Pens, Pencils, and Markers: Drawing Canada with Allan Robb Fleming (1929-1977)

Post by Christopher Long, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections Co-Op Student

What makes a logo iconic? What is it about a particular shape or image which instantly makes you think of a time or a place, an experience, or even an entire country?

Allan Robb Fleming: A man with glasses and a tie leaning over a table covered in papers with a lamp

Allan Robb Fleming sitting at a drafting table holding some papers. ASC04740

Allan Robb Fleming seemed to have known the answer. Within a few decades of working at the mail order catalogue illustration department of the T. Eaton Company, he built a career on creating some of the most memorable designs in Canadian history including logos for the Canadian National Railway, CBC, and Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

As we begin to celebrate Canada’s 150th, let’s take a moment to look at the life and work of one of its great graphic designers – Allan Fleming – an artist who undoubtedly left his mark on Canada.

Fleming is typically remembered for his contributions to the iconic logo for the Canadian National Railway, which surprised the public with its simple, forward-thinking shape. (Who would have thought that one could make a national design in Canada that didn’t feature a maple leaf?)

Allan Robb Fleming infront of a Canadian National Railway cart: A man with glasses in a suit and hat, with an umbrella, standing in front of train car with the letters ‘C’ and ‘N’ on it.

Image of Allan Robb Fleming standing and posing in front of a boxcar with the CN logo. ASC06434

Launched in 1960, Fleming believed the CN symbol would be a recognisable image for Canadians from Newfoundland to British Columbia. What other logo has the claim of stretching across all ten provinces, round-the-clock, as the logo for one of the great symbols of Canadian history, the railway?

CBC logo: a circular pattern made up of orange, yellow, and red half-moon shapes on a blue background with a big C in the centre.

CBC logo. 2008-002/005(10)

As a proud Canadian who showed his nationalism through enthusiasm for his projects, he saw the opportunity to take part in the redesign of the CBC logo in 1973 as a civic duty: “We hate to sound overly dramatic but … a revitalised deign for the CBC could bring a new sense of purpose into the homes of millions of Canadians.”[1]

Toronto Symphony Orchestra logo: Two red strokes on white background, in shape of ‘T’ and ‘S’.

Fifty dollar design for the TSO. ASC06479

Another example occurred in 1965 when he submitted a proposal for a redesign of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra logo. It was adopted and the TSO paid Fleming $50 to make it official. The President of the TSO wrote to him, “This surely must set an all-time record for gross underpayment of distinguished services.” To which Fleming replied, “as far as I’m concerned, the complete Toronto Symphony project set an all-time record in pleasure.”[2]

He believed that his designs could shape the way in which we saw our country. He wrote in 1970 that “designing projects like CN and Ontario Hydro have allowed me the opportunity to (I hope) improve the appearance of the Canadian environment.”[3]

Looking at some of his work, it’s hard not to agree.

As 1 July approaches – and our billboards and social media feeds are bombarded with images of Canada and its history—ask yourself, would Canada really be the same without its logos?

To learn more about Allan Fleming and to see more of his incredible work, please visit the Clara Thomas Archives. The Allan Robb Fleming finding aid is available online. You can also check out our digital collection of Fleming’s work.

[1] York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Allan Robb Fleming fonds, 2008-002/005(10), letter to Jack Luston, Special Assistant, Corporate Relations, CBC, 31 May 1973.

[2] Ibid., 2008-02/004(15), letter to Edward A Pickering, President of Toronto Symphony Orchestra Associates, 3 May 1965.

[3] Ibid., letter to Paul Baker and Rose Kelly, TTC, 12 August 1970.

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