Designing Banknotes

19Oct08

Yesterday I found a old 5 guilder banknote in my closet. An fantastic looking banknote from 1973. And as everyone seems to be talking about money these days, why not post something on the design of money.

The banknote triggered my curiosity and I wanted to learn more about this designer. In my opinion these banknotes designed by R.D.E. Oxenaar are some of the best designed banknotes in history.

They each have their own distinctive color and identity. The use of Helvetica is simple but so effective and the illustrations are just great. But it’s much more interesting when the designer himself talks about his own work. The following text is an excerpt from a lecture held in 1987 by R.D.E. Oxenaar.

Banknotes are very fascinating. They represent a microcosm, a microworld but, on the other hand, they are issued in incredible numbers, you know. Once a design gets accepted for a banknote like a 10 guilder note, then it is printed and reprinted over and over again for twenty years. The number of banknotes issued is enormous. And that means extra should have exactly the same quality as the first.

I realised that the other side to this vast issue of banknotes was that everyone has this thing in their pocket and has to operate with it every day. So, it is just an everyday design product. It is an industrial design in fact. Everybody has to use it. I made it as clear as possible, as individual as possible, so that you could easily see, even as a foreigner, what the currency is that you have in your hand. Is it a five or is it a ten or does it have another value?

I came to the conclusion that things like the dollar were not very clear. It is politics. You can of course say, it is important that you see what you have in your hand in order to be able to check whether it has been forged or not. That is a way of justifying the production of notes which all look alike. But I don’t think it’s nice to the public, you know. I have chosen to adopt another approach, in the belief that what you must make clear is the value of the individual notes.

The only money I had seen which was as clear as I wanted money to be was Monopoly money, the pretend money. That was nice money in my eyes, so I hope that my own work looks a little bit like that because it only real example of clear money. Clear for children, clear for grown-ups.

You can see the differences between the things I had to make in the first series. I had got a commission for five banknotes; 5 guilders, 10 guilders, 25 guilders, 100 guilders and 1000 guilders. The Bank of the Netherlands made it very clear to me what they wanted. The bank, by the way is not the government, it’s an autonomous Dutch bank. It is also of course not private but it makes its own decisions. They specified that the notes had to have portraits on them of famous historical figures which would not create any political problems. And I accepted that but at the same time made the suggestion that it was not necessary to be so careful. I didn’t believe that anybody knew who the people were who
were represented on the banknotes. That turned out to be true. After we conducted some polls, it was clear that nobody knew who these people were.

I chose very elementary colours because it was a small series of only five values. So I went for the easy options, in fact. What I tried was to be as white as possible in the background and by contrast as clear and brilliant of colour as was technically possible. The objective was to use very clear typography, so that when you folded up the note you could see what the value of the banknote was at least four times.

I also did things for the blind. I was really amazed that this sort of thing was being done for the first time in the world. I didn’t realize that at the time. We did a lot of research into what it was possible to do for blind and near-sighted people and we hit upon these small things on the left-hand side, little balls that you can feel.

I think it is necessary that a good design is good to use every day but on the other hand I think it is very valuable if there is something personal in it. That you can see it is made by an individual.



2 Responses to “Designing Banknotes”

  1. I agree, these things were masterpieces! I do so regret not having saved a new example of each. Especially when held up to the light, causing the composition on both sides, and the watermark to merge into one composition. The watermark on the 50 guilder note was a bee. And the 250 contained tiny linear renderings of the signals of all the lighthouses.


  1. 1 four desultory notes; the eidetic sail « troutfactory notebook

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