The Design of Currency

Of course I was inspired by our reading this week.  What caught my eye was a passage about R.D.E. Oxenaar.  A Dutch graphic designer who w was selected by the Nederlandsche Bank to redesign some currency.  This really caught my interest because I’d been to Amsterdam just before the big move to the Euro back in 2001 and the Dutch Guilder – the currency at the time – was gorgeous!  I wish I still had some of the paper money.  There was an image in our text book of a 50 guilder note, it was so pretty.   Here’s a picture I found one on Google:

50 Guilder Note from the Netherlands pre-Euro.
50 Guilder Note from the Netherlands pre-Euro.

The bill is so colorful, bright yellows with a bold sunflower and a bee.  It was my first trip abroad and I’d never been exposed to different currency.  The bills were different sizes and different colors.  I thought how dull ours in the US were.

To see this specific 50 Guilder note in my text book, took me right back to Amsterdam and it made me so happy that I greedily read all that my text book had to say about it.

According to our text, Meggs p.495, “In 1965 R.D.E Oxenaar, was selected to design Dutch paper currency.”  I guess he didn’t like the first bank note he created because he negotiated to have more control over the subsequent bank note designs.  Oxenaar was particular about his design process including technologies that incorporated safeguards against counterfeiting as well as making sure the banknotes were easy to use and identifiable.  In 1978 Oxenaar was approached to design the new 100 Guilder note and allowed to choose the subject.  Oxenaar chose a waterbird called a Snipe to which the public had an overwhelmingly positive response.  From there he was given further liberties in bank note designs.  Each having their own main color and theme.

With all of that said, Have you ever thought about money?  Rather have you ever looked at it?  I mean really looked at your paper money?  American currency is pretty dull compared to most paper currency around the world, but when you really look at it, even though it’s not super colorful and there aren’t a lot of different sizes to the bills.  The design on a U.S. $10.00 note is pretty cool.  With the large bust of The Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton – who was later shot by Aaron Burr – along with a large red mark of the torch of Lady Liberty to one side of Hamilton’s bust with a smaller copper embossed torch on the opposite side of the bust.  The opening line of the Constitution of Independence emblazoned in red ink and an Old English type among a myriad of details.  The more you look the more you see… go ahead pull out your wallet and look.

US $10.00 Bank Note Front
US $10.00 Bank Note Front

Then turn the bill over and check out the back side of the bill.  You see an incredibly detailed image of the treasury building.

US $10 Bank Note Back
US $10 Bank Note Back

Do you see all the pretty details?  Look at all of the scroll work around the edges. you can see the embossing on the bills are raised.  Hold the bill up to a light source and you can see the water marks.  They are quite beautiful in their own minimalist way.

Each design element was thoughtfully placed for a particular reason.  Each font carefully chosen.  I looked but I couldn’t find how long it took to design these notes.

Here’s a blast from the past.  I bet you haven’t seen one of these in a while…

US $2 Bank Note Front
US $2 Bank Note Front
US $2 Bank Note Back
US $2 Bank Note Back

I always save these when I come across them, more for novelty than anything else.  I don’t even think that the $2.00 bill is in circulation any more anyway.

While I was searching to find out the name or names of the designers who redesigned the banknotes that have been appearing over the last decade  –  a fruitless effort by the way – I did discover something I found interesting.

Designer, Travis Purrington, volunteered to redesign the USD, to look more like the world compatriots, the full article can be read here Travis Purrington Volunteers to Redesign the US Dollar Bill, unfortunately the offer didn’t seem to be accepted – nor was it expected to be.  I found the concept they use in Switzerland, where Purrington currently resides, quite interesting.  Switzerland, famously THE banking center of the world.  Who hasn’t heard of a Swiss bank account?  The Swiss are fiscally shrewd and cutting edge in the banking business as such money is a very serious matter.  That said Switzerland holds competitions every 20 years to redesign their currency – thus keeping their money and their identity – one could even look at it like a corporate or home identity – fresh.  Pretty ingenious.  Or as designer Paula Scher might consider it keeps the work serious rather than solemn.

Any way, back to Purrington.  He did a whole series of mock-ups of what he thought the US banknotes could look like, choosing themes that related to the US.  They weren’t as bright and colorful as the Guilder but it was a concept that could have worked.  Of course it wasn’t taken seriously because the us isn’t serious.  It’s still solemn as a whole.  Regardless, Purrington’s whole point of submitting the design was to open a dialogue.  As he pointed out in the article noted above, the original congress didn’t even want the President’s images on the original currency.  Interesting how things change isn’t it?

For further comparison and contrast I wanted to share some photos of other currency that I have collected from my travels.  Some of the prettier money are the Eastern Caribbean Dollar, the French Polynesian Franc, and the Belgian Franc which is now on the Euro.

My favorite is the Franc Pacifique or the French Polynesian Franc that I brought home from Tahiti.  I wish my bill was crisper and prettier but it has obviously been in circulation for a while – and had probably been swimming a few times too.

French Polynesian Franc 500 Front
French Polynesian Franc 500 Front
French Polynesian Franc 500
French Polynesian Franc 500

I’m not sure if I picked up my Eastern Caribbean Dollar in Antigua or Nevis as this currency is circulated on both islands and I’ve been to both.  By the way, if you ever get to Antigua you have to try the Wadadli beer it’s awesome.  I really wish they would export it!

Back to the topic at hand, the Eastern Caribbean Dollar appeals to my inner magpie for a couple of reasons… I love the foil treatement on the upper right corner next to the queens profile… Except in the photo it look more like a grey stamp.

Eastern Caribbean Dollar $50 Front of note
Eastern Caribbean Dollar $50 Front of note

While on the back in the middle from the top to the bottom there are tropical fish in a golden iridescent embossed ink… but no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get the fish to show on my camera phone.

Eastern Caribbean Dollar $50 Back of note
Eastern Caribbean Dollar $50 Back of note

And lastly I would like to share photo’s of my Belgian Franc.  A pre-euro bank note.

Belgian Franc 100 Front of note
Belgian Franc 100 Front of note
Belgian Franc 100 back of note
Belgian Franc 100 back of note

Any way, while my thoughts are a bit jumbled up this week about currency design.  I wanted to express that as much as I looked and searched – and perhaps I didn’t search in the correct places – I was unable to locate exactly who was designing the US banknotes.  I’ll have to file that away for further research because I think it would be interesting to know.  Everything has a specific purpose on currency from durability to counterfeit prevention, to aesthetics.  There’s a lot to designing money.  People should be more aware of currency designers.  I’m just sayin.

2 thoughts on “The Design of Currency”

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