The Colour of Money (R)

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 So it’s awkwardness from a design point of view has kind of been superseded by it’s symbolic-ness.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.

Comments (23)

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  1. David Needleman

    I love the Aussie money I have been a few times and while I have been to many places in the world I only carry one foreign note in my wallet as a reminder of my travels and it is the 10 dollar Aussie. The color is great the clear window makes it memorable and never fails to put a smile on my face.

  2. Great show as always. I like the idea of redesigning currency. I think it’s WAY overdue. But you’re right about the fact that we took so long to fundamentally change our old-timey looking paper money makes it much, much harder to do. But can you imagine the convulsion of hate if this idea were to be done during the “Evil Rein of Barack Hussein Obama-Nation!”? Maybe a ‘real conservative’ like Ted Cruz could do it, but if Obama so much as proposed getting rid of the penny, he’d be impeached by this weekend. That said, I think our coins also deserve a re-think. They should be sized based on value. The dollar coin should be, um, good for once. And, yes, the penny should R.I.P..

  3. Chris

    Great episode. That (R) by the title takes me back to the days of TV Guide (rerun). I don’t know if that was intentional or not.

  4. Fin Winther

    I moved to Australia 6 years ago, and love the money here.
    This is a design there have proven to be great outside the design studio.
    Great work!

  5. Andy G

    No need to go all the way to Australia… Canadian money has all of these features as well!

    1. Mike

      We don’t have different sizes of currency like Australia. We do, however, have $100 bills that smell like maple syrup.

  6. There is a fundamental problem with those new dollar designs, you think the designers would have noticed? The are all the same width. ???? You are still not going to know what’s in your pocket. A blind man still has some work to do with them.

  7. Squirrel

    While I’d love the US currency to be better designed, I can attest that it would be an international disaster. When the currency was redesigned in 2000, it was difficult to find currency exchange places in Russia were willing to take our money, as they were sure it was counterfeit. There is also the problem that US currency is used around the world as a more secure cash transaction. I never saw so many $100 bills as when I was in the Republic of Georgia. If the US currency came into doubt, it would be a disaster.

  8. Bablo

    What is the song at the very beginning of the episode? The Tuba thing? I know I’ve heard it before but can’t place it

  9. Great show Mr Mars.

    I actually like the hold to the color green, it feels like the dollar has a certain gravitas compared to the colorful playful money used in other countries. I also feel that the presidential portraits create a veneration for our history as a country. To me, US Stamps are the medium of expression and celebration for the wider US experience while the greenbacks represent solidity and permanence.

  10. The size of the US notes has always bothered me. For anyone with vision issues it makes things a lot more difficult. Also for kids, they all seem to have the same value. But kids understand that bigger is better, and would know that a $10 was worth more than $1.

    Roman, can you post links for the design blogs mentioned in this show?

  11. Matthew Wilson

    The Australian 100$ note is the one I most wish I could eat. It looks like delicious bubblegum.

  12. csdmedia

    Didn’t know that Australian dollars look so good :) In 2005, in Romania the bills were changed to polymer instead of paper. Size is different also. Back then, I didn’t understand why the size was not the same. Now it makes more sense. Thanks for this great episode ;)

  13. sky blue sky

    Great show, I especially appreciated your initial comment about how immoral it is that our currency can’t be used by the visually impaired. Its fascinating to think about how a redesigning of our currency can include and empower more people in our democratic society.

    With that in mind, however, I think we should be concerned about the full ramifications of a complete shift to a digital currency and who it will exclude. I think its fun to think about how an app on your smart phone can smoothly perform every transaction you’d ever want. However, if that were the case, everyone would NEED to not only buy a smart phone/mobile device with whatever corresponding app, pay a service/cellular provider a monthly fee, but also and most importantly have a bank account. I think these services are extraordinarily easy for most people – esp. the privileged (read: white male silicon valley software engineers who are dreaming this stuff up) – to take for granted, but there are those less fortunate who are denied these basic services. To demand that everyone be tapped in to the latest technology to conduct the most basic transactions is immoral and will certainly create yet another form of systematic discrimination against the weak and less fortunate.

  14. Dan Tani

    I agree with Roman that I could rant for many minutes about US currency – but I think the bills is only half the rant. I feel that the coins are an embarassment as well.

    When I visit a foreign country, I’m relieved when I rummage through the coins and find a huge “50” or “10” on them. I can’t read Thai or Japanese or Hungarian, but I can certainly put together the right change to make a small purchase. But think of a non-English reader coming to the US. What’s that big coin? If you can read the small “Quarter Dollar”, you might figure it out if you know a Latin-based launguage. Next up the tiny silver coin: “One Dime”. huh? Maybe you can make a connection between “Dime” and “Dec” to get 10, but I have no idea if there is a real lexical connection there. Now the middle size silver coin – can you find the “Five Cents” written on the back? The humble penny fares the best, with “One Cent” on the back – at least visible to most people.

    The dollar coin has gone through several failed iterations as well. As a native American, I feel like I can easily identify a quarter – but no — that’s a dollar coin! Why can’t the dollar coin have a unique feature – thicker, flat edges, bi-metal – to easily distinguish it from the others? Think of the Pound, Loonie, Euro coins for good examples of easily-distingushable coinage.

    When if comes to our coins, I feel that we’re terribly arrogant – making it very difficult to learn and use our denominations.

  15. Scott

    This episode is interesting from a content standpoint (as always), but it’s always much easier to listen to over better quality earphones, because there is significantly less ‘boom’ and low end in Roman’s voice on the re-broadcast. To whomever produces this show, the way Roman’s voice sounds in the rebroadcast is a great example that preserves the character of Roman’s voice, but not overpowering in the low end.

  16. GreenBack

    There is an app for determining denomination.

    The Europeans can keep their euro-trash currency. I hate it. It looks like monopoly money. When I return from a trip I look at it and wonder where I have been. I loved the old currency, since it has a sense of place.

    Please tell me the silver and gold euro coin or is that gold on the outside and silver on the inside (or the Canada toonie ) is a “good” design.

    Imagine if Breaking Bad was created in Australia. “Eh mate, where’d you get that stack of pineapples?” I’ll take Benjies, saw-bucks, or double saw bucks. Or how getting a seat, “Hmm, you lost my reservation, maybe it was under the name of Jackson?” Do that with some artist name. Yawn.

  17. Take a look at the Real if you want to see the a confused implementation. They look like Euros, but have changed the size of the bills. The old bill are larger than the new bills. An old 2 is 3mm shorter than a new 20. Don’t get me started on the coins, which are virtually indistinguishable by feel. I even see Brazilians fumbling with the coins.

  18. Dustin

    There’s nothing at all wrong with maintaining “legacy features,” i.e. keeping the back green, while making the faces of the money different colors and sizes for each denomination with more diversity in the people portrayed.

    I think it’s interesting that in the late 19th century/early 20th century when most of the world had horrendously boring paper money, for instance Great Britian’s white-fiver, just some scribbles on a page with no design what so over and nothing on the reverse, the US had some of the most intricate and well designed banknotes on the planet.

  19. Jax Springer

    Hey! Maybe a follow up article on the NEW (2018) Australian money?

    We’ve revealed a new 5, and 10 – with ALL new features for the vision impaired.

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