RM: This is 99% Invisible, I’m Roman Mars.
RM: U.S. paper currency is so ubiquitous, that to really look at it’s 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 micro patterns. It’s just…dreadful.
RS: From a pure designers point of view it’s, I dunno, it’s tough because it is a little bit subjective, but um..
RM: But um, it’s horrible. There’s like 8 fonts on this thing.
RS: Typographically, graphicly, symbolically, 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.
RM: And I don’t wanna get too critical at this point because, there are actually pretty compelling & 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.
TN: When I handle American money it feels like an artifact, because it’s so ornate and it has an old look to it.
RM: 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.
RS: 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.
RM: That’s Richard Smith, he runs a contest called The Dollar Redesign Project.
RS: 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 So it’s awkwardness from a design point of view has kind of been superseded by it’s symbolic-ness.
RM: 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.
RM: #1 is color.
RS: The idea of using one color doesn’t really tell you much other than we like the color green.
RM: Our largely monochromatic money kid 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.
RM: #2 is size.
RS: 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.
RM: Having variable sized coins certainly helps us sort them. And you use the same principal for bills. Which leads us to point # 3 in Smith’s manifesto: Functionality.
RS: Some functionality that enables people if they can’t see, to clearly distinguish on a very sort of fundamental level, which note is which.
RM: The fact that there’s no easy way for the blind to use our currency goes beyond bad design, it’s actually immoral.
RS: Then, the next fundamental thing I thought was composition.
RM: That’s #4.
RS: Meaning like, what’s it made from? This is a little sort of conceptual into like, where this could go, but it just seems that a product designer could come in and come up with something really interesting.
RM: Recycled material with a smaller carbon footprint, or more durable synthetics that last longer. And at the very heart of the Dollar Redesign Project is #5: Symbolism.
RS: 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 the, 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.
RM: 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.
RM: 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.
(Reporter) Let me introduce a masterpiece of Australian design and technology. Australia’s new five dollar, plastic note.
TC: I’m really proud of our money. I don’t, I have absolutely no idea why I’m so proud of it, but I really am.
RM: That’s Tristan Cooke. And you’re about to hear why he’s so proud. Tristan & 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 of years and the money there made a big impression on him.
TN: The money is plastic. And they’re all different sizes, and they’re colorful.
RM: At first these changes were disconcerting.
TN: It all just looked like toy money to me.
RM: But after Tom’s initial shock, he began to appreciate all the different design characteristics of Australian currency. First, is the color.
TN: Five dollars is sort of a lavender. Ten dollars is blue with a little bit of a green stripe in it. Twenty is…..
TC: When you look at the ways you can tell the differences between things, you generally, it’s uh, called “coding” that’s the very simple human factis 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.
TN: 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.
RM: Or an association with a pineapple, or a lobster.
TC: It’s not very common just yet, but we call our notes colloquial names by their colors and my two personal favorite 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.
RM: It’s all about the pineys. #2: size.
TN: The bills are also different sizes as well. So they feel different in your hand.
TC: 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.
TN: 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.
RM: Both number one and two relate to the third issue raised by Richard Smith, and that’s functionality.
TN: You can see whether you’ve got a five, a ten, a twenty, or a fifty from the top of your wallet.
RM: Because of the color and size differences.
RM: #4 Composition
TN: It’s a thin sheet of plastic.
RM: The Palmer Notes were developed primarily to combat counterfeiting.
TC: It feels like plastic that you can fold and scrunch up. You can actually um, put it through the washing machine, and it’ll be fine.
TN: 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.
RM: They tend to last four times longer than fibrous paper notes.
TC: So you get notes in Australia that are twenty years old, and they pretty much just look the same.
RM: What Australia chooses to put on it’s currency is more in keeping with what Richard Smith of the Dollar Redesign 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.
TN: They don’t put statesmen on money. Frequently there are artists, and poets, and uh, I think there are some aboriginal leaders.
TC: 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.
TN: But most Australians couldn’t name the people that are on their money.
TC: 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 would 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.
RM: The symbolism in Australian cash seems to be tied more to the innovation of the bills themselves. There’s a certain pride that Palmer Bills were developed in Australia, and have been exported to the rest of the world. Australia now manufactures the Palmer Notes of nearly twenty other countries.
TN: It’s a good business for them.
RM: The good design of the currency itself is the overriding brand.
(reporter): It’s no ordinary note however, it’s Australia’s new parliament ten dollar note. And it was developed and printed right here.
TN: I would like to see American currency redesigned, and treated more like a living piece of technology rather than an artifact.
RM: 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.
DW: You know, someone once told me that getting rid of the greenback would be like, burning the flag on the steps of the capitol.
RM: That’s David Wolman.
DW: My name is David Wolman, my book is, The End of Money.
RM: To a lot of people, our currency is a physical touchstone of our national identity.
DW: Some of this is emotional, but there is this other concern that is simultaneously tantalizing and scary I think.
RM: And that other concern is that when you redesign the money, you remind people what currency is, and what gives the currency value.
DW: 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.
RM: It probably helps to maintain these legacy features in the design of our money.
DW: Through what is now three or four generations, we’ve had the same color since like, the Civil War.
RM: 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.
DW: 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.
RM: In other countries a complete redesign deprocates 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.
DW: 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 3,000.00 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.
RM: 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.
DW: It seems to be a little bit patronizing to think that Americans couldn’t handle a dollar redesign.
RM: But really, who is going to push it forward?
DW: 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?
RM: (laughs) Fair enough.
RM: 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 bursting at the seams. It’s the worst of both worlds.
DW: 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.
RM: 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.
DW: I don’t think it’s that remarkable. Congratulations to the Aussies and the scientists who came up with polymer banknotes. Uh, and 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.
RM: 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.
DW: 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 bank note 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?
RM: And this is something that Tristan & 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 it’s 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. 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.