(Note: I didn't intend to publish this entry for a few weeks, but due to a
mistake on my part it ended up in the RSS feed for a lot of people yesterday.
As a result, I'll just post it now. My apologies if you see it twice in
your RSS client.)
OK, hold on. First thing: if any of my managers are reading, I actually
love money. It lets me buy things that make me and my family happy.
Mmmmmm, money! Don't miss this critical point.
For it's not actually money I hate. It's American currency. Our
paper money. I'm so disappointed in the random and scattershot way our
paper currency has evolved over the last decade. It seems that the folks
at the US Bureau of Engraving and
Printing are really only worried about making money more secure and not
about taking advantage of the opportunity to beautify, simplify, or modernize
the usability of our currency. Last week, the money folks announced yet
redesign of the $10 bill, this one uglier than the last one. Change is
good, but not when it's constantly additive and pursued tentatively.
(I also think we should get rid of pennies and take the hard steps it
would take to get rid of the dollar bill and popularize the dollar coin--but
that's for another day.)
I was born in the later half of the 1970s. The design of paper money
was something, growing up, that I felt in my gut was set in stone. I never
considered that it would change in my lifetime. Each of the bills was the
same shape, the same color, and pretty much the same design. The familiar
$1, $5, $10, and $20 bills
(pretty much all I saw as a kid) were vaguely made more interesting by the
existence of the exotic but
rarely seen $2 bill.
These were bill designs that hadn't changed in decades; I don't know that they
were the most beautiful or inspiring designs, but they all matched and had a
sense of solidness and history to them. I remember touring Europe with the
International Youth Symphony Orchestra when I was a teenager and feeling
somewhat smug about not having
Then, in the late 1990s,
designs for new bills
were released. Featuring a big, off-center presidential head, these
bills included a number of new anti-counterfeiting measures as well as featuring
new accessibility and other design upgrades. This seemed OK to me. I
watched a PBS special on the engravers whose job it was to create the woodprints
used to print the presidential portrait and kind of admired the care to detail
they put into the work. It took several years from start to finish, and
the result I thought was pretty nice.
They started with the high bills and eventually the new design worked its way
down to the bills I regularly see: $20, $10, and then $5. And then,
eventually, I thought, the $1 bill. But no--as abruptly as they started,
they stopped, leaving the most commonly used bill in the unmatching older design
and all the others with the new design. This guaranteed that our currency
could never again match in style. In addition, the old bills remain in
circulation, meaning that there were two versions of all the higher bills
floating around. I know the money folks say that eventually all the old
money wears out, but I still see a lot of old-style bills.
Why not update the $1 bill to look like the rest of our currency? I can
understand why they wouldn't bother to design a $1 bill with all of the
elaborate anti-counterfeit technology in it, but how about just making the
president big and off-centered to match the rest of the bills? Surely we
could have just updated the visual design? I feel like some kind of
closure on the whole process was never reached.
Fast forward to the 2000's. Now, our "new" off-center presidential
heads aren't enough--I guess people figured out how to photocopy them or
another new design for currency needs to be introduced. Again, we
won't retire any of the old bills, meaning that there are now three
versions of the $50, $20, and $10 in circulation.
But worst of all, the new currency is so unbelievably ugly and unmatched.
They tried to introduce color, but in a way such that the bills would still be
gray-green. This is because their research showed that Americans would be
too stupid to be actually able to use real colored money. So, instead what
we get is a new $20 bill that looks like it was dragged through a mud puddle.
And now a new $10 that looks like someone spilled a little cranberry sauce on
And this time, we're not doing the $5 bill either, meaning that they're
actively engraving 3 totally mismatched styles of money with absolutely no plans
(even long-term) to rectify the situation. I'm a patient guy, and I
understand the engineering difficulties probably involved in tooling for new
bills--but in 50 years we're still planning to just have a scattershot, reactive
currency that looks like every bill was designed by a different committee?
It makes me embarrassed.
What might a good national currency look like? Well, at the very least,
all the bills should look like the same country made them. That means
similar typography and layout. All one color would be good, or a
different, clear color per bill (ala the Australian dollar)
would be good as well. Clear colors for each bill does make rooting around
in a wallet easier, and I bet Americans could handle it. Some currencies
use bigger bills for larger denominations (such as the Euro.) This seems
like it could be handy as well, but perhaps it causes problems in practice with
smaller bills getting lost between larger ones?
And lastly, come up with a plan to have a currency that is technologically
advanced enough to last for 100 years. Or that is designed well enough
that the currency can continue to be technologically updated without having to
mess with the visual design all the time.
With most things in the world, I'm glad that the designs evolve and change:
cars, clothing, music, software. But currency is not one of those areas in
which we need to constantly innovate the design, particularly if we never have
plans to retire any of the old designs.
Come up with a beautiful, standard, accessible, usable design, even if it
means breaking away from tradition. And then let's redo all the bills to
match and stick with it for a while. OK?