The National Gallery of Canada’s rebrand marks a step towards decolonisation

The new visual identity, created by Area 17, took its cues from 300 interviews with employees, youth artists and Indigenous Elders, among others.

25 June 2021


The National Gallery of Canada, the country’s preeminent visual arts organisation, has unveiled a new visual identity created by Area 17, a brand and digital-product agency based between New York and Paris. The agency was brought on board to build a new brand strategy and system to reflect the work the museum is doing to decolonise its collection and amplify new voices.

The rebrand represents a complete overhaul of not just the previous logo, colour palette, motion, photography and typography, but also the Western worldview that lay behind many of those original design decisions.

For the team at Area 17, the process began with a lot of conversation. “We started with deep listening in 300 interviews with employees, heads of other Canadian museums, board members, leadership, youth artists, transformation consultants, JEDI [Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion] consultants, Indigenous Elders and artists,” says Carolyn Centeno Milton, Area 17’s strategy director. This was all, she says, to understand the museum’s desire to work with partners to “decolonise, reframe their collection and activate community belonging”.

Looking at the previous branding, it was clear to her team what needed to change. “They needed to quite literally move from a square – geometric, angular, apart, separate – to a permeable circle – circular, dynamic, connected, inviting,” says Centeno Milton. “Moving from the linear, patriarchal, red-dominant identity to a more circular, matriarchal, dynamic identity was a must at the early part of the project.”

GalleryArea 17: National Gallery of Canada rebrand (Copyright © Area 17, 2021)

But it wasn’t until some early brand concepts were shared with an Elders committee that a breakthrough came. The word “Ankosé” came up, an Anishinaabemowin word meaning “everything is connected”. Immediately, says Centeno Milton, “we knew the trajectory of the project had shifted. The word encompassed the ideas we were trying to get across – the idea of connection and limitlessness.” From that point on, Ankosé became the central idea that can now be seen running throughout the visual identity.

The most obvious change is in the logo, which has transformed from a square to a shape-shifting circle that animates through various iterations. It has become what Centeno Milton describes as “a permeable circle, inviting people in and radiating outward”. She goes on: “We had to show that we are constantly changing and that the connections that exist outside of the frame are limitless. Almost as if a kaleidoscope is letting light in as it turns, shapes connect, morph, recreate to become something bigger than the individual part.”

The dynamic logo also symbolises a shift in the museum’s focus. “It moves us from a Western worldview of rigid geometry to a circle that draws on Indigenous teachings,” writes Sasha Suda, the National Gallery of Canada’s director and CEO, in a statement. (Announcing the rebrand, the statement also explains how the Canadian system of governance is based upon the British parliamentary system, which is built around square rooms and hard lines of opposition. Indigenous governance, by comparison, takes place in circles, with communities gathering and making decisions in “talking circles” and “healing circles”.)

Elsewhere, the Ankosé has shaped a new colour palette. “Red was too monolithic a colour, so we added in bright and vibrant colours that connected two different shades into one through a gradient, further reinforcing the idea of connection,” says Benoit Lemoine, lead designer on the project at Area 17. There was also another inspiration behind the palette, according to Centeno Milton: “We wanted to have a more inclusive palette influenced by the Northern Lights – as if we are all under the night sky connected to each other.”

Meanwhile, typographically, Founders Grotesk was chosen as the main typeface across the identity. This was because, as Benoit explains, it “inherently holds contradictions in it. It is at once timeless and contemporary, iconic and accessible, and geometric and human.”

GalleryArea 17: National Gallery of Canada rebrand (Copyright © Area 17, 2021)

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Area 17: National Gallery of Canada rebrand (Copyright © Area 17, 2021)

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About the Author

Matt Alagiah

Matt joined It’s Nice That as editor in October 2018 and became editor-in-chief in September 2020. He was previously executive editor at Monocle magazine. Drop him a line with ideas and suggestions, or simply to say hello.

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