How to design banknotes

Within days of each other The Bank of England announced it would introduce Winston Churchill to its £5 note and the Federal Reserve Bank in the US unveiled a new $100 bill.

Concept design for the new £5, featuring Winston Churchill
Concept design for the new £5, featuring Winston Churchill

The challenge faced by both banks is how to keep ahead of counterfeiting but also reconcile this with a recognisable design featuring an appropriate and popular figurehead.

Last week Governor of the Bank of England Sir Mervin King announced that Sir Winston Churchill is to replace Elizabeth Fry on the reverse of the new £5 note.

The announcement punctuates a long process of selection and design that will end with the note’s introduction as tender in 2016.

It began with a decision by the Bank of England – which says it considers suggestions from the public – to put forward Churchill as the new personality, a decision which was rubber-stamped by King.

Only ‘eminent British personalities’ can be considered and particularly historical figures who have made an ‘indisputable contribution’ to their field according to the Bank of England.

Next comes a very practical consideration – if there is enough usable material available from which to select what might be considered an accurate representation of the individual – a pressing concern in the case of a historical figures such as William Shakespeare.

Design is handled at the Bank of England, not the Royal Mint – which  deals exclusively with coins – and De La Rue is understood to be involved in the process, but cannot comment on its involvement.

It is the notes division, that oversees the design of new tender within the Bank of England. This team will work on any new design, with the wider and seemingly vital objective of keeping people’s confidence in the currency.

The design of each note is now the responsibility of a team but was once the role of an individual, Harry Ecclestone, the first full-time banknote designer at the Bank of England, who was responsible for the design of the pound note. He worked at the bank from 1958 until 1983.

 Although it may be subject to some changes, the new £5 note comprises a portrait of Winston Churchill taken from a photograph shot in Ottawa by Yousuf Karsh on 30 December 1941.

It sits in front of a view of Westminster and the Elizabeth Tower taken from the Southbank looking across Westminster Bridge.

The Elizabeth Tower – previously called the Clock Tower, but effectively rebranded in the name of The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee – shows three o’clock, the approximate time that Churchill declared to Parliament, ‘I have nothing to offer but blood toil, tears and sweat’.

This phrase has been set on the bottom of the note as a quote and in the background is an image of the Nobel Prize medal, which Churchill was awarded in 1953 for literature, along with the wording of the prize citation.

These elements have to come together to create a look, which is recognisable as a UK banknote and also incorporates various security and anti-fraud measures.

 In 2011 the Bank of England redesigned its £50 note, which was introduced with eight rather then five security measures.

These included a new motion thread technology, which is woven directly into the paper and appears as a semi-translucent  feature with five windows displaying images of the £ symbol and the number 50.

When the note is tilted from side-to-side the images appear to move up and down. Similarly when the note is tilted up and down the images appear to move from side-to-side, with the 50 and £ symbols switching position.

 The same technology has gone into the new $100 bill, which features a blue 3D security ribbon and will be introduced on 8 October. 

The new $100 bill
The new $100 bill

The Federal Reserve Board worked with the Department of Treasury, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and The United States Secret Service to bring the new design – which was held back by a production delay – into circulation. 

It’s the culmination of what the Federal Reserve says is a ten-year research and design development to stay ahead of counterfeiting, a process which has also led to the introduction of a copper colour inkwell and bell on the front of the note that turns green when tilted.

One thing which is also clear is banknote redesign is a sensitive subject. Historically public reaction is often to feel protective over the outgoing currency while people feel reluctant to have to change money up – particularly if it’s stuffed under their mattress.

This week the choice of Churchill, which was ‘indisputable’ according to the Bank of England has been brought into question, but mainly because of the oversight of not choosing another woman to replace Fry.   

It’s not clear how much the Bank of England does listen to the public suggestions though. Here’s the list it currently holds of suggestions:

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