment to longevity. Still in use today, the symbol he created for the Isaacs Gallery in Toronto has all the hall-marks of the Donoahue style: an ultraclean graphic approach, the clever stylization of the initial I, and a playful suggestion of two partial picture frames glimpsed through a gallery doorway. This and other projects brought the young man recognition in Toronto’s design community, as well as an irresistible job offer from TDF, a major art studio. Yet, despite a hefty salary increase (to $12,000 a year) and some opportunities to produce good work, Donoahue was not happy: “That wasn’t the right place for me. It’s a big commercial studio, and I was kind of the frosting.”

FOLLOWING STINTS IN the mid-sixties as an art director with Goodis, Goldberg, Soren (where he developed his copywriting skills) and later with MacLaren Advertising, Donoa-hue returned to Cooper & Beatty as creative director in 1969 (after Allan Fleming in turn had been wooed away by MacLaren). Six years later, he left C&B once again, this time to join the hot design team of Robert Burns and Heather Cooper.

“ROBERT AND HEATHER were really cook-ing,” he recalls. “And it was great, we had a wonderful time for a couple of years.” Allan Fleming was persuaded to join the roster, but failing health prevented him from mak-ing a major contribution (he died in 1977). “Then Jim Hynes joined and it became Burns, Cooper, Donoahue, Fleming & Hynes. That’s when I left. I said, I can’t remember all the names.'”

WHILE THE COMPANY’S problems seem to have had more to do with expanding egos than an overcrowded letterhead, Donoahue remains wistful about the collapse of a firm that might, in his view, have developed into “a good, solid” enterprise. “We should have kept it together. It was sad, in a way, that it came apart.” He is justly proud of the work from that phase of his career, in particular the Carling O’Keefe Breweries logo and a series of posters for Abitibi Paper.

For the past 10 years, Donoahue has been a solo act: “I’m happy on my own. There are days when I think, ‘Why didn’t I end up with a couple of partners, forming a Pentagram or something like that’. But I have to assume, at this point in my life, that it was not something I wanted to do. Running a company, making a lot of money, having 20 people working for me, never appealed to me. I wanted to do the design. That, for me, is the most exciting part of all.

“When I was at Cooper & Beatty what I really liked was the idea that nobody else got involved. I liked the idea that I designed it, I wrote it. That sounds like I have a big ego—I don’t mean it that way. But there’s something very nice about controlling the whole thing.”

It’s somewhat easier to control things, of course, when your reputation guarantees a steady stream of clients. As the head of Jim Donoahue & Associates (the “associates” being his assistant Sylvia and a few free agents called in as they’re needed), Donoahue has no trouble handling most jobs himself, free from the political squabbles he found so dispiriting in his ad agency days. Computerized typesetting has eliminated much of the tedious cut-and-paste work involved in logo design, and for final, polished art, he will sometimes go to such lettering specialists as Alex Hobson or Dave Thomason—more out of impatience with the process than any lack of technique on his part.

While Donoahue’s role as a self-described “one-man band” is clearly based on personal preference, it also reflects his straightforward, no-nonsense approach to a business that, in his opinion, too often relies on smoke and mirrors to justify inflated fees. Clients, he feels, are all too willing to buy into the design mystique, believing a high price tag will add to the impact and prestige of their corporate icons.

Yet, even considering his no-frills philosophy and minimal overhead, Donoahue’s fees are surprisingly low. The TSN logo, one of his more recent successes (see portfolio), only cost The Sports Network $5,000. Says Donoahue: “That’ s a bargain. I mean, that’s giving it away. But you know what? I did the thing in three days. That’s not bad at all. I try to estimate my time at about a hundred bucks an hour. So if I do a logo for $5,000, I’ve got 50 hours. Well, shit, if I can’t do a logo in 50 hours, I should quit.”

HE IS WELL aware that his competition might have approached the job differently. “If TSN was starting up in, say, three months’ time and they went around town to Taylor & Browning and Burton Kramer and Stu Ash, they’d be looking at 50, 60, 70 grand. And those people would do a dog-and-pony show for them. I’ve tended not to do that. Yet the funny part is, I’m perceived as being quite expensive. I think it’s only because when you’re doing logos with that kind of visibil-ity, people assume you charge a lot of money. And I probably should raise my prices.”

NOT ALL OF Donoahue’s work goes so cheaply, of course. Telecom Canada paid more than double what TSN did, mainly because the job involved a lot of meetings and travel back and forth to Ottawa. Such costs fall under the heading of research, getting to know the company. But, unlike many other designers, by research Donoa-hue does not mean hiring consultants, com-missioning in-depth studies or any of the other bells and whistles he disparages in the work of large design firms. Rather, it is a simple matter of touring a client’s operation, asking a lot of questions, getting to know the person in charge—basically mixing curiosity with common sense.

THIS TOO CAN be time-consuming. With TSN president Gordon Craig, it took two sessions of four or five hours each just to hash out what the new network was all about. But ultimately, Donoahue approaches logo design as an act of solitary creation, in which everything he has absorbed is dis-tilled to its essence in a unique and memor-able symbol. With luck, that essence will become clear after only two or three hours of tinkering, or even in a momentary flash of inspiration. And once a solution has pre-sented itself, there is no compulsion to search for alternatives: “I often go in with one logo, and sometimes the client will say, ‘Is this it?’ And I’ll say, ‘Why should I show you all the ones that didn’t work?'”

WITH A FAT portfolio of logos that did work, Jim Donoahue doesn’t have to worry about where his next job is coming from. And while he may speculate about raising his prices, it’s clear that he doesn’t view his success in material terms. “Money you can spend, but leaving something behind seems to me to be really critical. Really critical. That makes me sound like an artist, and I don’t mean to sound that way. But I’ve done things that in my opinion are as good as you can do: beautifully designed, perfectly proportioned, intelligent art. And it is art.” He pauses and adds, laughing, “But it’s risky to talk about it that way, because you get paid for it.”

“THE PROBLEM WITH a lot of logos;’ says Jim Donoahue, “is that people try to put too much into them. A guy’ll end up with three initials and his mother’s picture in the thing. I mean, you just can’t do that. It doesn’t communicate. The best logos are the ones that communicate the quickest to you.”

So WHICH LOGOS does he place in that cate-gory? William Golden’s CBS symbol for one: “That eye is an absolute stroke of genius. He took the essence of television.” Indeed, Donoahue had the CBS model in mind when he created his own Global logo. “IBM has held up beautifully,” he adds, and of course, Allan Fleming’s historic CN mark is on his shortlist. He also admires some of the more old-fashioned, “funky” wordmarks, like Coca-Cola and Ford.

THE WORK OF Saul Bass (who once offered Donoahue a job at his Los Angeles studio) receives high marks, especially his United Airlines logo. As for Donoahue’s own Wardair mark, he says: “I don’t think it’s a bril-liant logo at all, but it’s a good, solid logo.” It is an invented piece of type, he explains, a very bold sans serif face that implies strength and stability, even when it’s greatly reduced. “If I see an airline logo, I want to believe that the thing is going to make it-if s not going to crash halfway little cuts and wings were addei flight. (Donoahue won’t take the blame for the half maple leaf appended Wardair ads.)

Just about every logo in Donoahue’s portfolio has some special memory or small victory associated with it. He can speak with equal enthusiasm about his high-profile series for Magnetic North or his underpriced image makeover for a hotelier in Brockville (“I’ve changed that man’s life; I know I have”). But one piece that gives him particular pride is the TSN logo, created for Canada’s all-sports TV channel: “That’s an example of one that really was almost blind luck. I felt as though I kind of stumbled onto it. And I know if I hadn’t done it, somebody would have. Interestingly enough, once the concept done for TSN, it can never be done by anybody else.”

After playing around with various sports-inspired themes—letters in motion, a football-style typeface—Donoahue hit on the one thing that is common to events, from snooker to tennis: the score-board. “I phoned up the type house the morning after I designed it and said, ‘I want you to set a patch of bullets for me.’ And then I just took a knife and cut away the ones I didn’t want. So that’s got to be the easiest logo ever drawn, it was purely mechanical. It’s the essence. Drawing in many ways is a secondary issue. You can always get somebody to draw it for you, if you can figure it out. A child could take a bunch of apples and create that symbol. It’s just a question of putting the parts together.”

TSN president Gordon Craig was apprehensive about the search for a sports-related logo that would define the new network’s identity. “With a new business, you have a blank piece of paper and only one chance to write on it.” But Craig was instantly won over by Donoahue’s scoreboard design: “He unveiled it to me, and it was absolutely perfect. It reproduces very well in print. And it’s a very bold signature. I’ve had nothing but compliments about it.”


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