Slideshow July/August 2009

Currency Exchange

Michael Bierut analyzes the world’s best and worst banknote designs
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United States / 1 Dollar, 1862

Paper money came to America during the early 1860s, when Congress authorized the U.S. Treasury to issue bank notes to help finance the Civil War. Until then, hundreds of different kinds of currency were created by private banks. The first U.S. dollar bill was an exuberant affair, designed to resemble a formal certificate.

United States / 1 Dollar, 1923

The dollar bill evolved over the next 60 years. By 1923, its front looked pretty much as it does today. The complex filigree was intended to confer value onto printed paper while discouraging counterfeiters. The reverse of the bill, however, was relatively simple, the denomination centered in a complex frame.

United States / 1 Dollar, 1935

The back side of the dollar bill assumed its current design during the Great Depression. Here we have all the elements that fascinate conspiracy theorists, from the broken pyramid with its all-seeing eye to the curiously constructed Latin inscriptions. (Annuit Coeptis literally means “It favors the things having been begun,” but is usually translated as “He [God] has favored our undertakings.”) The effect is a cake that has been decorated to within an inch of its life.

United States / 5 Dollars, 2007

All this decoration, though, has somehow never gotten enough ahead of counterfeiters, so our currency has been redesigned to incorporate new features like microprinting, colors, watermarks, and security threads. The more-is-more design aesthetic also had the effect of making all the different denominations look even more alike, especially for people with vision problems. So enter the big purple numbers that now appear in the corners: a solution as inelegant and clumsy as a denim patch on a satin dress.

European Union / 5 Euro, 2007

The world’s other dominant currency is the euro. Its pleasant banknote designs by Austrian Robert Kalina feature bridges, gates, and windows that vaguely resemble specific European landmarks but are in fact generic. The euro has one great advantage over America's currency system: rather than big purple numbers, the bills are distinguished by size. They range from 120 x 62 mm (€5) to 160 x 82 mm (€500). The bigger the bill, the more it’s worth. Simple.

Japan / 5000 Yen, 2003

Japan’s banknotes begin with the same basic ingredients as western currency. But these elements come together in a way that suggests contemplative minimalism. The images help: the ¥5000 note features 19th century female novelist Ichiyo Higuchi on the front, and a field of irises on the reverse. The result is elegant and restrained.

Switzerland / 10 Franc, 1995

The birthplace of the ubiquitous typeface Helvetica, Switzerland has a special place in the hearts of graphic designers, and its banknotes do not disappoint. The series introduced in 1995 by Jorg Zintzmeyer features not statements but artists, including Alberto Giacometti, Arthur Honegger, and, on the 10 Franc note, Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris, better known as the modernist architect Le Corbusier. Each bill is as beautifully resolved as a little poster. A design competition for the 2010 series just concluded.

South Africa / 100 Rand, 2005

If delighting children is a worthwhile goal for currency design—and I think it should be—then it's hard to beat the money of South Africa. Each note features one of the "big five" African wildlife species: rhinoceros, elephant, lion, buffalo, and leopard. If you need a last-minute souvenir when departing from Johannesburg Airport, stay out of the gift shops. That 20 Rand note in your wallet, elephant rampant, will do just fine.

United Kingdom / Coinage, 2008

Without a doubt, the most acclaimed currency design in recent years isn’t for paper money. It’s 26-year-old Matthew Dent’s competition winner for Britain’s new coins. Ingeniously, Dent divided the shield of the Royal Arms into six fragments, which appear on the 1p to 50p coins. The shield in its entirety appears on the £1 coin. The result is a transformation of a medieval heraldic device into a strikingly contemporary and dynamic insignia.

The Dollar ReDe$ign Project, 2009

This is the age of crowdsourcing and social media. So the time is right for creative consultant Richard Smith’s notion that economic change can start at the grass roots. “The only realistic way for a swift economic recovery,” he proposes, “is through a thorough, in-depth rebranding scheme—starting with the redesign of the iconic U.S. dollar.” His Dollar ReDe$ign Project invites anyone to submit an idea at richardsmith.posterous.com, and to date, designers from all over the world have responded enthusiastically.

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