Does This Font Make Me Look Self-Reliant Yet Humble?

I just spent a wonderful couple of hours exploring the history of Nova Scotia’s branding policies from 1982 to the present courtesy, once again, of a completed freedom of information/access to information (FOIPOP) request.

Thank you, unknown member of the public!



It begins with a manual from 1982, when the province adopted its “Visual Identity Program” (VIP). Having been a party to (not to say victim of) 1980s fashion, I really expected something more spectacular — as if a character from a John Hughes movie had cut the Nova Scotia flag to pieces and sewn it back together to wear to prom.

Instead, I found a pretty straight-forward discussion of fonts (Helvetica, for everything) and colors (Nova Scotia blue, Nova Scotia red) and reproductions of the Coat-of-Arms and the “Saltire Azure,” which sounds like a drag queen but is actually just the blue St. Andrew’s cross.

The only time the authors cut loose at all is in their depiction of “unacceptable uses of colour” involving the Nova Scotia symbol. No matter how environmentally conscious you are, apparently, you must not bury the symbol in greenery:

Likewise, no matter how deep your love of Satan, you must not plunge our poor little symbol into eternal darkness:

Nor should you turn the Nova Scotia symbol into a page from an adult coloring book:


There are myriad examples of just how buttoned-down this 1983 guide is, but I think one will do as an illustration. Behold the “Executive Size Deputy Minister’s Envelope:


Frutiger Condensed

Jump ahead to 2002 and we find the Identity Standards Manual, an update of the 1982 guide including modifications made in 1994, 1997 and 2002. (Sadly, none of the ’90s modifications included elements of grunge — a lost opportunity, given the obvious link between Nova Scotia and plaid.)

The 2002 guide begins by explaining why standards are necessary:

Every organization has an identity. This identity is influenced by the look of all things done by or associated with the organization — its programs, services, products, print material, advertising, signage, stationery, vehicles. Because of this profusion of elements, it is essential that a graphic system is in place to clearly and easily identify the organization as one.

Seems perfectly reasonable to me. And from there, things remain reasonable, including the changes and updates, none of which is particularly drastic — the Nova Scotia symbol is now called called the “provincial identity mark” and has been “modified…to update and simplify it.” Helvetica has given way to Frutiger Condensed and Nova Scotia blue and red have become Pantone 293 and Pantone 485.

Basically, the 2002 manual represents business as usual in the world of Nova Scotia communications — or, at least, so it seemed.



While those modest, tight-laced guidelines were keeping a lid on the design of deputy ministers’ envelopes, government agencies and departments were apparently going hog wild:

If every organization has an identity and that identity is influenced by the look of its advertising material, then Nova Scotia, in the early oughts, was a bulletin board in a Nepalese youth hostel.

In 2013, the Communications Department set out to rein in this exuberance but rather than simply sending all departments and agencies copies of the VIP manual with the font names and colors underlined twice, it did “in-depth research” into the province’s “brand.”

That research was apparently divided into four categories: Personality, Purpose, Benefits and Proof. (Don’t look at me, I didn’t name them). Here are the results of the research into each of those categories:


The Department then focus-grouped phrases for three “core themes” — People, Place and Spirit — and came up with the following:

People: Quiet confidence
Place: Natural pulse
Spirit: Spirited Resilience

Rejected phrases included:

People: Even-handed
Place: Thriving hub
Spirit: Inspired practicality

The chosen phrases were then tossed into the departmental word-blender and the results decanted onto this slide:


All that remained was to hire a design company capable of expressing our quietly confident spirited resilience. Enter: Breakhouse.



The natural pulse of our land and sea is a heartbeat that drives us forward on a steady course towards a bright and prosperous future.

I read that sentence and got lost and puzzled and angry — but that just shows that I am not a professional designer. Breakhouse read it and was inspired:

Your core promise directly inspired our design concept. The meeting between land and sea is so inherent to the spirit of who and where we are that it demanded to become an integral part of the visual language of the brand. What sparked our imagination was when we looked at our provincial flag in that context — and then began imagining the Saint Andrew’s cross (the saltire) as a graphic representation of that meeting point:

St. Andrew’s bow tie.

As a metaphor, the meeting of land and sea is at the heart of the place that makes our people and the spirit of Nova Scotia so unique. It’s a nod to our heritage and history but more importantly that meeting point, that spark, that spirit, is the thing that will drive us towards that bright and prosperous future — which is why the idea of imagining that intersection as the “Ignition Point” felt so right.

“Ignition Point” does feel right, doesn’t it? Especially in connection with Nova Scotia and the sea and sparks. It puts one in mind of lanterns and bonfires and what happens when a French munitions ship collides with a Norwegian relief vessel.

Breakhouse also wanted to capture the idea of a “natural pulse” and in doing so, took inspiration from “the play of light off the dancing waves.”

So take your ignition point, your natural pulse, the play of light off dancing waves, the quiet confidence of your people, your sense of balance and spirited resilience, mix it all together and what do you get? You get THIS:

It’s like a character in a John Hughes movie cut up the Nova Scotia flag and sewed it back together to wear to prom!


Roboto Condensed

The final document in the dump is the 2015 Brand Guide, incorporating the “ignition point” and the deconstructed saltire, which has become the “grid” underpinning our provincial identity (not exactly how St. Andrew would have described it, but whatever.)

Frutiger Condensed, which we barely got to know, is discarded in favor of Roboto, Roboto Condensed and PT Serif.

The province now has a “logo” rather than a symbol or an identity mark and, interestingly, for the first time some attention is paid to “words.” The Communications Department has gone so far as to create the wonderfully titled Why Edit?, which is actually an editing guide rather than an invitation to throw spelling and grammar to the four winds. I would love to tell you more about it, but the URL was redacted.

And that completes our overview of 35 years of Nova Scotia brand history.

I trust you did not underestimate my ability to compress 267 pages of documents into one article while remaining generally humble about my success in doing so. I got this done through my innovative thinking. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do —  this potential is not going to ignite itself.



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