Since I started designing banknotes, I’ve given numerous talks on the subject. A lot people say to me “so there’s actually people who design money? I never knew!” Given that this is a highly niche area, where art, design, print numerous other processes converge, I’ve found the most accessible way to introduce the subject to people is to simply talk about why I like it.
I know these reasons well…
Banknotes are both an art and a forensic science; banknote design is mathematical, methodical, precise. The process is like a 3D puzzle, where the designer has to position a plethora of security features (each with their unique properties) in perfect harmony with each other, so the banknote doesn’t fall apart. Banknotes have been known to crumble because there were conflicts in the design. The banknote designer has to know the properties of each process, then exploit those properties to produce something meaningful, secure, and attractive.
Banknotes are simultaneously mass-produced, yet the most personal object – not only are they placed close to the body and handled, they are deeper than that: they are avatars for people’s hopes, desires, fears, wants and needs; banknotes are the expression of the aspirations of a society, and – when designed well – express the unique sensibilities of a culture. For example, I’m British by birth. I resonate with the frog-like, ageless, half-smiling portrait of the queen in a way no Frenchman or German will do. The series E Fifty Pound note is a visual reference point for a vague concept of ‘wealth’ within the specific psyche of the United Kingdom: psychotic red and steely, pitiless grey; Gothic and Victorian fonts, combined with £50s that look like rub-on transfers from the 80s; masonic pyramids, declarative flowers and barbed wire – this piece of paper could only be from the UK!
It’s clear that this note wasn’t designed by a junior with a 2 week deadline. This was the result of a long-term, considered and collaborative effort. They say we’re only consciously aware of 10% of our surroundings, but the brain is soaking up the other 90% subconsciously; the details of a banknote slowly deposit in the collective unconsciousness of a nation, melding with its own self-image.
Banknotes are also unique, in that they’re mass-printed, but require a level of consistency and quality that’s in excess of anything else printed in the same volume. The designer is the first in a long list of people who handle a project. Each stage requires teams to man the various processes involved. This level of quality and collaboration in a mass-printed product is almost eccentric, in world where any 8 year-old has the technology to author their own video, extract stills, and print them up.
Which brings me to the real reason I like banknote design. Our greatest strength, as human beings, is our intent. Our intention is powerful, beyond anything else in the animal kingdom. The first symptom of this is that we’re excellent BUILDERS. This is self-evident. The example Steve Jobs gave is the invention of the bicycle:
The condor was the most efficient animal in travel, until the invention of the bicycle. Above is the page from Scientific American that Jobs cites as his inspiration. Our intent means that we manifest amazing solutions to problems. And in evolutionary terms, we manifest these solutions in lightening speed.
The second consequence of our Intent is that we make things with a high degree of PERMANENCE. This is not to be confused with durability. Yes, we can make things that stand the test of time. But we also seem to inherently DEMAND that things have a level of permanence. For example, when I pull away from a chair, the chair will still be there, even if I leave the room and return 10 minutes later. All our little trinkets and tools are where we left them, even if we leave home for a month. This sounds ridiculous. But we’re unique in this respect. Consider Dolphins. They enjoy blowing bubbles with complex geometries and toroids. This is their ‘art’. But they exist for mere seconds:
Other animals make what can be called ‘art’, since they serve no survival function, like woodpeckers for instance:
But these ‘artworks’ are dispossessed soon after their creation, and left to whither, rot, or evaporate. Not so with human beings. We create global industrial super-structures, supply chains, logistical procedure and price controls, for the production, distribution and sale of useless/useful and artless/artful STUFF that is SO permanent, it cannot even be recycled back into its original raw materials.
The other element to our Intent is its imaginative component. The depth of our imagination is a consequence of the unique human ability to feel deep emotions. Our emotional capacity acts as a dynamo that inspires originality. This aspect allows for solutions to problems that do not have a linear precedent. We call this ‘inspiration’, in an attempt to explain the birth of an idea that did not seem to to follow from existing ideas. Far from giving us a distorted, subjective view – as we have been taught – emotion energises Intent and allows us to reach far out into conceptual space, and bring back something that could not have existed by building on linear progression.
Adam Smith said that the value of a nation is its productive capacity. As we are discovering a deeper understanding of ourselves, I consider Human INTENT to be the true currency that separates us from all species, and gives us benchmarks in the swiftness, permanence and originality to our creation.
Banknote design is a concentration of Human Intent. Within the palm of your hand is a uniquely Human product – Idiosyncratic to all space aliens – because it is imbued with exclusively human levels of invention, art, permanence, and creativity.