Allan Fleming
FEB 04, 2021

The CN Brand

A closer look at the logo that defines CN

When Allan Fleming designed CN’s logo, he said a logo should last at least 50 years.

Fleming’s logo was unveiled in 1960. It's now evident it has withstood the test of time.

Fleming is one of Canada’s best-known design icons. In addition to the CN “worm” as it has been colloquially known, he also designed the Ontario Hydro logo and was the art director for Maclean’s.

Fleming died in 1977 at the age of 48.

We spoke with his eldest daughter Martha Fleming about her father’s enduring legacy and the inspiration for the logo our brand is recognized by.

Martha is based in London, where she is the deputy director of the Victoria and Albert Museum Research Institute, a world-leading museum on the history of design. In the 1950s, her mother and father lived in London, not far from the museum where she works today. Martha’s siblings Peter and Susannah are still living in Toronto, where the family grew up.

As a child, Martha was surrounded by the best of mid-century modernist design. Her father collected famous pieces like the Eames lounger and Braun kitchen appliances. Everywhere there were books about fine printing and examples of typography like street signs and circus posters.

Each of the three of us has elements from that designed environment in our own homes now, and without a doubt, good design sense is part of all of our professions and teaching,” she said.


allan fleming story photo
Allan Fleming and Charlie Harris with new CN insignia,
Toronto Sept. 8, 1961


Designing an Iconic Logo

At the time of CN’s redesign, then head of public relations Dick Wright thought CN needed a fresh, new trademark people would associate with being customer-friendly and technologically savvy.

Wright commissioned New York designer James Valkus to study the brand. After reviewing CN end-to-end, 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 to building exteriors.

The first step of the program was to come up with a logo to communicate the essence of the new CN: powerful, progressive and dynamic. That’s precisely what Allan did.

For months, Allan experimented with possibilities. But, one day, on a flight to New York, the idea struck him. He quickly sketched the idea on a cocktail napkin – and a few moments later CN’s logo was conceived.

Allan joined the letters C and N into one continuous flowing line to symbolize a railroad on the move – rushing straight into the future. As the eye moves from C to N, the image suggests fluidity and motion.

It’s a route line that incidentally spells CN,” Allan explained when presenting the logo. “It represents the movement of people, materials, and messages from one point to another.

Allan’s first interaction with CN was not designing the logo. His father, who died when Allan was young, had been a CN train switchman and a clerk, among other roles.

Martha believes the logo was, on a personal level, homage to Allan’s father.

What inspired him was wide-ranging — the letterforms themselves, the speed and modernity of the trains, a desire to show what graphic design could offer to the expression of a forward-thinking national identity, the opportunity to design the key element of a huge corporate rebranding project working with fantastic colleagues, and a chance to forge a name for himself,” she said of her father’s inspiration.

The logo, she said, is as likely to last as long as rail itself.

An Enduring Legacy

Today, when Fleming sees a train go by, she thinks of her father.

A few years after the logo and new branding were unveiled, Allan was asked to travel across the country to ensure the new branding was properly rolled out according to standard. His family joined him on the journey as they travelled from coast to coast on a CN train, then equipped for passenger travel.

It was an amazing and unforgettable journey — as Allan hopped on and off at all the major stations looking at signage and wayfinding and taking photos with his beloved Rolleiflex camera,” Martha said.

The CN logo is still held up around the world as an example of resilient, captivating branding. Recently, Martha said, she read an interview with the designer who created British Rail’s “double arrow” logo. He said he wanted to do the “British CN.”

Over the course of Allan’s career, he influenced design at organizations like Canada Post, the Design Council and, during his years with MacLaren Advertising, the Liberal Party.

His design pedagogy — both formal and informal — shaped an entire generation of graphic designers in Canada. He was highly and diversely skilled, articulate, administratively and socially adept, disciplined and adaptable, intuitive and rigorous ... and, ultimately, a one-man band even when in a salaried post.”