Studio Magazine

Jim Donoahue is one of those rare individuals whose personal profile is as low-key as his reputation is high. He’s happy just to do his work. But his logos are some of the most visible around, conceived and carried out with a marvelous sense of direction that says boo to the beaten path.

One of Donoahue’s peers, type designer and lettering artist Alex Hobson, says, “Jim has learned his craft well, and executes it with great verve and excitement.” For Donoahue, it’s an ongoing “head game”.

A flick through his 3-year-old marks book (a new one is in the works) reveals some prominent symbols -The Global Television Network, Wardair Canada Ltd., Car ling O’Keefe Breweries Ltd., and The King Edward Hotel. The variety is a head game in itself for the browser – there are a lot of frankly expensive and elegant looks, some throbbing Art Nouveau (Winston’s) and a slightly cheap, immediate typewriter face for the family mall, Shopper’s World. Bay Bloor Radio makes a great statement with booming sound waves, an image that elevates a white plastic shopping bag to something worthy of much subway contemplation. The Isaacs Gallery logo, his first, is also tucked away in there among a slew of others, every one of them customized.

“You’re trying to evoke a mood,” says Donoahue. “There’s a certain amount of visual information not apparent at first. Enormously important, type with logo. You give off that feel, and somebody can pick that up, and immediately, without knowing why. It is a visual thing.”

Donoahue, a charming, continually restless talent, plies his craft in a large airy office on Toronto’s Scollard Street in the city’s fashionable Yorkville area. A native of Walkerton, Ontario, he graduated from The Ontario College of Art in 1958 after “the usual 4 years, everything, but basically an advertising course.”

It was there that he met and got to know Allan Fleming, a legendary name on the Toronto scene. “Fleming was the highlight (of art college) because he was an outsider. He came in Wednesdays and taught and I think we learned more from him than from anyone else. And when I went to work for him, I think he affected me a lot in what he believed.”

After graduation, Donoahue went to The National Film Board in Montreal for nearly 2 years, about which he merely says, “Not the right place to be. Fleming phoned me one day and said, ‘I want you to come back to Toronto because (Ken) Rodmell and I are having a great time but I’ve got more work than I know how to get done. I need another designer.’ Donoahue: ‘What time do you want me there?!’ ”

It was Fleming who did the CN logo, a coup he had problems with, while his assistants looked on and learned, or supposed they did, and wondered what Fleming was up to. Donoahue recalls that the boss left town for New York on a Friday night with a fistful of designs neither Donoahue or Rodmell were crazy or even polite about. Fleming returned on Monday like the cat with the cream, and informed his underlings he had sold one – had, in fact, done one on a napkin on the plane, polished it up, and marched into the meeting with it as sole offering, fast sold.

“I’ve always thought there’s never been a better logo designed than CN. It makes a very simple statement. It’s the process of travel, taken from this to that point. Two destinations. A brilliant logo, very simple to reproduce at 1/4″ and still reads, or on a boxcar 14 feet long.”

To Donoahue, success of a good logo is taking the foresight of the reproduction process in mind, a case in point being his logo for the new Convention Centre’s L’Hotel. “I had to think, ‘What’s this thing going to look like when it’s on the top of a 20-storey building? When it’s 36 feet high?’ Donoahue not only got L’Hotel, but The Orchard Park Cafe and The Skylight Lounge inside. The Skylight Lounge logo is particularly evocative, giving the impression of sunlight and glass and 45° angles. Donoahue also got The Convention Centre itself, a massive building that had to reflect its stability in its logo.

“You don’t do a light, frivolous logo for something with a floor as big as a football field. And this is where it’s really tricky – knowing you’re going to have a logo etched in brass on door handles. 60 years from now I’ll be gone and somebody who’s never seen it before will walk up and say, ‘That’s a nice logo’. “To knock off an ad for a retail operation is something else. It’s good, it’s bad, it works, it doesn’t work, but for the length of time it matters…somebody says, ‘Oh, that works, thank you’, and they wrap fish in it the next day.”

Donoahue knows what it’s like to smoke cigarettes and beat his brains out over a project, but he has fun with them, and loves showing them, when they’re done and out of his way. One of his favourites is Telecom Canada, whose very name was a revamp (of Trans Canada Telephone Systems, at least a week and a half too long to work well). Donoahue reflected the 10-company coast-to-coast concept in his logo quite nicely. Another pet design is that for The George Gardiner Museum, an example of what he calls “type married to logo”, an organic flowing thing where a G becomes, magically, a ceramic vase, or part of it. “The eye, when it sees something, will fill in the other half if it’s the same on both sides. It’s playing a little bit of a visual game.” Magnetic North Film Productions is another image that provides a graphic takeoff, this time using the given image of tape minus sprocket holes, a flow of solid material. Donoahue likes playing visual games (that work well) but also gets down to more serious tacks, as with the Wardair logo. “It’s intended to imply flight, obviously, but it has to look strong, steady, reliable.”

The same might be said of Donoahue himself, except for the erroneous impression of stolidness that that conjures up. Donoahue’s thinking processes are often quicksilver, and associates know it. Says Jerry Goodis, now Chairman of the Board of Commonwealth Systems Inc.: “Jim’s mind is quite incredible. He has a way of getting right to the heart of a problem and solving it graphically. He is able to capture, with his talent – which is a rare one – the essence of whatever institution he is working on. And he does it very, very quickly. I rarely question what he does because he’s so damn good. And reasonable. If he says it’ll be ready Friday, it’s usually ready Thursday night.”

Donoahue put in his time to get a reputation like this. He was Allan Fleming’s assistant at Cooper & Beatty, worked as art director at Goodis Goldberg Soren, and MacLaren’s Advertising, was a partner in Burns, Cooper, Donoahue, Fleming and Co. Ltd,, and creative director at TDF, an industry alumni bank as well as a very fine, diverse art studio. Then he ended up full circle at Cooper & Beatty in Allan Fleming’s shoes. He has high praise for Cooper & Beatty. “A wonderful, very open-ended job. It was, ‘Do whatever you want, as long as you think it’ll work.’ ”

Cooper & Beatty have higher praise for him. Jim McLean, president of the firm, and vice-president when Donoahue began his second round there, creating some nifty direct-marketing pieces, was impressed then and is more impressed now, with Donoahue’s collateral work for Headliners, the Bedford system and the Identicolor and Pinwheel colour systems. “Jimmy has done a hell of a job for us, first of all because he understands the typographic business, and the inner workings of Cooper & Beatty – what we’re all about. Because we sell the majority of our product to creative people, you have to be good, an art director’s art director. ‘ ‘Jim designs and writes – a rare commodity – very well. And he has a very good presence. He goes down well in boardrooms.” Donoahue has done, over the years, a number of type posters for Cooper & Beatty, including one of “tobacco typography”, and a 20 x 26 poster with copy by writer Jack Batten, of 50 top rock personalities of the time, in new Lettergraphics type styles. In 1977 he formed his own firm, Jim Donoahue and Associates Ltd. He is a member and a past president of The Art Directors Club of Toronto, a member of Alliance Graphique Internationale and of The Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts. His work is internationally known, and awarded appearing in Japan’s Idea Magazine, Switzerland’s Graphis Magazine and England’s Modern 1968, says, “Jim is pretty discerning and likes things right. We use a lot of photolettering, but (the designs) still have to be done properly. There are things photolettering can’t do.”

Donoahue himself admires the capabilities of technology. “We’ve reached the point now where typesetting cannot be improved, where those combinations that once were a real problem are no longer. Typesetting machines can set everything flawlessly. Before, you were limited, technically, by what it could do.”

Creatively, there are few limits, though always – and Donoahue is dead adamant about this, letterforms should always be comfortable and feel comfortable to the eye – never distorted. His own creative license always has a functional purpose as well, but remembering the rules for sanity’s sake doesn’t have to plug up the inspiration breakwater line.

Donoahue is in love with the whole fascinating experience of doing a logo, no small part of it, perhaps, stemming from the fact that “in many cases the client hasn’t a clue what the designer is going to do, has no sense of the direction it could take.”

A good example, and another recent one, is the logo for TSN, The Sports Network. “The fact that I incorporated “The” may seem to be pushing it a bit, but being able to work with the 3 call letters began yielding some interesting graphic results…” Nothing came across in initial stages to specifically identify TSN with sports. Donoahue employed what he calls “simple type exercises”, hooking the letters together in various ways to at least indicate motion, but still nothing definite came out of it. “That’s where really bad logos prove just how bad they are – when you don’t get some sense of what the company does. You’ve missed the boat completely.”

In his ongoing search, he came up with the idea of using jersey letters a -la Wayne Gretzky’s “99”, but that still didn’t encompass the range of sports. Beyond that point, he finally hit on “the one thing true to all sports – the Scoreboard. A score is the basis of sport.” It was the basis, and the completion, of the TSN logo. Donoahue was, understandably, thrilled with the results. He took TSN’s president through the same steps, continually building his hopes with the affectionate guile of a magician who knows just when to lay it before his audience. “Of course!” said TSN’s president. “It’s so obvious!”

“It’s only obvious after you do it,” says Donoahue. “But there are a couple of things that really make it work. It reads very quickly, and it can be animated on TV, with lights. “I can think of very few logos I didn’t physically have to draw or have someone else draw. I sent it off to the type studio, they set a whole panel of bullets, I cut away the ones I didn’t want, then reversed the whole print. It was done mechanically…I thought that a very funny idea. It’s as pure, in a sense, a logo as you can do, because it’s a pure idea. Others are conceived, drawn, and you go through the exercise of drawing and getting proportions right.” Ideally so, but sometimes the unplanned child gets the kudos. The logo for The Canadian Government Office of Tourism was never done as such. “I literally did it one afternoon sitting at MacLaren’s, and put it at the bottom of a travel ad. Not a big deal, just a simple typeface, Baskerville, modified slightly, fattened up where the face is very, very thin.” The Tourism Office loved it, then other government divisions began adopting it, an official logo that became official over a period of three to four years. “it was basically a free logo, done for the Government.”

On the subject of fees, Donoahue is understandably reluctant to be specific. “I’m probably cheaper than I should be, but that’s not the issue. I like to charge something fair, but what I’m getting out of it is a fair return for the number of hours I put in. If I go in for $10-12,000 and I do it fast I’m way ahead of the game. ‘Wonderful – did that in 2 days! Made $5,000 a day!’ It doesn’t work that way every time. A lot of companies, when you’re charging a fair buck, really do expect to see a lot of logos.

“With TSN I had basically one meeting, not a lot of dollars, and they will wear that logo as long as they’re in business. That will become such an integral part of TV.” Donoahue, in fact, can be positively philanthropic to the little guy with a miniature budget, but his reputation easily gets him large accounts. In fact, his reputation is that of a very easy, but conscientious man. “He is easy going,” says Jerry Goodis. “He fights for his ideas when they’re a professional obsession, but he’s very happy to have an arena where there’s an exchange of ideas. He does not have a tremendous amount of ego, and in our business that’s a rarity.”

Donoahue also enjoys teaching, and recently completed a 4-week stint at OCA, assigning corporate design projects for companies picked at random out of the telephone directory, for his students. He is very critical of such results. One of his own best critics was, he considers, his mother. “Not because she was sophisticated, but because she cut right through things to what she saw. She saw things accurately.” Precisely what Donoahue continues to do. “Logos, if good, are like distilling, cooking down, reducing a very good stock when making soup. You start with a lot of stuff and reduce to capture that one essential ingredient.

“If it’s going to be around a long time, and it’s good, you know that when you walk by 3 months, 3 years later, and see it, you’re not going to throw up.” Gut instinct is another thing. Donoahue has it – but also the cerebral and the soul, to make an image come alive.

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