Graphic design and security; The Yin and Yang of banknote printing

Article published on Oct. 9, 2017
Article published on Oct. 9, 2017

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

There are two main ways in which a banknote design can fail, and both pertain to human feelings. 

If the security systems built within the banknotes are too loose, the bill will quickly become counterfeit, and users of the banknote will lose their trust in its value. If the pictural design is bland, it will fail to do what banknotes are designed to do: bring people together and make them feel that they are part of one large endeavour. At each corner of a banknote, there is an expertise too great for one man alone to master. 

It’s easy to miss the point of currency, as many of us ever think of it when we see exchange rates listed on a cold hard screen. Money is, in fact, a tremendously emotional matter. Wherever it goes, whoever has it, it creates emotions all around it. The young and struggling worker dreams of it at night, tossing and turning in his bed, wrought with worries and ambition. When he makes his first pile of cash, he slides his fingers onto it for hours, feeling the grain of the paper, sighing in relief. Behind money, there is work. And through work, there are all of the adventures and challenges which make our lives worthwhile. 

And so, the banknote represents both the past and the future of those who hold it. In that, it is a fantastically powerful symbol. The citizens with a banknote in his pocket has it because of what he did the day before (be that work hard or… rob a bank) and he is thinking about what he will do with it tomorrow. It represents a nation’s capacity to come together and work as one, and it embodies the hopes contained within a national project - or sometimes even supranational currencies.  Therefore, its design can never be taken too lightly.

The first Euro banknote was, for instance, an example of banknote design fail. Journalist Angelique Chrisafis smashed the Euro banknote for its lack of character in 2012, for the Guardian: ” The design was deliberately tepid. The notes feature neither people nor places, just bland, fake architecture that doesn't exist”. Ten years ago, the French economist Andre Orlean suspected this would become a problem: "Look at the symbolism: bridges and imaginary windows. The euro isn't anchored in the past, it's virtual, it doesn't correspond to any reality."  The French ethnologist Patrick Prado called it a "ghost money", with "no reference, no country, no past, no roots, no memory, defined by no value other than itself". He cautioned: "What will history make of this denial of images, this wiping out of the symbolic?"

In fact, what Chrisafis spotted, was that by trying to represent all people on its banknote, the European central bank represented no one. By trying to make sure it favored no single member within the Union (it had previously renounced the term European Currency Unit - as the word Ecu was a reminder of the ancient French currency), it failed to arouse any feeling at all, in anyone. 

Eng Siak Loy, who designed the longest-living set of currency for Singapore, knows how important artistic expression is, to make citizens adhere to banknotes, and the country behind it - as he was selected to draw the entire set of national currency.  Angela Teng studied his work, and reported it in Today Online :”While Mr Eng had to adhere to the themes set by the design committee, he had free rein on the details and elements to include. For example, the S$5 green banknote featured the garden city theme, and Mr Eng incorporated in the design an image of a Tembusu tree from the Singapore Botanic Gardens. In the background, he included a waterfront and a skyline of buildings. On the back of the S$2 violet banknote which had the education theme, he drew the old buildings of Victoria Bridge School (now known as Victoria School) and Raffles Institution which Mr Yusof had attended in his youth.

Of course, design hinges on security, as there is no point in designing a beautiful and inspiring banknote if it is pulled out of circulation months later, because its low-security feature enabled counterfeiters to copy it. Thomas Savare, head of security printer Oberthur Fiduciaire, has supplied over 70 central banks in the world with banknotes for their economies. He confirms that only the conjunction of a strong mind and a big heart will pass muster in this business : ”we aim at cultivating this aesthetic sense, which we place at the service of the cultures of the entire world [...] banknote printing is an industry governed by permanent challenge: that of staying several steps ahead of counterfeiters”. This very narrow space to evolve is the tricky challenge of companies like Oberthur Fiduciaire, and also the reason so few banknote printers exist in the world. In order to make their banknotes unbreakable, Oberthur Fiduciaire had to patent close to 100 fabrication secrets, keep tight control of its supply chain and maintain drastic security measures in its production premises. This applies to all production plants, including its most recent units in Bulgaria or in Netherlands, where domestic standards exceed the ECB demands, as in all Oberthur factories.

Angelique Chrisafis concludes with a parting shot: “If half of the euro's neighbours, including many Balkan states, look up to it, others look down on it, not least the Swiss with their famously beautiful notes.”  The irony says it all: when asked about their economy, the Swiss gleam with pride at the outstanding economic machinery their people have designed - pride which reflects on their note.  The same swell of vanity will be seen when asking an Englishman to describe his pounds. Ask any Euro-using European about his own currency, it is doubtful you will get more than a shrug and a dull response.