Paul Arthur 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.
Expo was a triumph of simplicity and clarity. Believing that more signs only reduce effectiveness, his 1965 report called for the entire fair to have 65 directional signs, 14 site maps, 14 area maps, and 14 directories: radically simple means by which to move millions of people. Words were used if necessary, but pictures were preferable, and colour was indispensable. Some two dozen custom pictographs were developed for the fair, including a single standardized arrow for all purposes, and male and female washroom signs which were too simple and too similar, causing consternation until they were replaced by more illustrative versions. Much more successfully, animal silhouettes identified the parking areas; not only highly memorable and therefore very effective, they were also a signature for the positive, optimistic modernity reflected in the Expo experience.
When work in Canada dropped off after Expo, projects in the United States were central to his career, including the US Postal Service; General Services Administration (designing bilingual signs at both north and south borders of the U.S.); New York State Urban Development Corporation; and an unobtrusive but effective system of highway signs for the State of Vermont. For the New York State University Construction Fund, he developed signage for a dozen campuses during the massive construction boom in American universities. This project led him, in 1970, to write a manual which was an important statement on his thoughts on wayfinding and signage, and a key influence on his role as founding member of the Society of Environmental Graphic Designers, in 1974. At home in Canada, he also produced signage for the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia.
Arthur devoted much professional energy to public standards. He worked with Public Works architects to make government buildings navigable and accessible; argued for training in electrical standards; helped draft Canadian Safety Association standard Z321, “Occupational Safety and Health Warning Signs,” to provide universal warning signs for all Canadian workplaces; and he worked on establishing barrier-free standards in buildings and signs alike. These initiatives could involve major commitments: the first CSA meeting was June 27, 1974, and it took three years of meetings to reach consensus. But, as he was to write: “Standards do not inhibit creativity. They liberate it.”
Paul Arthur, who died in 2001, embodied the idea of design as problem solving, and was fearless in following this logic wherever it took him. A tireless and sometimes blunt campaigner for logical and effective design, Arthur’s career encompassed several disciplines, bringing permanent improvements to all of them.
— Brian Donnelly