Day 6·Design .20

An icon of Canadian graphic design: Meet Burton Kramer, designer of the CBC logo

Burton Kramer is a Canadian design pioneer who, most famously, created the 1974 CBC logo — lovingly known to many as the 'exploding pizza.'

The late CBC host Lister Sinclair played a key role in having Kramer's logo accepted

Burton Kramer has taken up painting since retired from graphic design. "It's what keeps me occupied and feeling like I'm doing something," said Kramer on Jan. 23, 2020. (Laurie Allan/CBC)

Burton Kramer, a prolific figure in Canadian graphic design, is best known for designing the 1974 CBC logo.

"I certainly felt pressure," the designer said about designing the now iconic logo. 

The logo features a stylized letter "c" in the middle of geometric shapes, known to many as the "Exploding Pizza."

According to Kramer, it was intended to "visually broadcast" to Canada and the world.

Kramer, who was born in New York City, moved to Toronto in 1965. Soon after, he was a key designer for Expo 67, a design exhibition to celebrate Canada's Centennial and establish Canadian design in all forms, from architecture to graphic design.

Day 6 host Brent Bambury spoke to Kramer about his career and the legendary logo's genesis. Here is part of their conversation. 

What was it that drew you to design in the first place? 

I don't know if I can answer that exactly, but I can only say that from a very early age ... I made all sorts of things. I made airplane models, I carved heads on briar pipes and so on. 

Eventually, I was going to be what amounted to a craft teacher, but in my second year at college … someone came from California [and he] was what passed for a designer in those days. 

I started taking some of his courses, and I went from being a C student to an A student. 

As things progressed, he suggested I get out of there and go to design school. He helped me prepare all my material, and [he] suggested that I go to the Institute of Design in Chicago — and I did.

Sounds like you could not drink up enough stimulus. Why is that? How immersive do you believe you have to be in your environment in order to connect to trying to create a better environment through design? 

People have often asked me something like, "Well, Kramer, do you think design has really changed our environment?" The answer is of course it has, just look around.

But having said "look around," that's really the issue — that most people are not educated to see and seeing becomes a problem.

Burton Kramer designed the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s logo in 1974 to display a distorted letter “c.” (Laurie Allan/CBC)

In 1974, you created, for the CBC, the logo. What did the CBC tell you they were looking for when they asked you to make the logo? 

They wanted something that would represent the corporation in English and in French, and something that would work for Radio Canada International, and that would represent broadcasting. 

That's a pretty big order. That's a lot of representation there. How long did it take you to come up with the answer?

There was a lot of pressure to arrive at a logo by Christmas. I can't remember how much before that we started, but it wasn't very long and I certainly felt the pressure.

When you showed them your design, presumably by Christmas, how did CBC management respond?

Jack Lusher, who was our contact with CBC, had put on his calendar [that he wanted] a logo for Christmas. He came down to Toronto to see it and to take it back to Ottawa. When he saw it, he said he loved it, but I discovered later he was terrified. 

In 1992, the CBC logo was simplified from Kramer's version and coloured red. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

When he took it back to Ottawa, which is where the CBC headquarters is, what was management's response? Did they like your design?

I think it was not long after that that we went to Ottawa to make a complete presentation, which showed the logo on flags, banners, stationery, vehicles, on air and so on.

I think that if [the late CBC broadcaster] Lister Sinclair hadn't been right at the elbow of [then CBC president] Laurent Picard, it would never have gone through. But Lister liked it a lot and then the president agreed. Then, of course, all the [vice-presidents] fell into line.

It's endured. It's still with us, but in the early '90s, the CBC changed the logo. It used to be that the figure in the center of the logo was a "c." But they, in the '90s, closed the circle so it became more like a doughnut shape. How do you feel about that change? 

To say it disgusts me would be a mild reaction.

First of all, it would never have been accepted in the form it is now. Never. And I think that the revised version, which was done because of difficulties that they were having with their technology and their sudden desire — along with everyone else — to put a logo in the corner of their TV screen, the person at the CBC who was responsible for this happening went to a designer ... [He] did not call me and say "Hey, we've got a little problem. Can you fix it?"

It's all as simple as that. 

How do you feel when people refer to your design as the exploding pizza?

I've never seen an exploding pizza or an exploding pineapple or other more vulgar iterations. 

Let's go back to when you came to Canada, because you're [originally] from the United States, but one of the first major projects you worked on after you came here was Expo 67. What did Expo 67 tell the world about Canada and its openness to design?

I think there was a design explosion ... for Expo people.

Not only did Canadian designers, graphic designers, architects and others suddenly have more work than they could handle, but they had to bring in people from other countries to handle all of the work that needed doing in a compressed time frame.

You're now retired from graphic design and you're focusing on painting. I've looked at your paintings, they use a lot of geometric shapes. They're very pleasing. Is painting your new religion?

It's what I do. It's what keeps me occupied and feeling like I'm doing something.

You will always be known for designing the CBC logo. Are you happy with that?

Sure, why not?

Written by Martha Currie. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Download our podcast, or click Listen above, to hear the full conversation.


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