Arts·Q&A

This is what Canadian music looks like. The Polaris Prize poster show is on now in Toronto

How do you illustrate the best homegrown albums of the year? Since 2016, a Toronto-based graphic design studio has curated the Polaris Music Prize poster program.

Every year the prize commissions posters inspired by its nominees. Here's how they do it

Collage of Polaris Music Prize posters.
The 2022 batch of Polaris Music Prize posters was revealed last week. Toronto-based graphic design studio The Office of Gilbert Li oversees the curation of the project every year. (Polaris Music Prize)

The winner of the 2022 Polaris Music Prize will be announced Sept. 19, but this year's nominees are already being celebrated at a special art exhibition in Toronto.

Since 2006, Year 1 of the award's history, Polaris has released a series of posters inspired by the records in competition, hiring Canadian artists to handle the designs. And between now and Sept. 29, much of the full collection will be appearing at Underscore Projects in Toronto. 

The latest round of 12 posters — screen-printed tributes to the 2022 shortlist and Slaight Family Polaris Heritage Prize winners — can be seen from the gallery's window on Dundas Street West, while more than 200 prints from the past have been papered, teenage-bedroom style, on the walls of the gallery's upper floors. According to organizers, it's the first time they've ever mounted a large-scale exhibition of their poster archive, though selections have been shown in the past, including a spring 2019 show at Museum London in Ontario. 

Screenprinted posters for the Polaris Music Prize.
(L-R): 2022 Polaris Music Prize posters by Tallulah Fontaine, Heavy Machinery and Kendra Yee. (Polaris Music Prize)

When Polaris began running their poster program, the whole initiative was conceived as a sort of gift to the nominees, who are traditionally presented with framed posters at Polaris' annual gala. (Further copies of the limited-edition prints are often put up for sale; this year's batch can be purchased through Underscore Projects.) And originally, all the hiring and curation was handled by Steve Jordan, founder of the prize and its former executive director. 

Toronto-based graphic design studio the Office of Gilbert Li has overseen the program since 2016, however, and as creative directors of the project, part of their job is matching the music with artists — folks they've found through user-submissions and their own tireless culture-vulturing. 

Seven editions in, Gilbert Li says the annual gig remains a favourite recurring assignment — one that's totally unlike his company's typical client work, designing art books and catalogues, or developing logos and websites and such.

Here, he walks us through the process, and reflects on the Polaris look (which may or may not exist).

Screenprinted posters for the Polaris Music Prize.
(L-R): 2016 Polaris Music Prize posters by Alicia Nauta, Yarek Waszul and Monnet Design. (Polaris Music Prize)

When you first got the assignment from Polaris, what did you find interesting about this project? Why was it something you wanted to take on? 

For me as a designer, it's something I feel strongly about. Like, I should use my skills and experience in aid of the promotion of culture. To me, it's very important. And this fit. 

The process: does it begin by selecting artists? What's the first step in putting together a series of posters?

Even when it's the so-called off season, we're all culture fiends. We're always looking on Instagram, looking at other designers, other illustrators. Part of our mental bookmarking is looking for artists that are very specific to some sort of community, even just a region of Canada. 

[Polaris's] network of illustrators they were tapping was very limited. [Steve Jordan] liked how we were very cognizant of issues around diversity and trying to find illustrators from perhaps a similar background as the musicians. Like, you know, something as simple as if it's an album from Quebec and all the lyrics are French, we would need an illustrator who themselves is fluent in French.

Screenprinted posters for the Polaris Music Prize.
(L-R): 2020 Polaris Music Prize posters by Jenny Vivar, Yazmin Monet and Ka Young Lee. (Polaris Music Prize)

You must be an expert in Canadian music at this point. I mean, I imagine you must be paying very close attention to all of the albums as you're going through the curation process.

I'm a bit older. I'm not the most up to date on the music scene, so every year when there's a shortlist, I would say most of the bands are new to me.

It's definitely a fun thing in our studio. Sometimes it's a group effort. We kind of divvy up the albums so it's up to a particular designer to do the initial listening and, you know, propose which artists to consider. 

There's four of us in total, including me.

Screenprinted posters for the Polaris Music Prize.
(L-R): 2017 Polaris Music Prize posters by Cristian Fowlie, Studio Tipi and Yarek Waszul. (Polaris Music Prize)

Who makes the final decision of pairing an artist with an album? Is that all up to you?

It can vary. It's a very fun collaborative process. Once we have the shortlist of albums, we are usually given like a week or two to come up with our candidates for each poster. Before COVID we would actually meet in person in the studio. Someone from Polaris would have their laptop loaded, ready to go with the music. And we would literally pin up — like, here are four potential artists for this album. They'd play the music and we would be looking at, like, mood boards of artists' work. 

Everyone involved at Polaris is obviously very knowledgeable, not just of music in general, but specifically of the bands that have been shortlisted. So we get a lot more information about the context for the albums, the background of the musicians and so on. And we kind of have a discussion. 

Screenprinted posters for the Polaris Music Prize.
(L-R): 2021 Polaris Music Prize posters by Beena Mistry, Mathieu Dionne and Brnesh Berhe. (Polaris Music Prize)

Sometimes it's a no brainer, and other times it gets a little bit more divisive and everyone has to have their sales pitch for a particular artist. 

After a bit of listening, often different vibes — different feelings, you know, different understandings — start to come to the fore and people change their mind. 

When I think of the history of music posters gig posters, specifically they're often so synonymous with specific eras or music scenes. When you're curating one of these series, is there a Polaris esthetic you're trying to create?

In the moment we are not thinking that way. We are really thinking album to album. Like even in our studio, we have a wall where we put up a random selection of about 30 or so posters. It is only when someone comes into the studio and sees it and we hear their feedback that we then start thinking about, "Oh! Is there a general trend?" Even year to year: was there a specific identifiable something that tied the posters together? 

Screenprinted posters for the 2006 Polaris Music Prize.
(L-R): 2006 Polaris Music Prize posters by Doublenaut, Raymond E. Biesinger and Serigraphie. (Polaris Music Prize)

I think that was part of what we tried to bring to the whole program — not just diversity in the artists, but in the end results — to have a wider range of visual vocabulary in all the posters. 

I would say the most successful posters, for me personally, are when you can really tell there's a great synergy between the lettering and the visuals. They're always the most exciting posters, to me.

Which ones would you single out?

Tom Froese is one artist. He frequently illustrates for top magazines like Monocle

Screenprinted poster reads "Glenn Gould Bach: The Goldberg Variations."
Slaight Family Polaris Heritage Prize Poster for Glenn Gould's Bach: The Goldberg Variations. Design by Tom Froese. (Polaris Music Prize)
Screen printed poster reading "The Oscar Peterson Trio Night Train."
Slaight Family Polaris Heritage Prize Poster for The Oscar Peter Trio's Night Train. Design by Tom Froese. (Polaris Music Prize)

The illustration he drew, it had a really loose illustration style, so I suggested to him: "Have you thought about doing hand lettering instead of using a font?" He came back with something amazing. 

One of the shortlisted albums this year is Lisa Leblanc's [Chiac Disco]. We tapped a Quebec artist, Mathieu Dionne, who we worked with before, and he just nailed it. It instantly screams French from the colours to the illustration, but it's the typography that really makes it disco with a French flair to it. Even if you haven't listened, you've already got a good sense of what the album sounds like. 

Poster for Lisa Leblanc's Chiac Disco by Matheiu Dionne. Screenprinted design on a yellow backdrop. Portrays cartoon legs in white boots, the pants are red white and blue.
Poster for Lisa Leblanc's Chiac Disco by Matheiu Dionne. (Polaris Music Prize)

All these years in, why has the project had such longevity? What keeps it going?

Music is one of those things that most people have at least some interest in. It doesn't take long to find people that are really big fans of music. We're tapping into people's love of music. Even our studio — why we're involved in this poster program — it's to play a part in the shared kind of love of music and the spreading of it. That, I think, is what keeps the program going. 

Collage of three screen printed posters for Alvvays, Jeremy Dutcher and Hubert Lenoir.
(L-R): 2018 Polaris Music Prize posters by Aaron Rinas, Alëna Skarina and Cécile Gariépy. (Polaris Music Prize)

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

CBC hosts the livestream of the 2022 Polaris Music Prize gala Monday, Sept. 19 at 8 p.m. ET. More info here.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.

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