A part-time colleague and valued friend of the York/Sheridan Program in Design and an important figure in Canadian graphic design has passed away.
I knew Hans Kleefeld from my research into the history of graphic design in Canada and interviewed him on a number of occasions. Hundreds of students at Sheridan and at OCAD University (before it had the U – or even the D – in its name) knew him as a dedicated and highly-experienced teacher of identity, branding, packaging, typography and all aspects of communication design. Most Canadians know his work, but not his name, as the designer of logos for the TD Bank, the Bank of Montreal, the original Air Canada leaf in a circle and others such as Inco, where the historical importance of the identity has outlived the company itself.
Hans was part of the wave of émigrés, especially from Europe and Britain, that swept over Canada in the postwar period and urged our overly-conservative printing, typesetting and advertising fields to transform themselves and emerge as something quite different: the professional discipline of design. Born in Berlin, trained via an apprenticeship as a compositor (assembling or setting the small “sorts” of metal type into lines for printing), he came to Canada in 1952. He found his way through the field in advertising and at the famous commercial art house in Toronto, TDF, which was a supermarket for illustration, hand lettering and other essential services to the printing trade.
His most prominent identities were done for Stewart Morrison, which was an important example of a firm that made the transition from pictorial solutions to real graphic design and from a provincial, idiomatic approach to a more international and objective process of graphic problem solving, bringing the look and branding of Canadian corporations into the mid-century, modern world.
Hans insisted design was not a fine art; what made it all the more important and challenging was the need to deliver a desired message or impression, creating complex, layered images out of abstract type, lines and shapes that nonetheless communicated easily and memorably. Through the patient work of designers such as Hans, clients and fellow designers alike learned to bring visual standards and consistency to graphic communication, avoiding the popular and often whimsical images that pandered to, rather than served, its audience.
Hans insisted design was not a fine art; what made it all the more important and challenging was the need to deliver a desired message or impression, creating complex, layered images out of abstract type, lines and shapes that nonetheless communicated easily and memorably” – Brian Donnelly
And, sure enough, as designers and design schools alike learned how and why to exert greater control over the visual environment our visual culture became vastly more effective, understandable and aesthetic. But of course there was negotiation and compromise along the way: the Bank of Montreal logo was not originally blue. The wavy rectangle, or ‘M,’ in the top half was green, to suggest folding money, and the bottom right-angled shape was gold, to suggest bullion – a better solution from the designer’s point of view while adding some narrative interest to what is a fine, balanced and strong shape on its own. But alignment with the desired corporate color scheme trumped logic or semiotics, just as today the logo is reversed (that is, formed by the cut-out or negative space in white out of a red circle), and the name has shrunk to the multi-lingual (if more anodyne) acronym “BMO”. In visual art, like life itself, nothing is universal or eternal but if we’re smart, we build on what is best from the design of the past.
Hans Kleefeld and his work represented what was so powerful and pleasurable about the modern ideal in design, constructing a logical and consistent graphic practice that did not serve the exuberant preferences of the designer alone, always with one eye on the development of the overall field as a discipline. His work is a perfect example of why young designers, and not just those who studied with him, remain drawn to design for its concision, intelligence and discipline. He was a talented, thoughtful, warm and generous man. Sheridan, like design in Canada, was made richer for his presence but is now poorer for his passing.
Pictured at top of page: Hans Kleefeld, photo by John Kleefeld