Don was born in Calgary in 1947. In 1969, he abandoned an early career driving tractor-trailer rigs to attend what is now Emily Carr Institute of Art & Design. He graduated in 1972, and because, as he says, he “didn’t know any better,” immediately opened his own design business. It soon developed a client base made up in roughly equal parts of corporate clients in the forestry and resource sector and arts and cultural organizations. The latter included the Vancouver Childrens’ Festival, Vancouver Folk Music Festival, Vancouver New Music Society, Vancouver Art Gallery, Equinox Gallery, Burnaby Art Gallery, Surrey Art Gallery, the Alcan Lecture Series on Architecture and the Environment, Vancouver Playhouse Theatre, and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.
Don was amongst the Vancouver designers who came together in the mid seventies to form the Graphic Artists Guild. The name is interesting. Don explains that “it reflected both the self-understanding of an older generation of practitioners who thought of themselves first and foremost as artists and craftsmen, illustrators, calligraphers and so on, and the fact that young and old, we were all working with techniques and technology that had not significantly changed in a long time: the ability to draw a half point ruled border with perfectly radiused corners was an essential skill; type, which was still being set with hot lead, had to be specified to fit to the precise number of lines in a 60 page book or it all had to be set again; “comps” for presentation were painstakingly executed multimedia replicas in chalk, coloured pencil, marker, ink, paint and graphite.” When he insisted that he was a designer, not an artist—commercial or otherwise—Don says he drew blank looks, not only from family, friends and clients, but from many colleagues as well.
Shortly after its formation, the Graphic Artists Guild amalgamated with the newly founded Society of Graphic Designers of Canada. Don believes that it was this that gave credibility to the notion that the fledgeling GDC was a national organization, and he has always held that the designers of the Graphic Artists Guild were therefore founding members of the GDC—and that this ought to be formally recognized in the histories of our organization. Don went on to become BC Chapter President in 1983 and National President from 1987 to 1990.
Like many Vancouver designers, Don was heavily involved in Expo 86. Consulting and exhibit design projects included the Canada Pavilion. Don was a member of the multi-disciplinary team of scientists, artists, scholars and four designers that was brought together to conceptualize and schematically design the pavilion. The firm in which he was then a partner, Vancouver Design Team Limited, went on to participate in the development of the Pavilion design. Don’s involvement focused on the design of the Earthwatch and Arctic multi-media theatres. In 1989 Vancouver Design Team Limited merged with KARO Design Resources Inc., and Don became a partner at KARO. In 1993, he left to re-establish his own firm, Don Dickson & Associates Inc., which focuses on corporate identity and communications work, primarily for law firms. The firm remains small by design, but expanded its capabilities and reach in 1997 by entering into a strategic alliance with the Montreal’s BBC4.
Don was a member of the GDC’s national executive for eight years and then served for a number of years as the GDC’s representative to the Alliance for Canadian Design, a Human Resources Development Canada Working Group developing human resources and industrial strategies for the Canadian design industry.
Don’s interests extend beyond graphic design. In 1996, in association with architect Peter Cardew, he developed a mixed-use residential building in Vancouver for which they received a Lieutenant Governor’s Medal for Excellence in Architecture. He also owns, with wife and partner Joyce Chang, a successful specialty foods retail business and is a popular cooking instructor.
Regarding the GDC, Don says “I have always believed in its importance as a national organization. Graphic design is by far the largest of the design professions in this country, the quality of our work is internationally recognized and we have made, and continue to make, a disproportionate contribution to the leadership of the global design community through Icograda. The GDC has a responsibility to provide leadership not only to the professional discipline of graphic design, but to the entire Canadian design community.”