Paul Arthur

Articles referencing Paul Arthur: Remembering Expo 67

1988 SEGD Fellow

Paul Arthur, a self-taught designer, was often credited with having invented the term “signage” in the early 60s, a distinction he regarded as dubious because it has given too many graphic designers, architects, and building owners the idea that putting up signs is all there is to wayfinding. His work for Expo 67 in Montreal first demonstrated the important role of signs in well-planned environments. His Toronto firm, VisuCom Limited, specialized in the development of visual and audible wayfinding solutions for complex environments. He was a fellow and founding member of the Society for Environmental Graphic Design (SEGD). He passed away in May 2001.

Graphic designer Paul Arthur (1925-2001) is often credited with coining the terms ‘signage’ and ‘wayfinding’, concepts that have become fundamental for both graphic designers and architects. An authority on pictograms and graphic symbology, Arthur authored numerous books on the subjects and applied his ideas to a diverse range of built environments, from the Montreal Expo grounds in 1967 to institutional settings such as Toronto’s Sick Kids Hospital. Designer Branimir Zlamalik worked with Arthur to develop more than 530 coordinated graphic symbols, representing everyday actions and situations. These pictographs are published in the  book Wayfinding: Pictografic Systems: Nonverbal. Universal.

Paul Arthur (1924–2001) was surely the most important Canadian designer never to have any actual design education. Born in 1924, he graduated from the University of Toronto in English literature. His interest in books and printing led, via England, to the job of Assistant Editor at Graphis between 1951–1956. Making the most of this experience, he was to become a key link between the Canadian design community and the modernist design of Europe when Alan Jarvis, director of the National Gallery, urged him to return to Canada in 1956. Arthur was director of publications at the gallery from 1956–67, where he estimates he produced a publication per week, on average, for eleven years.

In 1958, Arthur became the managing editor of Canadian Art, where his radical redesign brought a new dignity and maturity to magazines in Canada. Pearl McCarthy, in the Globe and Mail, wrote of Arthur as the “Top Man in Typography World” in 1959. He became actively involved in the emerging professional societies, including the Society of Typographic Designers of Canada, and the older Club of Printing House Craftsmen. His design for Portraits of Greatness, a book of portraits by Karsh for the University of Toronto Press, brought an architect’s attention to detail and knowledge of his medium, as evidenced in the complexity and meticulousness of his specifications for ink, paper, layout, and typography. Other key books include J. Russell Harper’s landmark text Painting in Canada (1966); he wrote and designed the E.B. Eddy Handbook of Printing Production (1967), which made a clear argument for the international modernist style through its form as well as its text; and in a somewhat looser, more poetic style, he designed The Barn (1972), written by his architect father. Later in his life, he was to abandon the promise of an international design style, and turned to more familiar and vernacular forms, such as cartoons and cereal packaging, in his search for clarity and effective communication.

Although he changed business models, company names, and partnerships frequently throughout his career, he knew how to hire talent: Gerhard Doerrié, Burton Kramer, Fritz Gottschalk, Jean Morin, and Ken Rodmell, among many others, all went through his offices. In the 1960s, he formed a partnership, Graform Associates, to work on signs and directional systems for Expo 67; he made a proposal to the world fair’s chief architect Edouard Fiset and design head Norman Hay, and got the job because no one else had yet thought of it. While a partner in Newton Frank Arthur, his services were contracted to the Canadian government to direct the Discovery Train, a traveling exhibit that crossed the country to great fanfare in 1978.

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