BY Jennifer Kabat in Opinion | 14 JUL 09

The Buck Stops Here

Re-designing the dollar

BY Jennifer Kabat in Opinion | 14 JUL 09

Money might be best described by Jean Baudrillard’s fabricated quotation from Ecclesiastes: ‘The simulacrum is true.’ In modern times, money’s material value is disconnected from its assumed value; it is basically nothing more than a promise. Rather than being backed by either silver or gold, it is based on confidence in a certain institution – in the Federal Reserve, in the case of the US, or the Bank of England, in the case of the UK. In an era of bailouts and the euphemistic ‘quantitative easing’, both institutions are more than a little precarious.

In the US, designer Richard Smith wants to save our currency by re-branding it. Without waiting for government approval (or perhaps realizing that Obama has more than enough on his plate), Smith set up his own initiative to re-design the dollar. To that end he established a competition that ended – appropriately enough – on the fourth of July. A British brand consultant based in New York, Smith is already known for re-tooling the image of gold for the Gold Council, and has worked for both retail corporation Target and Exxon Mobil (all of whom may well want a say in the future of the dollar bill).


In addition to Smith’s efforts, the US has been quietly playing with money over the last few years. In 2003 slightly off-centre designs were introduced on some notes (the presidents were moved to the side and anti-counterfeiting motifs have been introduced). The bills are most remarkable, however, for their large Helvetica Roman numerals in the bottom corner. The most recently introduced bill – a five-dollar note – has them in purple, the idea being that making the number very big and bright will enable the sight-impaired to read it more easily. (Most other countries prefer to have their notes in different sizes, a far more sophisticated system).


The US has also been tinkering with coinage. In 1999 the Mint introduced the 50-State Quarter Program, so for the past decade all the states – including, this year, outlying provinces and holdings like the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico – are getting honored with their own 25-cent pieces (pictured above and below). This approach certainly celebrates more of the country, and they’re now beginning to include the country’s diversity too. We still don’t have any Latin American or African American coins, but in 2007 the Mint began issuing $1 coins of all the presidents and this year added a series of Native American themes.


We can only assume that these dollar coins are meant for collectors. The UK was smart, phasing out one-pound notes years ago, but in the US consumers don’t want to give up the buck. Unfortunate, given that the dollar bill represents 45% of all US currency in circulation though only lasts, on average, 21 months. Coins, on the other hand, can last nearly forever. There have been a few half-hearted attempts to introduce dollar coins over the last few decades. In the era of the Equal Rights Amendment, Jimmy Carter launched the Susan B Anthony dollar (pictured below) in an effort to get a lady on the currency – only people mistook the coin for a quarter. In 2000 we got a Sacagewea dollar in commemoration of the Shoshone woman who served as a guide to the Lewis and Clark expedition (1803-6). She was only in circulation for two years. Americans want greenbacks, expensive and wasteful as they are.


So it’s hardly surprising that Smith wants to redesign the dollar. On the competition’s website he explains: ‘The “only” realistic way for a swift economic recovery is through a thorough, in-depth, rebranding scheme – starting with the redesign of the iconic US Dollar. The American Dollar has not truly been redesigned since about the 1930s. Besides our great ‘rival’, the Euro, looks so spanky in comparison it seems the only clear way to revive this global recession is to rebrand and redesign.’


And change is in the air with some elegant numismatic developments over the last year. There’s Matthew Dent’s British coinage (pictured above) that turns the Royal Arms into a jigsaw puzzle – and last week netted the 27-year-old designer a prized (and rare) D&AD black pencil award. Stani Michiel’s new Dutch five-Euro piece (pictured below) celebrates the country’s architecture, though could almost be called design by Google. Via an online search, Michiel aggregated the 108 most popular Dutch architects (Rem Koolhaas came out on top), collating the names into a kind of miniature version of a Chuck Close. Together, they form a portrait of Queen Beatrix. Koolhaas’s name appears again on the back, as do Winy Mass’ and UN Studio’s. The spines of their most famous books jut out like the tops of skyscrapers to form the outline of the Netherlands itself.


Dent claimed that one of the benefits of his puzzle-pattern coins was their interactive quality: ‘I could imagine the coins being played with, looked at and enjoyed in a way which was foreign to coinage, and could imagine their appeal for kids messing with them in school as much as for folks in a pub.’ In a sense the US dollar (first designed in 1929 and undergoing subtle changes until 1955 when ‘In God We Trust’ was added) fulfills that aim too. Plenty of people have speculated over its signs and symbols for decades – it’s a fine pursuit for college freshman smoking pot and spouting conspiracy theories.


For the record, that pyramid with the eye and a split an eighth of the way down is part of the Great Seal of the US, created in 1782. The beady eye is literally the All-Seeing Eye, also known as the eye of providence (it watches out for us Americans). Lopped off at the top, the incomplete pyramid is meant to demonstrate that the US is still a work in progress (or, with a new spin, ‘experiencing change’). Then there’s all that Latin like ‘annuit coeptis‘, which the US Mint officially translates as, ‘He (God) has favored our undertakings.’ ‘Novus ordo seclorum‘ translates to ‘a new order of the ages’, signifying the launch of a new American era – and gives the US an almost divine calling, a bit like starting a new Common Era in the year 1776. The myriad coded uses of the number 13 – for example, the 13 layers of stone on the pyramid, the 13 leaves and 13 berries on the olive branch – aren’t some sort of magic. They represent the colonies, all 13 of them that were present at our breakaway from the mother country.

The current bill is certainly fussy and old fashioned, and maybe that’s not a bad thing at the moment; this implied history creates a sense of trust, important when a bill is really just a whispered promise. Perhaps with a president who understands good design, it is time for change, or rather – to quote Obama’s campaign – to have some change we can believe in. Probably the most important reason of all to do is, yes, money. Just from the 50-State quarters alone, the US Mint made a profit of nearly US$3 billion.


Gabriel Eid’s design, a runner-up in Richard Smith’s competition

Smith’s competition ended last week, awarding prizes for – among others – the most charming, most lo-fi and most ironic entries. In Smith’s polling of visitors (on his site one could vote on many things including the very issue of rebranding currency) there was a two-way tie between whom should appear on the new bill. The split? Between President Obama and Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow…


The competition’s overall winner was Kyle Thompson. He wanted his currency to create a ‘hopeful and positive’ image and put on the bills the thinkers who inspired the founding fathers, rather than the fathers themselves. His designs have Thomas Hobbes and John Locke (pictured above) on them. As Thompson writes, his goal was to ‘remind citizens and the world at large of the ideals on which the United States was originally founded.’ His winning entry, which netted him a limited edition T-shirt designed by Smith, also sported one rounded corner on each bill making it easier for the sight-impaired to identify the denominations. Curving a corner also preserves the currency’s current size, so there is no need overhaul the cash point and cash register – an expensive undertaking. Other inspired suggestions had bills made from Tyvek (a virtually indestructible printable fabric most famously used for Fed-Ex labels). My personal favorites were Alex Freund’s patterns of crop fields from the air and Michelle Haft’s images of industry. Then there were the silly suggestions: The United States of Oprah anyone? I personally would rather celebrate Chicago native (and our current president) than the city’s most famous media mogul.

Jennifer Kabat is a writer. She teaches at The New School, New York, USA, and on the MFA Art Writing programme, School of Visual Arts, New York.