A logo is more than just a picture. It is a symbol of a company’s identity. It defines its character. The best logos send a message to customers about a company’s values, create brand loyalty and become synonymous with the organization. The CN logo represents qualities CN values: efficiency, fluidity, openness and, most of all, service excellence.
They’ve come a long way. As their business has changed, so has their logo. Through the years, they have used a series of logos on our trains, signs and stationery to make a distinctive statement about CN. Here’s your chance to see how their logo has evolved over time, representing the best of CN at every turn.
1852: Grand Trunk Railway
CN's logo dates back to the birth of Canada’s first major railroad, the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR), a line that eventually joined others to form CN.
Built originally to link Montreal and Toronto in the 1850s, GTR saw its future as an international railroad serving markets on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border — a feat that it accomplished within a decade.
Logo train of thought
The logo of Grand Trunk Railway truthfully proclaimed that the Grand Trunk ran a “Great International Route.” This boast would become even more telling when GTR pushed a line through to Chicago in the early 1880s and opened the first St. Clair Tunnel between Sarnia and Port Huron in 1891.
1883: Intercolonial Railway
Built during the 1870s, Intercolonial Railway (ICR), a railroad that eventually joined others to form CN, linked Nova Scotia and New Brunswick with Quebec.
Logo train of thought
Never a commercial success despite its economic importance, its logo proudly dubbed the line the “People's Railway” and adopted the moose as its trademark in 1883.
Why the moose? For ICR, it was the moose's superiority in the animal kingdom and, in turn, its ability to hold its own against all rivals in its domain.
1896: Grand Trunk Railway System
Under new general manager Charles Melville Hays, the Grand Trunk Railway adopted a more aggressive management style in 1896 — and a new logo to express the change.
Hays set about modernizing, energizing and expanding the rather stodgy British-owned railroad. Riding on a spirit of optimism, Hays renamed the venerable railroad "Grand Trunk Railway System" to reflect its far-flung interests and ambitions.
Logo train of thought
The new logo featured a so-called "tilted wafer": the company name on a square tilted nine degrees downward to the left, presumably an eye-catching device to convey motion. However, the logo's simple lines didn't please everyone. One observer thought it was “the most prosaic” of the major Canadian railroad logos.
1899: Canadian Northern Railway
The Canadian Northern Railway sprang from the ambitions of two energetic, small-town-Ontario rail promoters, William Mackenzie and Donald Mann.
After acquiring a couple of small Manitoba lines in the mid-1890s, Mackenzie and Mann incorporated the Canadian Northern in 1899 and began expanding rapidly both east and west.
By October 1918, Canadian Northern had fallen victim to its own ambitions and economic forces beyond its control. Beset by declining revenue, rising costs and lack of capital during World War I, it teetered for a time on the brink of bankruptcy.
Canadian Northern was taken over by the Canadian government in August 1917 — only to become one of CN’s constituent lines in 1919.
1905: Grand Trunk Pacific
At the turn of the century, Canada was riding high on an economic boom. Confined to eastern Canada, the Grand Trunk Railway under expansion-minded Charles Hays felt boxed in and longed for a piece of the action.
Meanwhile, the government was convinced that Canada needed and could easily support at least one more transcontinental rail line. A second coast-to-coast railroad would also break Canadian Pacific's monopoly in the west.
So Grand Trunk and the government got together to construct a third east-west line. GTR incorporated a subsidiary, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (GTP), in 1903, which would run between Winnipeg and Prince Rupert. The government, meanwhile, would build the eastern portion, known as the National Transcontinental Railway (NTR), from Winnipeg to Moncton.
Logo train of thought
GTP's logo derived from its parent's "tilted wafer" style. It bore the words "The Only All-Canadian Transcontinental Route" — perhaps an act of one-upmanship over rival Canadian Pacific, which reached its eastern terminus via the state of Maine.
A similar tilted wafer with the slogan “The Transcontinental Line” was also used to identify the GTP/NTR system. But like Canadian Northern, GTP came to grief during the economic turmoil of World War I. The Canadian government nationalized the property in 1919.
1915: Canadian Government Railways
The term Canadian Government Railways (CGR) was a catch-all phrase used to describe a group of railroads owned by the government of Canada in the early part of the 20th century.
Each of the railroads making up CGR was managed independently. In 1915 the group included:
- The Intercolonial Railway (government-owned since its inception in 1867)
- The National Transcontinental Railway (also government-owned from its start in the early 1900s)
- The Prince Edward Island Railway (taken over soon after Prince Edward Island joined Confederation in 1873)
- The yet-to-be-completed Hudson Bay Railway (a government-propelled project all along).
To these ranks the Canadian Northern Railway was added in September 1917, shortly after a government takeover.
Logo train of thought
Canadian Government Railways had a simple logo, but apart from that unifying device, the line had a shadowy existence with very little real substance or organization.
1919: Canadian National Railways
The name "Canadian National Railways" first appeared officially on December 20, 1918, when the government authorized that term as a descriptive name for the various properties that made up Canadian Government Railways — principally, Canadian Northern, National Transcontinental and Intercolonial.
Six months later, on June 6, 1919, Parliament passed legislation to incorporate the Canadian National Railway Company Limited — and CN was born. The following year, the Grand Trunk Pacific was added the line-up, giving the new railroad two transcontinental networks.
Logo train of thought
With so many component parts, each with its own strong identity, CN struggled to craft a single, recognizable face to show the world. During the first few years, it took the easy way out and used two different logos, each one mimicking the trademark of a predecessor railroad. Equipment and sign painters simply replaced the "Northern" in the Canadian Northern logo and the "Government" in the Canadian Government Railways logo with the word “National.” A practical and economical solution, perhaps, but it did little to foster a clear conception of the new railroad in the public’s mind.
The two logos CN used during this period were usually printed in black or white according to the desired contrast with the background.
1923: Canadian National Railways
The finishing touch to the creation of Canadian National Railways came early in 1923 when the Grand Trunk Railway joined the system after a government takeover some three years earlier. That event quickly led to a unified corporate image for the new railroad, one it would display with few major alterations for 38 years.
Logo train of thought
CN abandoned the stop-gap solutions of its first few years and introduced a single design to represent the entire company. But like the two earlier versions, the new logo reflected CN's parentage — this time, the Grand Trunk and its familiar “tilted wafer.”
At first, CN used a square-shaped wafer, just as GTR did. Then, in 1927, the square became a rectangle, presumably to accommodate longer yet fewer words.
The red used in the logo was CN No. 10, which is close to Pantone 200c. The lettering was gold on equipment, for which there is no good Pantone equivalent. In print, however, the yellow employed to represent gold was close to Pantone 115c.
1943: Canadian National Railways
During much of the first decade, President Sir Henry Thornton had led the company with great panache, expanding into fields as diverse as radio broadcasting, resort hotels and ocean liners. Then came the Crash of 1929. While business plummeted and hostile politicians clamoured for an end to the publicly owned system and its "extravagance," CN stumbled through much of the Dirty Thirties.
But when World War II broke out in 1939, CN seized the opportunity to demonstrate its value to the nation. It performed prodigiously in the war effort, turning handsome profits as well.
Logo train of thought
The first significant change to CN's logo came in 1943, 20 years after it had been adopted. In a sense, the modified logo symbolized the railroad truly coming into its own and hitting stride after two decades of struggling to define its role.
Buoyed by patriotism and a new sense of mission, CN superimposed the tilted wafer on a maple leaf, creating a new logo with built-in flexibility. First applied to a new batch of boxcars in 1943, the logo featured "CNR" above the wafer, while the slogan "Serves All Canada" replaced "Canadian National" on the wafer.
Variations on the theme would appear in later years — different colour schemes and alternate slogans, such as "Canada's Largest Railway." CN continued to use an unadorned wafer for some applications, but for the most part, the instantly recognizable maple leaf and the nearly ubiquitous slogan "Serves All Canada" became synonymous with Canadian National.
The maple leaf was Green No. 12, for which Pantone 363c is a good match. The rest of the logo usually appeared in white against whatever the background colour was: brown on boxcars (Pantone 174c) or orange on cabooses (Pantone 166c).
1954: Canadian National Railways
Emerging exhausted from the extreme demands of World War II, CN badly needed modernizing and energizing if it was to hold its own against growing car and truck competition. Donald Gordon, who became president in 1950, was just the man for the job.
Gordon transformed the railroad from the ground up, replacing steam with diesel power, introducing computer technology, restoring the worn-out freight car fleet, and recruiting and training a highly skilled management team.
Logo train of thought
CN was changing rapidly — but the changes were happening largely beneath the surface, virtually invisible to the public eye. Yet CN initiated just one relatively minor modification to its corporate symbol during the 1950s, barely reflecting the immense progress underway.
In 1954, to mark the arrival of new passenger cars equipped with unprecedented amenities, CN eliminated the wafer's tilt and redrew it as a straight square on the maple leaf. As changes go, it was hardly dramatic — but it did have the virtue of being easier to apply to CN's mammoth locomotives and railcars.
The maple leaf was CN Red No. 10 (Pantone 200c), the wafer was black and the lettering simulated gold (Pantone 115c).
"An icon," said media guru Marshall McLuhan of CN's new logo not long after it was created in 1960. "Still one of our most enduring marketing icons," said ad agency creative director Chris Staples in 1999, on the eve of the logo's 40th anniversary. Indeed 99% of all Canadians recognize the logo and associate it with CN, according to leading Canadian pollster Angus Reid.
How did CN's path-breaking symbol come to be? And why has it stood the test of time through four decades of enormous cultural and technological change?
The story begins in 1959 when a revitalized and confident CN surveyed Canadians attitudes to see how it measured up in the public mind. The findings came as a great shock: when people thought of CN, they pictured an "old-fashioned," "backward" organization, hostile to innovation — the very opposite of what the company was trying to achieve.
Dick Wright, head of public relations at the time, firmly believed that “seeing is believing.” If CN had a fresh new trademark, he reasoned, people would be more likely to think of it as the customer-friendly, technologically advanced railroad it was rapidly becoming. Wright commissioned New York designer James Valkus to study the problem. Valkus became convinced that what CN needed was not just a new trademark but a complete overhaul of its visual image — from locomotive paint schemes and building exteriors right down to the sugar packets used on passenger trains.
A new logo would be the heart of the redesign program. It had to be perfect from both an aesthetic and a practical point of view. It had to communicate the essence of the new CN: powerful, progressive, dynamic. Valkus assigned the challenge to Allan Fleming a young and highly regarded Canadian graphic designer. After experimenting with countless possibilities, Fleming hit on a particularly inspired design while sitting on a New York-bound airplane. He quickly sketched the idea on a cocktail napkin — and CN's logo was conceived.
It was a dramatic contrast to the existing image. Out went the maple leaf, out went the time-worn wafer. Indeed, out went the "CNR." Fleming had come up with a way of combining the "C" and the "N" in a harmonious, evocative manner. Abolishing the "R" made the logo bilingual ("Canadien national" as well as "Canadian National"). Without the "R" for "Railways", the logo could be used as a unifying mark that would also serve the many non-rail businesses CN ran at the time — hotels, telecommunications and ferry services, to name a few.
Fleming avoided literal symbols — no animals or vegetables allowed — because they tend to show their age very quickly. As Fleming put it: "A literal drawing in 1944 of an object — even a plant leaf — looks in 1954 as if it was drawn in 1944. After five, 10 or 15 years, that symbol would have to be revised. In fact, CN itself has had that history up to now — of constantly revising its trademark bit by bit — and every time it has been revised the one before it is out of date, and it costs a lot of money and a lot of hard work to keep ahead of the game."
While conceptualizing the future, Fleming drew on the past for the kind of image that would convey timelessness. Studying the Christian cross and the Egyptian symbol for life, he borrowed the idea of using a line of single thickness. "The single thickness stoke is what makes the symbol live," Fleming later said. "Anything else would lack the immediacy and vigor."
The continuous flowing line symbolized "the movement of people, materials, and messages from one point to another," Fleming said. As the eye moves from "C" to "N," the image suggests fluidity and motion. "It's a route line that incidentally spells CN," Fleming explained.
Along with the new logo came a bold new colour scheme: bright primary colours and simple patterns for equipment interiors and exteriors, signage, buildings inside and out, and everything else visible to the eye.
When CN unveiled the logo and redesign program in January 1961 to employees through the company magazine, it explained: "Our single biggest need is to overcome the notion that we haven't kept pace with the times. No industry can afford to invest a billion dollars in product development without giving some attention to the packaging in which the product is marketed. Visual redesign simply amounts to restyling our package to suit and do justice to the contents."
The new logo was an instant hit with employees and the public, quickly becoming a pace-setter in the design world.
But let's leave the last word to designer Allan Fleming, who unfortunately would not live to see his own prophecy borne out. He died in 1977, just 17 years after observing: "I think this symbol will last for 50 years at least. I don't think it will need any revision, simply because it is designed with the future in mind. Its very simplicity guarantees its durability."
The CN logo represents qualities CN values: efficient point-to-point connections, smooth flow of traffic, clarity of purpose, openness and the future. Above all, it is CN's symbol of quality service.
CN's logo today is red (Pantone 485). When it is not possible to reproduce the logo in red, black or white is acceptable.
Allan Fleming – Creator of CN’s Logo
Allan Fleming was barely 30 when he was recruited to come up with a fresh new logo for CN. Yet the young Canadian designer had already made a name for himself with the bold, lyrical quality of his graphic designs.
Born in Toronto in 1929, Fleming followed a rather unorthodox route to professional excellence. He left art studies at Toronto's Western Technical School at 16 to work as a kind of apprentice designer at various firms in the city. Then came further learning experiences in England, where he gleaned as much as he could from leading figures in the design world. Back in Canada, he joined the typographic firm Cooper and Beatty Ltd. in 1957 and was working there when the CN opportunity came his way in 1959.
Fleming left Cooper and Beatty in 1962 to become art director for Maclean's magazine. He was vice-president and director of creative services at MacLaren Advertising from 1963 to 1968, chief designer at the University of Toronto Press until 1976, then joined Burns and Cooper.
Fleming's work won him numerous awards throughout his career, not only in Canada but in the United States and at the international level. Yet he is no doubt best remembered as the creator of CN's logo. The inspired design certainly entrenched his reputation as one of Canada's most talented designers. At the same time, it heightened the profile of his profession, opening the way to greater creativity in countless design applications across the country.
Allan Fleming died after a long illness on December 31, 1977, at just 48.
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