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Slate & BlackBerry 10
You can take them everywhere

by Allan Haley

Fonts have been tied to technology since Johann Gutenberg popularized moveable type. As technology changed and improved over decades and centuries, type designers and font creators developed new ways to enable the best graphic communication. In recent years, font providers have done a remarkable job of representing words and letters as digital media. Once in a great while, a type design project comes along that allows a font to have extraordinary reach and influence. The new BlackBerry 10 operating system provided such an opportunity.

Originally designed in 2006 for easy reading in print and on screen, the Slate typeface family has found the perfect platform to show its mettle. This sans serif family is a rare combination of refined aesthetics and world-class functionality. While Slate enjoyed wide use in traditional hardcopy media and on the web, it had yet to be put to the test as a legibility and branding font across multiple platforms. Enter BlackBerry (formerly Research In Motion). Now, the new BlackBerry 10 interface, hardware and advertising are all taking advantage of the Slate typeface family’s refinement and versatility, as a key part of the company’s unified brand.

Slate numbers are especially legible and are put to good use on the BlackBerry calendar.

This is not just the story of a well-designed typeface finding a good home. Slate’s development for BlackBerry is also a testimonial to the value of collaboration between art and technology.

The Slate typeface family blends utility with elegance into a powerful communications tool. Its genesis dates back to when Rod McDonald, the family’s designer, was involved in a typeface legibility and readability research project on macular degeneration, conducted by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB). As part of his research, McDonald learned what type design traits were best suited to maximizing character legibility and text readability.

Shortly after his project at CNIB, McDonald designed two proprietary typeface families. He was commissioned to design a large sans serif typeface family for Toronto Life magazine. Although this design was not meant to be a “legibility face,” it provided McDonald with an opportunity to test several ideas he formed as a result of the CNIB project. Concurrently, McDonald developed a sans serif family for Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax. This typeface was primarily intended for use on the college’s website. McDonald was pleased with the results of both projects but, according to him, “I felt that I had only scratched the surface of what I wanted in a sans. I liked the soft, quiet look of the magazine face, and I was also encouraged by my success in drawing a good legibility design for on-screen use.” McDonald recalls, “I wanted to try and create a typeface that would function as well on screen as in print.”

For Slate, McDonald’s goal was to blend these two different designs to create a humanistic sans with extraordinary levels of legibility. Early in the design process, he consulted with the Microsoft Typography team to learn about ClearType technology and how to produce a typeface that would support on-screen applications. Microsoft had developed ClearType to improve the readability of text on liquid crystal displays, such as laptop screens, flat panel monitors and mobile device displays.

“Although, at the time, it was still too early to know if my design would work across the board,” says McDonald, “subsequent testing in both print and on the web was quite positive.” He adds, “I didn’t want a face with an ‘engineered’ look, or with any noticeable design gimmicks or devices. I wanted a pure design. I confess that I was ruthless with any character that wanted to stand out from the rest.”

New BlackBerry 10 touchscreen keyboard on left and physical keyboard on the right.

Available in six weights of roman with complementary italics and a suite of condensed designs, Slate has a wide spectrum of capabilities. According to McDonald, “At the beginning, I built in progressive changes in style from the light to the black weights. The lighter weights were designed primarily for text setting while the bolder weights were drawn to work well at large sizes.”

The first mobile device from Canadian-based BlackBerry was a two-way pager introduced in the late 1990s. BlackBerry launched its widely-known BlackBerry smartphone a few years later—almost singlehandedly revolutionizing the mobile industry. The somewhat whimsical—and now iconic—name refers to the keyboard’s buttons, which resemble the drupelets that make up the blackberry fruit.

Earlier this year with the launch of BlackBerry 10, the company redesigned, reengineered and reinvented itself with a new mobile device, a new operating system and a new name for the company itself: BlackBerry. The Slate typeface family played a key role. Haley
Allan Haley ( is a storyteller and a consultant with expertise in fonts, font technology, type and typographic communication. He held the position of director of words and letters at Monotype for fifteen years and has six books and hundreds of articles to his credit. He is a past president of the Type Directors Club and was executive vice president of International Typeface Corporation.