Money troubles

The secrecy behind the pitch and design commission of new European currency has turned the exercise into a fiasco, says Joost Smiers. Joost Smiers is director of the Central for Research at Utrecht School of the Arts in The Netherlands

While the euro debate continues its unwieldy way, the governors of the 15 European central banks are busy planning a series of seven forgery-proof European bank notes in time for the release date. But what should they show? A cynic might say there’s common European ground in images of World War II, or of the Dutch war against Spain. But of course that would be counterproductive, and bank notes and coins are supposed to radiate stability.

So what kind of feeling should the notes and coins of a united Europe project? It is remarkable that the central bank governors and their advisors have failed to hit the obvious solution to this thorny question. After all, what do the European Union states have in common? Besides the economic movement of persons, goods and services, the common factor in Europe is – or at least should be – the state as the embodiment of the rule of law.

Around 30 designers in 15 countries have been invited to participate in the design of the currency. Unusually, while their identities have been kept secret, the names of Dutch contributors Ootje Oxenaar, Jaap Drupsteen and Inge Madle have been published. They have all been commissioned to produce design. Naturally, this has to incorporate a series of security requirements, the terms of which are rather vague. Portraits of major personalities or other figures are one possibility – the identities are still secret – as long as there are as many men as women. They can also produce future oriented design. In fact, the terms of the assignment are broad. It’s as if the governors have admitted to having no idea how to encapsulate the images and ambience of a united Europe in a series of seven bank notes and are calling on designers for ideas.

Dutch designer Anthon Beeke has called it the “grapeshot” approach. And the philosophical impotence displayed by the commissioning agents of the biggest public assignment at the end of this century is astounding.

It is embarrassing to see how responsibility for the assignment has been shifted to the designer, whose role is not to initiate on questions of content.

And it is odd that those responsible for the commission have not chosen to portray their definition of the European Union as an area in which persons, goods and services can move freely. If we were to accept the positive premise on which the union is founded, it should be considered useful, and indeed profitable, to bring this economic traffic under the umbrella of a single currency (whether it is necessary or even desirable is presently a matter of debate).

But depicting aspects of economic life on bank notes is a risky business. After all, a proud bastion of the economy can disintegrate from one moment to the next.

Representations on notes and coins, and especially the mental image they provide, have always played a part in presenting the public image of those in power – a power that ensures welfare, culture and a tranquil relationship with nature – and ultimately a power capable of guaranteeing the value of money.

A host of different solutions have been found, including depictions of the sovereign, of historical figures, of scenes portraying society in a positive light, of buildings that imbue the nation with a sense of pride or, more recently, of abstract designs providing brief and concise evidence of the union’s technological advantage among its rivals. The style attempts to infuse a sense of reliability and propriety, as well as radiating an “us” feeling.

Assuming economic exchange is not a potential theme in the European context, an obvious area to examine is that of the common legal framework in which economic and social relations take place. What is it that gives commerce in Europe its stability? Stability is not only achieved and guaranteed through regulations relating to the economy. Even more important are the norms and values anchored in the European Treaty of Human Rights and in many of the European constitutions. Since euro notes are planned for seven values, I envisage seven cardinal norms in the various designs, namely: the rule of law and democracy, integrity of the human being, social equality and freedom from want, sustainable development, cultural diversity and non-discrimination, and equal rights to communicate freely.

So how should these fundamental themes be depicted? Naturally, the easiest solution is to let candidate designers think of ideas themselves. But here too, the initial responsibility lies with the authorities commissioning the design. It is up to them to outline the feeling the notes should exude. Should they be moralistic? Funny? Sombre? Chic? The possibilities are endless.

In short, a choice has to be made; not by the designers, since they have their own role: the design. It is not their business to decide what tone to set in the means of exchange.

Indeed, designing for the public sector – which still includes currency – is hard enough these days. After all, we live in a world immersed in images endangered by the commercial sector. And the values which are fundamental to commercial design are quite different from what is intended, or what ought to be intended, in communication about public matters. For example, the central principle of democracy is that everyone is equal, while commerce is about exclusion, winning and losing. Democracy is a slow process, but trade is about seizing opportunities, even if this means ignoring social and cultural interests.

Naturally, these two worlds should be presented in completely different ways. However, commercially inspired images have become so dominant that designers find it increasingly difficult to create images and ambience not touched by these influences and reflecting public norms and values.

The actual commission is also quite different. It would hardly be practical for all 360 million Europeans to decide on terms for the design of the new euro. Yet the opposite state of affairs, where secrecy is paramount, is equally unacceptable.

In the present construction, who commissions the design? Naturally, it is the governors of the national central bank. For the euro, that means 15 governors. In the end, it is they who decide.

But they are public servants and the currency they issue – as well as the values that the notes project and their stability – are a public matter. The central banks and the European Monetary Institute should have allowed a public debate.

It would have shown that the values of the law are what binds the 360 million Europeans together and that this is what should form the basis of the new euro design. Designers would then have had the magnificent task of interpreting the seven norms and values on which Europe is based through powerful images relevant to every corner of Europe.

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