worth the paper

...the overall effect, as Michael Beirut said, “is a cake that has been decorated to within an inch of its life.”


The mightiest trick of any print designer is to imbue the object of his creation with value beyond the paper it’s printed on. And there isn’t a more important document anywhere than paper money. Of course, at one time, the US dollar was backed by silver and gold, but now it’s literally just a piece of paper that proclaims “Believe in the brand called United States of America,” (and fortunately, most do. Thank you China.)

The United States’ has taken a beating lately and some have suggested that it might be due to the design of our currency. For years I have complained about the look of American currency in the design history class I teach at the University of Utah. Particularly compared to European currency, and particularly lately.

The historic design of the dollar bill has been very traditional, based upon certificates and steel engravings, partly to suggest value, and partly to discourage counterfeiters. The overall effect, as Michael Beirut said, “is a cake that has been decorated to within an inch of its life.” In recent years, the design of the American dollar has moved from a symmetrically balanced layout, with traditional serif typography, to an off-kilter design incorporating a giant purple Helvetica number on the reverse side. The integration is terribly out of sync.

I have always been fascinated with quasi-religious iconography and in this regard, the US dollar doesn’t disappoint. In the words of one commentator, the inclusion of the all-seeing eye and the pyramid make the dollar “look as if it was the product of some kind of semi-divine revelation.” The all-seeing eye graces everything from Mormon temples to Masonic aprons and certainly gives the dollar some potency in branding the ubiquitous power of the USA.

The design of paper money usually attempts to evoke the national identity of the country. Compared to the United States, Europeans often strive for modernity and are more successful in integrating traditional and modern forms in the same solution. The Swiss even turned their banknotes on their side, in a vertical format and they include non-political portraits like modernist architect Le Corbusier. There is really an infinite range of graphic possibilities and no limits—except the designer’s imagination—shown in these dramatic examples of the new banknotes project for the Swiss National Bank.

Europeans actually hire designers whereas in the US, it’s the work of a 147-year-old government agency called the United States Bureau of Engraving and Printing. The agency employs 2,500 people, and has an annual budget of $525,000,000.  Now if only there was a United States Bureau of Design and Branding.

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