The Colour of Money

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible, I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
U.S. paper currency is so ubiquitous, that to really look at its graphic design with fresh eyes, requires deliberate & focused attention. So pull out a greenback from your wallet, or look at a picture online if you’re in another country. And just really take it in. All the fonts, the busy filigree, the micropatterns. It’s just…dreadful.

Richard Smith:
From a pure designer’s point of view, it’s tough because it is a little bit subjective, but um…

Roman Mars:
But um, it’s horrible. There’s like 8 fonts on this thing.

Richard Smith:
Typographically, graphicly, symbolically, if it had never been designed before and someone was to submit that as a solution, I think they would sort of just throw it out.

Roman Mars:
And I don’t wanna get too critical at this point because there are actually pretty compelling and understandable reasons for its particular brand of horribleness. But I think the primary tension embodied in the design of the greenback boils down to how my friend Tom Nelson at the blog “Humans & Design” puts it.

Tom Nelson:
When I handle American money it feels like an artifact, because it’s so ornate and it has an old look to it.

Roman Mars:
Even though paper currency itself, the idea of money is a massive, world-changing technology. The look and feel of U.S. paper money is very stagnant. It seems like a relic from when our country was founded.

Richard Smith:
Would you buy a car that looked like the Model T Ford? No, you’d buy the latest model of it. Things evolve and change with time.

Roman Mars:
That’s Richard Smith, he runs a contest called the “Dollar ReDe$ign Project.”

Richard Smith:
It’s become a classic, like classics do, through time and through usage and familiarity. So it’s awkwardness, from a design point of view, has kind of been superseded by its symbolic-ness.

Roman Mars:
So if you were to start from scratch, and redesign U.S. paper money, Smith says there are 5 major areas where we could improve.

Roman Mars:
#1 is color.

Richard Smith:
The idea of using one color doesn’t really tell you much other than we like the color green.

Roman Mars:
Our largely monochromatic money kind of baffles me. We’ve introduced a purple five, and some peachy hues, but there are a lot of colors, and most countries use at least some of them.

Roman Mars:
#2 is size.

Richard Smith:
Why is American currency all one size? There’s always been a question mark in my head, and it just never really made sense practically, and philosophically.

Roman Mars:
Having variable-sized coins certainly helps us sort them. And you could use the same principle for bills. Which leads us to point # 3 in Smith’s manifesto: Functionality.

Richard Smith:
Some functionality that enables people, if they can’t see, to clearly distinguish on a very sort of fundamental level, which note is which.

Roman Mars:
The fact that there’s no easy way for the blind to use our currency goes beyond bad design, it’s actually immoral.

Richard Smith:
Then, the next fundamental thing I thought was composition.

Roman Mars:
That’s #4.

Richard Smith:
Meaning like, what’s it made from? This is a little sort of conceptual, like, where this could go, but it just seems that a product designer could come in and come up with something really interesting.

Roman Mars:
Recycled material with a smaller carbon footprint or more durable synthetics that last longer. And at the very heart of the Dollar ReDe$ign Project is #5: Symbolism.

Richard Smith:
Who should go on the bills and why? You know, why are the founding fathers the be-all and end-all of everything that is America? And I think for me that’s one of the biggest issues if we were to change anything, I would say that would be where I would start. It could be a platform to celebrate everything that is unique, special, different, that you didn’t know about America.

Roman Mars:
And that’s the suggestion that can get a British ex-pat on his way to American citizenship like Richard Smith, some colorful hate mail. But it’s an intriguing list nonetheless. Even if you just view the 5 suggestions as a philosophical exercise to assess the current design for all of its strengths and faults.

Roman Mars:
It’s hard to imagine all those things being modified on U.S. currency. But it’s not hard to imagine each of them being implemented somewhere. In fact, most of them are implemented everywhere. Case in point, Australia. On the other side of the world, each and every one of these five issues have coincidentally been addressed.

[Let me introduce a masterpiece of Australian design and technology. Australia’s new five dollar, plastic note.]

Tristan Cooke:
I’m really proud of our money. I have absolutely no idea why I’m so proud of it, but I really am.

Roman Mars:
That’s Tristan Cooke. And you’re about to hear why he’s so proud. Tristan and Tom Nelson here, from briefly at the top of the show, are user-centered designers and they run a blog that I am a big fan of called “Humans & Design.” Tristan is Australian, Tom is American. But Tom went to school in Australia for a couple years and the money there made a big impression on him.

Tom Nelson:
The money is plastic. And they’re all different sizes, and they’re colorful.

Roman Mars:
At first, these changes were disconcerting.

Tom Nelson:
It all just looked like toy money to me.

Roman Mars:
But after Tom’s initial shock, he began to appreciate all the different design characteristics of Australian currency. First, is the color.

Tom Nelson:
Five dollars is sort of a lavender. Ten dollars is blue with a little bit of a green stripe in it. Twenty is…..

Tristan Cooke:
When you look at the ways you can tell the differences between things, you generally – it’s called “coding” that’s the very simple human factors term for it. And you code through things like size, shape, feel, and color. So, in Australian money, we have ours coded primarily by color.

Tom Nelson:
Which, in some ways is a better index because it doesn’t require knowledge of who’s on the bill, it only requires recognition of a color.

Roman Mars:
Or an association with a pineapple, or a lobster.

Tristan Cooke:
It’s not very common just yet, but we call our notes – colloquial names – by their colors and my two personal favorites are calling the twenty dollar note which is sort of an orange color, calling it a “lobster,” and calling the fifty dollar note, which is sort of a green and yellow color, and calling it a “piney,” which is short for a pineapple.

Roman Mars:
It’s all about the pineys. #2: size.

Tom Nelson:
The bills are also different sizes as well. So they feel different in your hand.

Tristan Cooke:
Sometimes when I’ve got a bit of cash in my pocket, I can tell the difference between a five dollar note and a twenty dollar note because of the feel.

Tom Nelson:
I would say that it’s about a centimeter difference between each denomination which between a five and a ten isn’t that big, but between a five and a fifty is very big. So you get like, 4 centimeters difference.

Roman Mars:
Both #1 and 2 relate to the third issue raised by Richard Smith, and that’s functionality.

Tom Nelson:
You can see whether you’ve got a five, a ten, a twenty, or a fifty from the top of your wallet.

Roman Mars:
Because of the color and size differences.

Roman Mars:
#4 Composition

Tom Nelson:
It’s a thin sheet of plastic.

Roman Mars:
The polymer notes were developed primarily to combat counterfeiting.

Tristan Cooke:
It feels like plastic that you can fold and scrunch up. You can actually put it through the washing machine, and it’ll be fine.

Tom Nelson:
If you drop the note on the floor of a men’s room, you don’t really feel bad about picking it up and putting it under the faucet before you put it back in your pocket. These plastic notes cost more, but they last longer.

Roman Mars:
They tend to last four times longer than fibrous paper notes.

Tristan Cooke:
So you get notes in Australia that are twenty years old, and they pretty much just look the same.

Roman Mars:
What Australia chooses to put on its currency is more in keeping with what Richard Smith of the Dollar ReDe$ign Project would like to see. It’s much more inclusive than founding fathers and monuments. But it’s hard to tell if these symbols are conveying much of anything, to everyday Australians.

Tom Nelson:
They don’t put statesmen on money. Frequently there are artists and poets, and I think there are some aboriginal leaders.

Tristan Cooke:
That’s another thing too, you could not put prime ministers on our money. We don’t have the reverence for prime ministers in Australia.

Tom Nelson:
But most Australians couldn’t name the people that are on their money.

Tristan Cooke:
I have absolutely no idea who is on any of our notes, except for one side of the five dollar note is the queen, and that’s just because I don’t want her on there. I’d imagine if you asked any Australian if they know who is on their notes, there would be less than 1% of people who could name anybody other than the queen.

Roman Mars:
The symbolism in Australian cash seems to be tied more to the innovation of the bills themselves. There’s a certain pride that polymer bills were developed in Australia and have been exported to the rest of the world. Australia now manufactures the polymer notes of nearly twenty other countries.

Tom Nelson:
It’s a good business for them.

Roman Mars:
The good design of the currency itself is the overriding brand.

[It’s no ordinary note however, it’s Australia’s new polymer ten dollar note. And it was developed and printed right here. ]

Tom Nelson:
I would like to see American currency redesigned, and treated more like a living piece of technology rather than an artifact.

Roman Mars:
I think even the most jingoistic among us could concede that there are design innovations that could be incorporated into U.S. currency to make it better, but there are some interesting reasons why we probably won’t.

David Wolman:
You know, someone once told me that getting rid of the greenback would be like burning the flag on the steps of the capitol.

Roman Mars:
That’s David Wolman.

David Wolman:
My name is David Wolman, my book is, “The End of Money.”

Roman Mars:
To a lot of people, our currency is a physical touchstone of our national identity.

David Wolman:
Some of this is emotional, but there is this other concern that is simultaneously tantalizing and scary, I think.

Roman Mars:
And that other concern is that when you redesign the money, you remind people what currency is, and what gives the currency value.

David Wolman:
And, of course, what gives the currency value is our belief that it’s valuable. And in the religious sense of it. Nothing more than faith or trust or worship, or whatever you want to call it, makes a dollar worth a dollar, or worth whatever you’re going to buy with it. So, that is upsetting to a lot of people and to maintain the aura of strength and stability of the United States economy-

Roman Mars:
It probably helps to maintain these legacy features in the design of our money.

David Wolman:
Through what is now three or four generations. We’ve had the same color since like, the Civil War.

Roman Mars:
The portraits, the engraved styling, the filigree. The legacy features convey stability, and our currency, the currency on which all other currencies are hitched, has to be stable.

David Wolman:
So not only do we not redesign the stuff, but we don’t pull older notes from circulation either. So we’ll have reissues and redesigns of our cash, but you can still use the last generation design as legal tender.

Roman Mars:
In other countries, a complete redesign deprecates the old design. You’re given a grace period to use or exchange it, but after a certain date, the old currency is shredded by the central bank, and you can no longer spend any that you have left. This has never been the case in the U.S.

David Wolman:
You can even use an 18th-century coin, stamped with just the value of 2 cents to go buy something. You might want to be careful, because that could be so stupid. It could be worth $3,000 to a collector out there. But, if you want to go spend it, as two cents, you can. And again, this is part of creating this aura of super stability and inherent value of federal reserve notes.

Roman Mars:
David Wolman is quick to point out that even though these concerns of instability happen when people bring up redesigning the money or eliminating the penny, he thinks it’s pretty irrational, and an overly cautious stance.

David Wolman:
It seems to be a little bit patronizing to think that Americans couldn’t handle a dollar redesign.

Roman Mars:
But really, who is going to push it forward?

David Wolman:
You know, if you’re going to go to work in government, don’t you almost by definition have some of that sense of patriotism and nationalism that would make you a little bit more inclined to like the greenback as is? And a little less inclined to, you know, let some RISD hotshots get after it?

Roman Mars:
(laughs) Fair enough.

Roman Mars:
But still, primarily driven by anti-counterfeiting measures, U.S. currency had been pushed to change in recent years. And most of these new designs are why it looks worse than ever. The legacy features remain largely intact, but a layer of modern fonts and swirls makes the bills look like they are busting at the seams. It’s the worst of both worlds.

David Wolman:
You know, it’s absolute chaos. There’s very little that’s elegant about our money from a design standpoint, as far as I understand it.

Roman Mars:
But when I told David Wolman about my new found discovery and appreciation of the Australian dollar as evangelized by Tristan and Tom, he was less than impressed.

David Wolman:
I don’t think it’s that remarkable. Congratulations to the Aussies and the scientists who came up with polymer banknotes. I think they profited well, because of that innovation, but I’m just not convinced it’s a very world changing kinda thing. It’s pretty.

Roman Mars:
Hey, I personally think pretty counts, but from his point of view, a better-designed bank note, even a plastic one, is still just a piece of paper. I mean, his book is called “The End of Money,” after all.

David Wolman:
The design efforts out there, related to money that excite me more, are the design for the user interface of apps for mobile money. Right? How are we going to be transacting with money in Paypal mobile, and Google Wallet and what are designers bringing to bear on those interfaces? Because the interface with paper or polymer money…I get it already. A truly interesting frontier of design is not going to the banknote art that the Swiss come up with in 2016. Right? It’s going to be the interface with mobile apps, and what designers are doing to make our interactions with money more fluid, more sophisticated, and possibly, God forbid, even like, wiser. You know like, who is designing the apps to make us a little more careful with our money? And how are they bringing the principles of design to make that happen?

Roman Mars:
And this is something that Tristan and Tom are totally on board with. Physical money is probably on it’s way out, and polymer money, as cool as it is, is a technology of its time. They themselves have designed clever user interfaces so that the good aspects of physical money are attained, and transactions feel more tangible and more real, even when it’s just bits flying through the air. So the U.S. twenty dollar bill will probably be gone from widespread use before it’s a lovely shade of orangey-red. I’m okay with that. Just as long as I don’t have to see that wavy, Six Flags amusement park font that says, “Twenty USA” in the background. I mean seriously, what the hell were they thinking? That font is even cruel to Andrew Jackson, and that guy was a jerk.

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by me, Roman Mars with special thanks to Tristan Cooke and Tom Nelson from the blog “Humans and Design.” We’ll have a link on the website. We are a project of KALW 91.7 local public radio in San Francisco and the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco. Support for 99% Invisible was provided in part by TinyLetter, email for people with something to say. My boy Mazlo always says something to say. What do you have to say Mazlo?

Mazlo:
“My favorite thing to talk about is robots and Iron Man suits and stuff.”

Roman Mars:
Robots and Iron Man suits! I would subscribe to that newsletter. It’s free, easy, minimal, powerful. The simplest way to write an email and newsletter. Online at tinyletter.com. We are distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange, making public radio more public. More at PRX.org. This is just a reminder that every episode of 99% Invisible is available to be downloaded for your listening pleasure and each one is better than the last whether you’re going backwards or forwards. It is amazing and impossible, but yet, it is still true. You can find the show and ‘like’ the show and interact with me on Facebook. I tweet and often tweet back to people @romanmars but this week you will find pretty pictures of plastic bills at 99percentinvisible.org. .

  1. I can’t believe there is no mention of Dutch banknote design in this program.

    All of the ‘innovations’ (color, size, texture for the visually impaired etc – everything except the paper composition) proposed by Richard Smith and implemented in the Australian banknotes were already pioneered by RDE ‘Ootje’ Oxenaar in Dutch banknote design in the 1960’s and 70’s.

    In later redesigns of the 100 guilder banknote, he convinced his clients to replace the stuffy admiral (who did kick some serious English butt) featured on the note with the image of an endangered bird.
    The name of the bird ( a ‘Snip’) went on to become the English equivalent of ‘Grand’ (‘For a Snip it’s yours!’) in the process out-innovating Smith and the Aussies by innovating the imagery AND enriching the Dutch language. Rumor has it Oxenaar worked his own fingerprint in the detailed linework of the 1,000 guilder note.

    Unfortunately Dutch banknotes were phased out with the introduction of the Euro (featuring …..non-existing bridges! Luckily these bridges are now build as part of an art project in the Netherlands but that is another story).

    Respect is due!

    Audio version of a talk by Oxenaar about the design process (i think this is a translation read by someone else):
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m5BlybJGiiU

    image of the snip:

    http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_UN7wPjdKdmc/THc7QlcKNwI/AAAAAAAACKU/nwCEmwOi6wo/s1600/ox100back.jpg

    image of the earlier version (also by oxenaar):

    http://people.zeelandnet.nl/acoomens/images/mdr100gulden.jpg

    Image of other Oxenaar notes, the brightly colored ones with the Dutch ‘Founding Fathers’ where the original series from the 60’s and 70’s.
    The flower, bird and lighthouse were redesigns from the 80’s & 90’s.

    http://barryborsboom.files.wordpress.com/2008/10/dutch_banknotes.png?w=500&h=420

  2. Canadian polymer banknotes are all the same size, so they include Braille markings to indicate the value of the bill.

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