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Blending Art and Trivial: the Craft of Designing and Securing Banknotes

Andy Warhol once said, “Making money is art“. And he knew what he was talking about: even decades after his death, his artworks are still in high demand. So, there is another category of artists in the world. Hidden from the public eye.

Is banknote design really that important?

A few years ago, the Dutch Central Bank conducted (1) an interesting poll on security of banknotes. It turned out that an average person remembers only one or two security features. At the same time, another study showed that the right, “user-friendly” design helps us identify the authenticity of a banknote.

An interesting case with the new € 50 banknote clearly shows the importance of how our cash looks like. The ECB worked (2) in collaboration with Stanford University neuroscientist David Eagleman to devise a new design for the bill. As a result, the new € 50 turned out to be suitable not only for automatic counterfeit detectors, but for humans too. “Governments care enormously about the security features; the populace does not…. There was no point spending a massive amount on security features that were noticed only by security experts.”

The new banknote depicts Europa, the Greek goddess after whom the continent was named. David Eagleman explains this choice from the scientific point of view: “The human brain is massively specialized for faces, but has little neural real estate devoted to edifices. As forged watermarks are generally hand-drawn, it would be much easier to spot an imperfect face than an imperfect building.”

The secret of Norwegian sea

But why, after all, was it decided to choose Europa, not someone real, like American Presidents on dollar bills? The whole point is that a banknote carries not only practical, but also cultural sense.

Every country carefully approaches design of banknotes, trying to reflect not only monetary, but also cultural value on the paper. Just look at those sea-themed Norwegian krone (3) notes. Aren’t they beautiful? Trond Eklund, Director of Norges Bank’s Cashier’s Department, tells (4) about the process of designing the bill: “Finding a theme for the new banknote series has been an extensive and exciting process, with a creative input of ideas from various contributors.”  Mr. Eklund confirms that the image of the sea has always been indispensable for his people: “We have chosen a theme we consider to be original and particularly relevant for Norway, which is a small country but a major coastal nation. Norway has a total coastline of 83 000 km, the longest in Europe. The use of marine resources, combined with the use of the sea as a transport artery, has been crucial to the development of Norway’s economy and society.”

It’s not just about appearance

The Norwegian krone is not the only banknote that depicts nature. Creators of the Swiss franc went even further and pictured (5) elements – wind, light and water. Well, apparently it was a good choice since the International Bank Note Society recognized (6) the Swiss franc banknote of the year 2016.

Thomas Savare, CEO of French security printing company Oberthur Fiduciaire, is one that deals with banknotes design on a daily basis. He explains (7) these choices: “As a French company, and a century-old one too, we know the amount of history, culture and patriotic feeling people and governments put into their bills. To create a good banknote, we must be capable of identifying what nations are the proudest of and attached to, and then represent it beautifully on the currency.” 

However, not only design helped the franc win this nomination. This bill was the first hybrid (polymer + paper) banknote, which won this contest, and the IBNS put a special focus on it in its press release. This statement again brings us back to the practical meaning of banknotes design – it’s not just about appearance.

The list of technical specifications of a modern banknote is long. There are points such as special printing making the ink feel raised in the main image, cotton fibres, watermarks and many others. These are basic security features, easily seen with the naked eye.

However, banknotes are fraught with a few more peculiarities that you won’t spot at a glance. They are hidden in the drawings, paper and even the size of the bill, and most of them can only be found with the help of counterfeit detectors.

For security reasons, most of the production process is kept away from the public. However, Oberthur Fiduciaire’s head reveals (8) a bit of the mystery: “Banknote paper is very specific one, only used for banknotes, and manufactured by extremely niche suppliers who will only sell to recognized banknote printers. The same goes for the ink, which is made exclusively for banknote printing. The ink is resistant and has integrated security features, to be long lasting. You won’t find these requirements anywhere else in the printing industry. It’s very unique – from the holograms designed for banknotes to the threads specifically designed to be incorporated in the banknote paper. The entire supply chain is dedicated to this industry and that’s a large part of the security of a banknote.”

Blending everyday life and art

So, it turns out that a banknote actually exists under two guises: as an everyday object and as a piece of art. The main challenge for banknote designers and engineers is to mingle these two faces into one.

Banknote designer Carlos Almenar, who worked for Oberthur Fiduciaire, and Innovia Security, tries to describe (9) the tricky process: “This is my biggest challenge: to achieve distinct dimensions of effects, transparency and opacity that can be understood by the central bank and accepted by the public. Users must be able to quickly authenticate the note, and banknote accepting machines must also be able to decode security features immediately.”


1) Management Banknotes_tcm46-145666.pdf

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