Focus group research offers inside look at designing ‘Canada 150’ banknote

Earlier this month, Pollara Strategic Insights presented its final report of qualitative research for the Bank of Canada’s soon-to-be-issued Canada 150 banknote.

According to the report, 10 focus groups were hired to evaluate the final design from Aug. 16-25, 2016. Their mission was to analyze every detail of the Canada 150 banknote, which is slated for release on June 1,  and identify any areas of “concern,” such as unintentional errors. Communications messages and prototype educational material on security features were also tested for clarity, content and impact at this time.


After the initial examination, the most common aspects that stood out to participants were (in order of most often mentioned):

  • the banknote’s four portraits instead of the usual single portrait; however, only Sir John A. Macdonald was easily recognized and identified in all groups;
  • the colour-shifting arch, which was recognized as a new feature;
  • the clear window and its metallic features, especially the owl and the coat of arms;
  • the colours in general; especially the mix of vibrant colours such as purple and green; and
  • the landscapes on the back of the note representing Canada’s different regions, with the northern lights, in particular, mentioned as standing out.

According to the report, participants didn’t immediately note any unintentional errors in the design of the banknote during the unprompted examination; however, some “top-of-mind comments” that were heard from most groups include:

  • the exclusion of the tactile feature for blind and partially sighted individuals (proof notes did not include tactile feature or serial number);
  • the colour-shifting arch from the Memorial Chamber of the Peace Tower and Hall of Honour from the Centre Block of Parliament was frequently perceived to represent a church window and a cathedral, respectively;
  • the lack of prominence in regards to elements relating to the 150th anniversary of Confederation; and
  • the perceived lack of Indigenous representation.


In the moderator-led prompted examination, each of the design elements that appear on the note were examined in detail.

Participants were shown examples of unintentional errors on past banknotes, including the 1954 $20 note with a “Devil’s Head” in the Queen’s hair. Each aspect of the Canada 150 note was then examined in detail.

The note’s reverse (shown) depicts five different landscapes representing Canada’s various regions.

“Some minor details on the front portraits, as well as on the back landscape panels, were felt to be unintentional errors, such as a lock of Macdonald’s hair touching Cartier’s portrait,” reads the report. “Certain elements were not immediately recognized and were confused with other symbols, for example the Hall of Honour from the Centre Block of Parliament Hill. Other detailed comments were collected for vignettes, front and back window borders and elements, show‐through, and other design features.

No major issues were reported in the prototype educational pamphlet on security features. The name and description of each of the three security features was clear, easy to understand and described what was seen on the banknote, according to the report.


Colour-shifting Arch from Memorial Chamber of Peace Tower

  • Many saw an optical illusion of some kind.
  • Memorial Chamber arch often associated with a church window.

Portrait of Sir John A. Macdonald

  • Hair on the right side of Macdonald’s face touching Cartier’s ear.
  • Patterns and shadow treatment on his face too dark in places.

Portrait of Sir George-Étienne Cartier

  • Ear on the right not well defined.
  • Eyebrows with one hair in particular sticking up.
  • Seems to have an incomplete bow tie.

Portrait of Agnes Macphail

  • Posture and expression appear different than the other three portraits.
  • Asymmetry in her face (e.g. glasses appear crooked; one eyebrow seems missing or hidden by glasses).
  • Too many different patterns and shading (green) on her face and chin.

Portrait of James Gladstone

  • Looks older compared to the other portraits.
  • Ear on the right appears lost in the background pattern.
  • Lips are one tight line.
  • Unintentional effects from vignette design seen above and beside his face.

Metis Sash Pattern at the Bottom and Top of the Note

  • Easily identified as “ceinture fléchée” in Quebec.
  • In both groups in Winnipeg, mention was made that it might represent a Metis sash or native embroidery.
  • Generally, Metis sash pattern was seen as resembling lightning.

Hall of Honour Vignette

  • Most often perceived to depict a cathedral.
  • Some also believed it might represent the parliament buildings.
  • Lacking definition to show what it represents.
  • Many questioned why the image changed from left to right side of banknote.
  • Many noticed the circles beside and above Gladstone’s head and questioned their meaning or relevance.

Window Border Design

  • 2017 on the top right side is hard to read compared to 1867 on the left side.

Metallic Features Inside the Window

  • The Canada 150 text in the middle of the window was described as an interesting element but hard to see. Would stand out better if it was silver or coloured.
  • Can only read the Canada 150 text from the front. Might also be spelled backward so that it can be read if looking from the back (similar to other elements in the window that can be read from front and back of the banknote).
  • Provinces at the top and bottom noticed and considered positive elements.
  • Many questioned the meaning and relevance of the owl. Not immediately identified as an Indigenous symbol or cultural work.
  • Many commented on the fact that the feet of the owl were not aligned with the rest of its body.

Right Hand Side of the Note

  • Canada 150 logo not recognized. Believed to be a modernized version of Canada’s maple leaf and also a reference to the centennial of Confederation.
  • All groups questioned the inconsistency between the order that English and French standard bank note text is presented.
  • Some commented that the bank note did not appear to have been cut properly at the top and on the right side.
  • Many wondered what the 3/13 (plate position number) at the bottom of the bank note represented.

Show Through from the Obverse

  • White lines from the back of the note show through Macdonald and Cartier’s faces when the bank note is held to the light.
  • Denomination numerals on the front and back of the note do not line up when held to the light.
  • Canada at top of the front and back of the note do not line up when held to the light.


First Landscape Panel on the Far Left: The Lions

  • Image not defined enough to see the different elements (i.e. mountain, trees, water).
  • Participants often mentioned seeing an optical illusion in the middle of the mountain.
  • Dark spot noticed in the middle where the trees and water meet.

Window Border Design

  • Less connection/engagement with the window border design on the back of the note compared to the window border design on the front.
  • The green elements are not well defined. For example, the word CANADA in the top left corner was often not noticed. The maple leaves on the bottom left corner are difficult to discern and the number 10 is not visible to many.

Second Landscape Panel: Wheat Field

  • Good, clear and crisp picture.
  • Clearly represents the Prairie provinces.
  • Some wondered why this picture was a close‐up compared to the other panels that showed a wider perspective.

Third Landscape Panel: Canadian Shield

  • Some participants perceived the water to be a path or grass.
  • Many mentions of an optical illusion in the water, rocks or trees.

Fourth Landscape Panel: East Coast at Cape Bonavista

  • In the context of the rest of the elements of the note, perceived to represent the East coast. Some confusion as to what this picture depicts.

Final Landscape on Far Right: Northern Lights

  • Tree line was noticed but would like to see it bigger or more defined.
  • Northern lights at top and bottom of East Coast Cape Bonavista and Canadian Shield panels show hard lines that stop abruptly to the detriment of the design.

Other Aspects: Security Patterns, Text at the Top, Denomination Numerals

  • Some mentions of the font chosen for the “1” in the denomination numerals as unusual.
  • Questions about the green dots in the security patterns and what they represent.

Show Through from the Reverse

  • Portraits from the front of the note showing through when holding it up to the light.
  • Denomination numerals on the front and back not lined up when holding the bank note up to the light.
  • Canada at top of front and back the note not lined up when holding it up to the light.

The bank is expected to issue 40 million of the new $10 commemorative notes starting June 1. The goal is to have the notes widely circulated by Canada Day.


The focus groups were held at five locations across Canada: Moncton, N.B; Quebec city, Quebec; Toronto, Ont.; Winnipeg, Man.; and Calgary, Alta.

The focus groups were conducted in English with the exception of one group in Moncton and both groups in Quebec, where the discussions were conducted in French. All discussions lasted 90 minutes and included between nine and 10 participants except for one discussion that had seven participants. The entire project included 94 participants out of a possible total of 100. Participants received $75 for participating.

Seven of the 10 focus groups included members of the general population. The other three focus groups comprised cash handlers—individuals whose jobs require them to handle cash on a daily basis. Recruitment for each general population group was carried out to include a mix of men and women from different age groups, education levels, family income and backgrounds, including:

  • at least two individuals between the ages of 18 and 24;
  • at least two individuals who self‐identified as a visual minority;
  • at least two individuals who have been living in Canada less than 10 years; and
  • at least one Indigenous Canadian.

To read the full official report, click here.


Starting in June, the bank will issue 40 million of these commemorative notes and distribute them through financial institutions to be broadly available across Canada by July 1.

The Canada 150 note will circulate alongside the current Polymer series $10 note but does not replace it. Both the current $10 note and the commemorative $10 note are of equal value and can be used interchangeably in transactions.

As announced in December, human rights and freedoms icon Viola Desmond will be featured on a new $10 note, which will mark another historic first: Desmond will become the first Canadian woman to be featured on a regularly circulating Bank of Canada bank note, expected in late 2018.


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