Sometimes the client asks you to design an award. And sometimes you return with a full-fledged brand. Given the breadth of celebration and depth of meaning that the Dhahan Prize stands for, we took the chance to manifest an identity they would cherish with every new recipient. What emerged from our work was a challenge to and a new perspective on familial love, cultural pride and Punjabi identification.
The Dhahan Prize
Those who leave a homeland in exchange for new life in Canada know the power that resides in their own mothertongue. In 2013 to a packed house of honourable attendees, Barj Dhahan spoke of his sisters, his mother, his aunts and the other strong women that inspired him to launch the The Dhahan International Prize for Punjabi Literature. This award was more than a mere testament to his heritage. Despite the separation caused by emigration, Barj envisioned a unification of the values that kept Punjabi Canadians rooted to a language that connected them. When we had the opportunity to work with Barj a year later, it was this depth of lineage and communication that we integrated into the identity and soul of The Dhahan Prize.
An Act Of Love
During his speech, Barj left the academic realm, shied away from the functional necessities the award served and delved into the intensely personal connection it stood for. Not only did this award attempt to bring together the dispersed diaspora of Punjab, but it also indirectly served as a means of historical healing for the community. Carried through his childhood to today as a husband and father, Barj’s expression of love has been reinforced through his language. His way of giving back this feeling of home, safety and care was through the creation of The Dhahan Prize.
This is what we recognized and integrated into the design of The Dhahan Prize by strengthening the identity, stepping away from orientalism, balancing the three scripts and acknowledging our relationship to the land and its people.
What’s In A Name?
When Barj and his team approached us, they were known as The Dhahan International Prize for Punjabi Literature. Not only was the name quite the mouthful, but it also caused a plethora of problems, such as the use of the abbreviation DIPLP, which interrupted the brand identity. The name also posed phonetic issues for Gurmukhi and Shahmukhi translations. We led the conversation with a solution focused on simplicity. ‘International’ was frankly a redundant claim when it was so clearly a prize that targeted the Punjabi diaspora, which led to the removal of ‘Punjabi Literature’ as well. By stripping down the formalities around the name, we were left with a bare and beautiful title that completely captured the essence: The Dhahan Prize.
Stepping Away From Orientalism
The first brainstorming notes were scribbles of ideas from Creative Director, Michael Parks. In his attempt to get well acquainted with Punjabi culture, he came across the imagery of the five rivers of Punjab, looked through countless needlework and analyzed traditional motifs. He realized quite quickly that there was a problematic pattern. “If you actually Google Punjab, your results focus on the Golden Temple and turban-wearing Sikhs,” he explained, “even with the colours, blue and orange were the expected palettes to use”.
Together with Director of Strategy, Mo Dhaliwal, the decision was made early on to avoid the tokenizing and narrow view of Punjabi culture in the branding, rather the imagery could still acknowledge these important roots. Our aim was for The Dhahan Prize to thread together the complexity and diversity of Punjabis, whether they were atheists, Christians, Hindus or Muslims. “This was more about finding the right fit for the Punjabi diaspora who together occupy a space of the imagined Punjab,” Mo emphasized.
The Balancing of Three Scripts
The Dhahan Prize showcased literary work in Shahmukhi and Gurmukhi and was accompanied by English translations. Being an international prize however, whose Founder is Punjabi-Canadian, presented a risk of thinking in “English first”. Our aim was to make all scripts accessible without making it seem like Gurmukhi and Shahmukhi were afterthoughts to our design. “Being an incredibly linear person, I thought, well obviously everything will have to be justified and centred,” Mo laughed, “gratefully, I am not responsible for the creative direction and what we arrived at was something quite different.”
Our solution was found in the power of three. By creating a three-sided prism for the prize we utilized the triangular body to ditch any notions of primary, secondary or tertiary significance. Simultaneous design of the individual logos ensured that all scripts had equal weight and there was no demotion of one over the other. The website design also maintained balance in the way it toggles between all three languages without hierarchy.
Any one of the three scripts can be used alone or all three scripts can be used together to create a balanced and diverse representation of the brand identity.
The Harmony of Heritage
Although the balance of scripts ensured equality in the literary nature of the prize, Barj still had an identity in being Punjabi-Canadian. He hoped to establish a bond between both sides of the hyphen. Our decision to choose the baaz, or the Hawk, feather as the symbol for The Dhahan Prize was purposeful in creating such a harmony.
The baaz captured the feeling of flight as it represented the physical distance between the communities and, yet, it created unity as an important symbol to both Punjabi and First Nations cultures.
The baaz is the official bird of Punjab and is honoured for its intelligence. By using the baaz feather as the symbol for the prize we acknowledged the founding of the prize on Coast Salish Territories.
The long connected history of the two communities as vulnerable populations is revealed in Punjabi documents and letters home, referring to the First Nations people as ‘Taike’. The literal translation of the term is a family member through marriage from father’s side—the symbolism, however, is akin to an elder brother. “You might not know them well, you might not get along with them,” Mo explains, “But you put them first and what they decide, you respect.”
Meanwhile, the use of wood for the prize paid homage to the deeply rooted relationship the Punjabi community on the West Coast had to this element. Through the long and withstanding involvement in the lumber industry rose a motivational idiom, chak de phatte, which literally translates to ‘pick up the boards’. Figuratively, the term is similar to “go get ‘em”, appearing in literature and letters shortly after a decade of settlement. “You can’t draw a direct correlation and prove that this is what happened,” Mo explained, “but it’s a pretty huge coincidence and one we wanted to incorporate into our work.” The Black Canadian Walnut in our design served as a tribute to the language and a testament to the history of the land.
Once in a while, whether on the way to our kitchen or in between client meetings, we can’t help but pick up our replica of the Dhahan Prize and reminisce on its development. The weight it carries is made up of all the little decisions we made along the way but seeing the Dhahan Prize brings back the words and wisdom of Barj: “There are 7,000 languages in the world. Each language carries its own knowledge, its own spirituality, and its own cultural and intellectual richness. Each language isn’t just a way of speaking. It’s also a way of listening.”