Behind the vertical design of Canada’s award-winning $10 bill

Notice anything unusual?
Notice anything unusual?
Image: Courtesy Bank of Canada
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Canada’s $10 bill has had a bit of a face-lift. The iridescent purple note, issued in November of last year, is the only one so far to feature either a person of color or a non-royal woman. What’s more, it’s vertical.

If the note looks a little unusual to you, you’re not alone. Its orientation is relatively uncommon among banknotes, though the format has been used before in countries including Bermuda, Switzerland, Colombia, and Venezuela.

Design firm Dowling Duncan, who have previously advocated for vertical US banknotes, claims that it’s simply more practical to be oriented that way: “When we researched how notes are used we realized people tend to handle and deal with money vertically rather than horizontally. You tend to hold a wallet or purse vertically when searching for notes. The majority of people hand over notes vertically when making purchases. All machines accept notes vertically. Therefore a vertical note makes more sense.”

Whether or not that’s true, the Bank of Canada’s decision was not based on any particular technical reason, a spokesperson told Quartz. Instead, she said, the change is “essentially because it’s a good way to really put forward and frame the portrait of Viola Desmond, which is quite fitting, considering that it’s the first time a Canadian woman has appeared on a Canadian banknote.” Desmond was a black Canadian businesswoman and civil rights advocate, who received a pardon in 2010 after being convicted for tax violation in 1946 for refusing to leave a whites-only area of a Nova Scotia cinema.

In addition to making her picture stand out, the vertical orientation was “a good way to distinguish it” from earlier notes, the bank spokesperson said. With each new set of banknotes, “we try to innovate.” They will be using the format for the next four notes in the series, according to an International Bank Note Society report on the $10 bill, which was this week named banknote of the year.

The bank’s publicity materials for the note promoted it as having “a new direction.” “Time for change” might have been every bit as apt a slogan.