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Slate & BlackBerry 10
You can take them everywhere

by Allan Haley

“Slate was a perfect fit for BlackBerry 10,” says Don Lindsay, BlackBerry’s vice president of user experience. “The design aligns with our core design principles. The subtle stroke detail lends an organic aesthetic to the typeface that makes the UI feel more approach-able and less mechanical. The fact that Slate was created by Rod McDonald, an award-winning typeface designer who also happens to be Canadian, brought additional value and a greater level of nationalistic authenticity to our brand.”

Home-screen icons (left) take advantage of Slate's legibility, and it reads well at very small sizes (right).

And the integration of Slate wasn’t limited to the mobile device. When asked about the inclusion of Slate in the company’s re-imaging, Lindsay confirms, “Multi-platform use was part of the original goal, but we had not anticipated how adaptable and influential Slate would be on BlackBerry 10. It’s now completely interwoven into our DNA and translates from the UI, to the hardware, even to packaging and marketing collateral.”

Lindsay offers four suggestions to user experience (UX) designers regarding the choice of typeface designs. “The first thing is to study and understand the anatomy of typeface design. Second, learn to pick out the attributes that will facilitate on-screen reading, such as a generous X-height, distinct characters shapes and open terminals. Third, test fonts to evaluate their quality in both native and non-core rendering environments. You want to be sure the glyphs won’t collapse and hinder readability at any size. Finally, if non-Latin fonts are required, verify that they share similar character metrics, proportions and design personalities.”

Developing the Slate fonts for BlackBerry required a true melding of art and technology, but the process did not involve making any substantive changes to the typeface design. According to Steve Matteson, creative type director at Monotype, “The folks at BlackBerry understood the value of providing readable, welcoming text within the user interface. They knew not to squeeze normal proportioned text into small buttons and therefore accepted that they would need condensed styles of the typeface. They also chose not to attempt shortcut tricks in their rendering environment to squeeze text or make it pseudo-bold. BlackBerry wanted a polished, high-quality product.”

“At times we need to make subtle changes to a typeface design to improve its readability levels in on-screen environments,” Matteson continues. “We didn’t make any design changes to Slate. One of the beauties of the typeface was the openness and nicely spaced design which worked right out of the box.” All the Slate fonts for the BlackBerry, however, were hand hinted and technologically optimized for the best viewing experience.

The biggest design challenge was the global linguistic demands put on the BlackBerry operating system. Greek, Cyrillic and Vietnamese are only three of the myriad language requirements. “These writing systems must be designed to harmonize with the Latin portion of the font data,” points out Matteson. “Slate’s original English and European letterforms were referenced in the design of the character set extensions, but we made virtually no changes to the original design.”

Bedside (left) and alarm (right) clock.

Lindsay concurs, “The most difficult part of incorporating Slate into the OS was having to design, map, integrate and test an expanded character set while maintaining a fluid and harmonized font experience between our default and multilingual scripts—all of this on a very aggressive production schedule.”

Matteson elaborates, “Adding over 10,000 characters to an existing suite of typefaces requires coordinated teamwork for consistency across typeface styles. The most complicated element, however, was coordinating the design work to meet a difficult deadline. The fonts had to be completed well in advance of the BlackBerry 10 product in order to adequately test the integrity of the font data. The actual design work—extending the character sets—is very familiar territory to us. Really, it was the sheer volume of work that was the most daunting.”

McDonald reflects, “We are at a stage in the digital realm where the display quality of devices like the new BlackBerry allow us to use typefaces with the assurance of high-quality rendering. I can’t think of a better time to be a type designer.” ca 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.