Why the euro won’t be a design of note

The EMI is due to reveal the identity of the euro tomorrow. And the only predictable outcome is that, due to endless regulations, its design will be far from radical, discovers Michael Evamy

A VERY select group of European graphic designers face their judgment day tomorrow, as a simultaneous meeting of the European Monetary Institute in Frankfurt and Dublin reveals whose designs will appear on the banknotes for the future single currency.

Around 30 designers and top printing houses have submitted design proposals. That’s a sizeable chunk of Europe’s banknote-designing community. They’ve all invested thousands of hours working out how to depict Europe. Harrison & Sons, one of the security printers invited to enter by the Bank of England, has spent three years on the project. The competition winner can afford to celebrate by burning a few old 5, DM20 or FF50 notes. The euro – as the ex-ecu has been so brilliantly christened – could come to be the world’s most widely-circulated currency after the US dollar, the Chinese yuan and the Indian rupee. By mid-2002, the successful designer can expect to have his or her work thumbed by 350 million people (give or take a few million Euro-tots too young to have pocket money).

Of course, not all 15 EU members are sure to join the single currency, the UK being the least sure of the lot. Its enthusiasm for the euro is like a watermark: hold the Government up to the light and you can just about see a policy, but most of the time it’s invisible. Which reduces to virtually nil the chances of the British entrants – Harrisons, Komori Currency Technology and the Bank of England – in the design competition.

They are up against entrants from all of the other 14 member states. Even insiders are clueless about which way the decision will go. The Sunday Times ran a story on 17 November claiming that one of the secret list of ten finalists features medieval peasant figures which resemble “the gargoyles on Notre Dame”. For the Little Englanders who think everyone in Brussels is a Euro-gnome, gargoyles might be quite appropriate.

The fact is, the politics are so knotted-up that speculation is almost useless. One could argue that a design from one of Europe’s smaller states – Denmark or The Netherlands – has a better chance because it would avoid opening up divisions that might then throw the whole process into jeopardy. It’s all too easy to picture the reaction of Tory Eurosceptics if a design from Germany or France were chosen. However, there will be strong lobbying from the larger countries for their own proposals. On top of that, the judging panel is made up of 15 bank managers – the heads of all the national central banks – who will have taken copies of the designs home to their wives for the acid test. The decision could be unfathomable. My money’s on no one.

Designers have truly had their hands full. The job involved producing concepts for the front and reverse sides of seven banknote denominations (euro 5 [worth about 3.75], 10, 20, 50, 100, 200 and 500). They were offered two design options. One was to follow a “traditional” approach, basing designs on the theme of “ages and styles of Europe”. Each of the denominations would represent a specific period of European cultural history: Classical; Romanesque; Gothic; Renaissance; Baroque and Rococo; the “age of iron and glass architecture”; and the age of modern twentieth century architecture. No room for Visigothic or Moorish. But Thirties mock tudor might get in.

The other alternative option was to produce “abstract/ modern” designs. No more guidance was given, making this category a far riskier route for designers. Being asked to come up with their own ideas for what Europe means is something akin to being left in a visual no-man’s-land – a case of who dares wins. Entries are likely to be either inspired or vacuous.

There was also the choice of whether to incorporate some kind of national differentiation. Designers had the option of leaving 20 per cent of one side of each note open for national banks to include their own national identifier. Some day in the future, if the UK ever joins the currency, that could – heaven help us – be a picture of our very own King Charles III.

On a host of other conditions, designers have had no choice. Inevitably, the 12 stars – representing the 15 EU members – need a place. And a home needs to be found for the initials of the European Central Bank, in all five of its language variants: ECB, BCE, EZB, EKT and EKP. It could look like the cast list of The Clangers.

Since this is high-tech money, certain security and identification features have to be built in. The needs of the blind and partially-sighted have to be met. Euro bank- notes will increase in size according to their value and have “other tactile features”, possibly including braille. The dominant colours are determined: grey for the euro 5, red for the 10, blue for the 20 and so on up to the purple euro 500 note. Numerals must be clearly visible and located in a position consistent to all notes. There is the possibility of switching to plastic notes. Australia’s central bank has pioneered the use of plastic money, which is reported to last four times as long as paper and can be recycled. But its offer – made with Cumbrian polymer film company UCB Films – to print the cash has met with a cool response from the EMI.

The security features, meanwhile, threaten to overwhelm any design making an attempt at clarity. The EMI demands that the new banknotes are “at least as well protected against counterfeiting as existing national bank- notes”. These include visual features such as watermarks and security threads; intaglio printing and “optically variable” (colour-shifting) inks; and non-print items like diffractive or reflective foils. Finally, the central banks and the note-handling industry need machine-readable features built in for their cash machines. The only thing missing is a bar code.

Will there be any room left for the winning designs? The best hope Europe has of getting a decipherable set of banknotes may lie with Ootje Oxenaar, the man who designed the uniquely human, non-nationalistic Dutch currency – the best money in the world. He is unable – before the decision – to talk about his design entries, but says: “With the Dutch money, I wanted to make something people would enjoy using. Something nice to keep in their pocket. It was the same with the euro. I’ve tried to make it as clear as possible.”

He continues: “The idea of leaving 20 per cent clear for national symbols is a bit stupid because the notes will cross national borders. It would be like having a dollar from Massachusetts and a dollar from Idaho. If this is really to work – at least, in my mind – you have to make a banknote that is stronger and more visible than the dollar (two-thirds of US currency circulates outside the US). This is the money for 350 million people.

“It would be a lot of fun if Europe really had the best banknotes in the world. But my fear is they will be non-designed, in the way that most banknotes are, looking like the result of a committee – everything thrown in, plus, plus, plus!”

So stand by for something that looks more like a Turkish rug than money. Oxenaar is not optimistic about his own chances: the head of the Dutch national bank has won the job of first boss of the European Central Bank, and it might be unseemly for a Dutchman to be designing the bank- notes too.

As Oxenaar says, it’s a lottery. What I want to know is, once they start printing the new notes, what kind of safe will they store them in? The ECB needs to stockpile 12 billion notes to replace those currently in circulation in the 15 states. That’s a European money-mountain.

Latest articles