How to design beautiful banknotes

With the International Bank Note Society naming its Bank Note of the Year, we look at the process of currency design and what makes a beautiful banknote.

The New Zealand $5 note
The New Zealand $5 note, winner of the 2015 IBNS Bank Note of the Year Award

Uganda 2010. Kazakhstan 2012. Trinidad and Tobago 2014. They’re all winners of the prestigious International Bank Note Society (IBNS), Bank Note of the Year award.

New Zealand is the latest country to join that list. The country’s $5 note, part of The Reserve Bank of New Zealand’s Brighter Money range, claimed the 2015 prize. IBNS members voted it, as part of the scheme to “recognise an exceptional banknote issued each year.”

But what makes one banknote more exceptional than another?

Great banknote designs

For the Bank Note of the Year Award, IBNS members are encouraged to decide based on a set of specifications. These include the artistic merit, design, use of colour, contrast, balance, and security features of each nomination.

Jonathan Callaway is a director at large at IBNS and an avid banknote collector. While he admits there’s no obvious answer as to why the New Zealand banknote was chosen, he was able to pinpoint some standout features.

He says: “It’s polymer so it gives designers a different scope. The hologram actually changes colour as you move the note around as it is embedded in the material.”

Callaway adds: “The banknote also has very bright colours and a strong image of a penguin native to New Zealand – I think it’s just the distinctiveness of the design that makes it successful.”

Callaway admits, however, that banknote collectors may have a different perspective of a great design than the banks themselves.

“If you ask what a successful banknote design is, you’ll get a different answer from the public, a different answer from a collector and a very different answer from the central bank or the printers of the notes,” he says.

“They all take pride in the end product but they look at it from a different point of view. The bank wants it to be as safe and secure as possible, but the public will look at the overall note and design, the colours and the distinctive features.”

Yet there are many other reasons for collectors to engage with a banknote, and Callaway refers to the story behind the note as an important component for many fans.

“For most people, their favourite notes revolve around the designs and the colours but for others, the driver is the rarity of the story,” he says.

“The note may not be inspiring as a piece of paper but the story behind it is remarkable.”

Robin Hill, webmaster at IBNS, says that one of his favourite collections could be considered antithetical to “great” design.

“The reasons why people like banknotes is as varied as people themselves,” he says.

“I have a great collection of error notes. Some include extra paper where the manufacturing went wrong or in others the ink may have run out so you have missing images.”

The design process

A new banknote may need designing as part of a mandatory project, in that the notes are being converted to polymer, or it may be that a traditional note is merely being updated. Nevertheless, deciding on the theme of the note is a crucial initial stage.

Jan Kercher is creative design manager at De La Rue, which is the world’s largest commercial banknote printer. She says: “It’s extremely important to agree with the customer at the start about the theme. It’s something you really need to firm up in order for the designer to start the research.”

The designers can then begin preparing sketches and mood boards and discussing the look and feel of the note. A lot may depend, however, on the country the note is being designed for, as there might be a colour or style which isn’t suited.

Alongside the theme, it’s also important for designers to understand the security and manufacturing features required, as the note undergoes multiple printing processes and details may shift depending on where the elements are layered on the notes. Kercher mentions the “marriage between the aesthetics and the functionality” of the notes.

“Designs are reviewed all the time by our technical design team for the consideration of the manufacturability,” she says.

“As the designer starts to move on from sketching ideas, they will start to work in Photoshop, building this note in a very specialised way, in order for it to be realised in the manufacturing at the end of the process.

“The designer’s role is to think about how that design can be broken up into all the layers.”

Attention to detail

Scotlands Fabric of Nature notes
Scotlands Fabric of Nature notes

The process of designing a banknote can be long and arduous, so the idea of producing millions of copies of error notes constitutes a designer’s, manufacturer’s and bank’s nightmare.

O Street was one of a number of design collaborators involved in the creation of the Scottish Fabric of Nature banknote series, recently nominated for the 2016 IBNS award.

O Street founder David Freer says: “If you’re doing a note design it’s not something like a brochure – where if you have a typo or something wrong you can just reprint.

“They’re going to print millions and millions of these notes and they’re going to be around forever, so you need to make sure the details are right.”

Attention to detail is thus a key component of the design process. The Fabric of Scotland banknotes include animals, textiles and fonts specific to Scotland, and the designers worked alongside experts and academics to ensure absolute accuracy in their visual depiction.

Building the notes

Once a design is rubber-stamped by a senior associate at the bank, the next stage is to prepare the note for manufacturing. Various specialist designers at the banknote manufacturers are in charge of that task. Kercher refers to the components team, the pattern specialists and the engravers, to name some.

Designing the Fabric of Nature banknotes
Designing the Fabric of Nature banknotes

She says: “The components team might draw up the watermark. They are very technically skilled artists who understand the different shades of grey to produce a mould for the watermark. They can design all the substrate layers for our polymer notes and they finish the security features,” she said.

“We have a pattern specialist who can design the background pattern work of a banknote. The idea comes from the initial designer, then the pattern worker designs it in bespoke software that we have here.

“They work in collaboration with the designer the whole time to make sure the banknote really meets the customer’s expectation.”

Future of banknotes

The arrival of polymer notes means there’s a window of opportunity for banknote designers. Colour palettes can be more vivid and durability will be enhanced. Yet the future of banknotes remains uncertain as technology advances.

Interestingly, in the early stages of Fabric of Scotland, it was discussed how the visuals could be translated into a digital world and Freer admits he has pondered the importance of paper notes in the future.

He says: “There’s something in the back of my head asking whether people will be using money in 10 to 20 years’ time, with contactless payment and paying with your phone. I do wonder whether banknotes will be as important as they are now.”

Designing the Fabric of Nature banknotes
Designing the Fabric of Nature banknotes

Either way, he feels that collaboration in the design process can be a major factor in producing a successful banknote design.

“The banknote is something which should have a lot of collaboration [in the design process] because it’s something which is going to be used by everybody,” says Freer.

“Other designers input really strengthened it [the Fabric of Nature project] in a way that we wouldn’t have been able to do on our own.”

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  • Lewis Roberts May 16, 2016 at 9:25 am

    Beautiful designs. Personally my favourite has always been the cook island 3 dollar note. A nude lady riding a shark on a wave has a way of making you look twice. I would love to know who designed it.

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