Graphic Design Class


Neave Watson-Laird’s painted design.

Creative Manhole Covers

When I was in Jerusalem a few years back, I was impressed by their Lion of Judea manhole covers. While chaperoning Merivale High School trips to Italy, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland with colleague Naomi Watson-Laird, I noted the wide variety of manhole covers used in tourist centres.

Back home, I enjoyed Shannon Proudfoot’s article about the redesign of Montreal’s manhole covers ( and decided to design a project for a class I was teaching at the time.


In my grade 11/12 graphic design class, I showed the students a slide presentation featuring manhole cover designs from around the world and paid special attention to ones we could easily visit near our school. We discussed the limitations imposed by the medium, including that the designs would be cast in metal. We talked about the importance of specific icons, signs, and symbols and how they could be incorporated into their artwork, and I emphasized that all artwork had to be linear and without any continuous tone.

The students were free to choose a city or country to inspire their projects, and I encouraged them to consider their personal travel experiences as well as their heritage language when making their choices.

To facilitate the class project, I created an 18-inch diameter PDF circle template with a clean black border and inner series of pale blue concentric circles. This was printed on a sheet of 20×26 inch 130M cover stock and given to each student. Artwork was created using black markers and pens, ink, and black liquitex acrylic paint.

The results exceeded my expectations—the class embraced the project with enthusiasm and generated an impressive variety of solutions. Some of the more noteworthy works included a terrific design by Neave, who parlayed her travel experience to Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany into an extraordinary manhole cover, while Katrina called on her Asian heritage to create a very convincing swan manhole cover for Tokyo, Japan.

For enrichment, we used our Mac Lab, large format Epson scanner and printer to render very convincing, full-size comprehensives using Photoshop’s embossing filters and virtual metallic textures. The class also recognized that although 3D printing was not available to them at school, that technology is now a viable option for many designers.

These projects were mounted on foam core and displayed on the floor— where manholes belong—at our annual art show.

As a graphic design teacher, I have always been inspired by meaningful civic projects. I hope that other Canadian cities will take note and perhaps consider this as a secondary school art project.

For Further Reading


Irv Osterer
Irv has now retired. He was the Department Head of Fine Arts and Technology at Merivale High School in Ottawa from 2000 to 2020.

This article is featured in Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Fall 2022 issue.

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