Show Me the Money

One of the best lines ever used when receiving an award was delivered by Don Simons at NAI’s National Workshop in Grand Rapids, Michigan, November 20, 2004. After delivering a respectable and predictable acceptance speech, the line was carefully delivered. For those of you who know Don, you know many of his comments are loaded, and by the end of his speech, you were expecting something more. He said very sincerely while holding up his award, “This isn’t why we do what we do; we do it for the money.”

Let’s face it, we didn’t get in this profession for the money. (Though, it is rumored that Don became involved in interpretation due to the large female demographic in the profession.)

This post is going to allow you to see digital images of bank notes. In the event that you choose to print them off and try to pass the off as legal tender at Starbucks, IBD will not accept responsibility for your actions. Though we will gladly accept gift cards purchased with your printed bounty.

The downturn in the economy has sparked creative people to come up with unique ideas to stimulate the economy. One idea stems from Richard Smith and the Dollar ReDe$ign Project. The concept as stated on the movement’s website is “that the ‘only’ realistic way for a swift economic recovery is through a thorough, in-depth, rebranding scheme – starting with the redesign of the iconic US Dollar – it’s the ‘only’ pragmatic way to add some realistic stimulation into our lives!” I’m no economist—in fact, I had to look up the word to make sure I was spelling it right—but this idea is as flawed as the mission of IBD (the blog, not the book) to make the world a better place. But you have to give him credit for trying to do something.

Smith urges visitors to his website to take part in signing a petition for change, since the “American Dollar has not truly been redesigned since about the 1930s” and the “the Dollar ReDe$ignProject is your opportunity to theoretically ‘change’ that.” The project has accepted submissions from designers around the world attempting to create a well-functioning note while still capturing elements of American culture and history. I was immediately drawn to the website for the simple fact that this challenge is the ultimate interpretive design project. Interpreters do this every day. We take complicated subjects, intense data, scientific information, vast time lines, and iconic images that are transformed into a product of personal or nonpersonal that helps visitors make meaningful connections.

The current leading design comes from British duo Dowling Duncan with a fresh, crisp, colorful, and vertical approach to the bills. As presented on the website, the design comes from research based on how people actually use money. The vertical approach works more naturally with how money is exchanged. The project website goes on to say, “You tend to hold a wallet or purse vertically when searching for notes. The majority of people hand over notes vertically when making purchases. All machines accept notes vertically. Therefore a vertical note makes more sense.” The bills are also presented in various lengths based on denomination to assist those with disabilities or impairments in differentiating value. The colors and large numbers also help avoid confusion in value.

I’ve often wondered why brochures were primarily presented in a vertical format when it is easier to present information less segmented in a horizontal format. (I also wonder what happened to MC Hammer.) The National Park Service recognizes this with its horizontal approach in the unigrid brochures that you see at each site. I guess the one hold back to horizontal design is they don’t display in racks as well. If the information is important enough to have visitors read it, perhaps page orientation should come into consideration.

Many of the designs like Dowling Duncan’s and the one seen here break the tradition of the notes being green. There is something to say here about consistency and tradition along with something to say about change and keeping up with the times, but I’m not sure what it is.

The contrast from today’s bills is shocking compared to these designs. Part of that change I like and part of it I don’t. You shouldn’t change something for the sake of change itself. Smith says “our great ‘rival,’ the Euro, looks so spanky in comparison it seems the only clear way to revive this global recession is to rebrand and redesign.” Trying to stay spanky is not enough reason to make a major design change.

If a change from horizontal to vertical is justified to improve use or function, that is a reason for change. If you want to shock little old ladies with your snazzy use of saturated colors because you are the designer and can do it, you should put on your MC Hammer pants and go hang out at the mall. I’m not sure what that means exactly, but do it.

This design by Sean Flanagan submitted purposefully used only American-designed typefaces. I wish I had a bumper sticker on the back of my minivan that stated “I’m Pro-American Typefaces!” That would be almost as cool as my minivan itself. As much as designers love Helvetica, I’m not so sure it should be the default on this project. Sometimes you have to go local.

This simple clean approach doesn’t really represent the complexity of what a bank note is forced to include in today’s world. This less complicated approach seems to be missing something, like holograms, metallic strips, eagles, and watermarks.

Here are a few other submissions that I just couldn’t pass up.

Visit the Dollar ReDe$ign Project website where you can sign the petition for rebranding. The stories behind design decisions in the bank notes is as interesting as looking at the designs themselves. Voting for favorite design ends on September 30.