A couple of years ago a working group from the fifteen Central Banks (two members from every country) has asked a group of experts to propose ideas about what should be represented on the new banknotes.
For many of them it was self-evident that on the banknotes there should come portraits. Partly because this is the case in many member states (although historically this is a relatively recent phenomenon); partly because it is supposed that the expression of the face of someone on the banknote is the best weapon which helps the normal people to recognize counterfeited banknotes.
It seems that at the end the working group was not excited about the actual proposals on portraits – selected under the heading ages and styles – of the group of experts. Also the counterfeiting argument in favour of portraits is loosing support.
- The Commissioning
- Designer’s Proposals
- The Back of the Banknotes
- A First “Independent” Criticism (February 9, 1996)
- The Dialogoe between Commissioners and Designers
- Commercial Purposes versus Public Matters
- The Design of Banknotes
- The Need for a wider Public Debate
- To Conclude
Meanwhile the decision has been made by the National Central Banks, united in the European Monetary Institute in Frankfurt, that every National Central Bank may ask not more than three designers in their country to make designs for the new euro. Some countries have selected only one designer, others two or three. The reason is that in some countries the Central Bank works always with freelance designers, in other countries the designs of the banknotes are made by designers from the internal staff (and in some countries the printing works are part of the Central Bank; so the engravers have a great say).
What is the character of the commissioning for the contest now? There are two categories. One is ages and styles: the portraits as proposed by the group of experts, however the designers are free to choose other subjects in this category as well. The second category is forward looking.
Concluding one may say that actually the designers have a great freedom to do what they like. Of course they must follow all rules concerning safety standards. Also the colours for the different values are given. The banknotes which will be used the most will get the primary colours: 10 euro: red, 20 euro: blue, 50 euro: yellow; and then we will get 100 euro: green, 200 euro: orange, and 500 euro: purple. One may recognize the colours based on the colour principles described by Johannes Itten. The banknote of 5 euro will get the colour grey.
The designers must make the complete design of two banknotes; for the other five they must indicate roughly how they will look like. Undecided, or secret, is what may happen with the texts we usually find on banknotes which generally tell us something about counterfeiting and about the value of the banknote. Will those texts be shown in fifteen languages, or only in the languages of the countries which will participate in the euro? Or will there be nearly no text on the paper currency? And what about the name of God or Mohammed or Moses and Aäron on the coins?
Since a couple of weeks all over Europe the selected designers are drawing or computering their proposals. One may guess that around thirty or thirty five designers all over Europe are at work. The names of them are unknown as far as the information goes; the Dutch Central Bank has made public that they asked Ootje Oxenaar and Jaap Drupsteen and an engraver, Ms. Madlé, of the printing works Joh. Enschede (which prints the banknotes for the Dutch Central Bank). They asked those three because they have already experience with designing banknotes; this helps because the banks are all of the sudden in a hurry, 1999 is near.
If their designs will satisfy all safety standards according to the judgment of the own National Central Bank they will send to Frankfurt. What will happen next September in the headquarters of the European Monetary Union which in a couple of years will be transformed in the European Central Bank? That is not yet clear. Perhaps the bank directors personally must make a choice after consultation with some experts to warn them for mistakes. The choice will be kept secret until the moment the publicity on the finished banknotes will start. Counterfeiters must not know too early how to start their production process. However, the chance exists that there will come some publicity on an earlier moment because the National Central Banks and the politicians who are in favour of the unitary European currency may like to influence the debate by showing what it is all about!
When the bank directors will make their choice, will they know who is the designer from which draft design? The idea is that this process of selection for the ultimate commissioning will be anonymous. However, is it probable that the director of a National Central Bank will not know the draft design originating from his (or her?) own country? There is a chance that in this contest a draft design will be selected for the real commission from a designer who comes from a country which will not join the euro!
It is not yet sure whether one designer will be commissioned to design all seven banknotes or that seven designers will be commissioned to make each one banknote.
The Back of the Banknotes
Another question is also not yet fully decided. There is still discussion on the question whether on the back of the banknotes twenty percent of the space will be reserved for a national design. This is a strange question because the banknotes may function all over Europe! Concerning the aesthetics it will be more than a challenge to combine the general designs of the banknotes with those national Fremdkörper.
Concerning the new coins a similar procedure has started.
A First “Independent” Criticism (February 9, 1996)
On February 9, 1996 the British newspaper The Independent published a critical article on the procedure which says: ‘Sadly, the EMI seems to be approaching the competition in the most boring way possible, by asking Central Banks to send in their entries. Instead, it should be opening up the competition to young people and artists, to schools and colleges. The traditional approaches to banknote design will lead nowhere. . . . If the euro is to capture the imagination, then it must break some of the rules of traditional banknote design and do something new. Under the draft contest rules, the winning design will be based on a common European theme picturing buildings, animals, trains or cars.’
One may wonder whether The Independent is correct in its conclusion. Those subjects – buildings, animals, trains or cars – are a possibility but actually the designers have the freedom to go in all the directions their creativity may lead them.
This actual freedom designers have in this European contest sounds nice, and perhaps it may work: let the designers themselves solve one of the most difficult and important commissioning questions we have in Europe nowadays. And then we may hope that the fifteen bank directors may make a good choice.
The Dialogue between Commissioners and Designers
One may understand this procedure because concerning public matters we don’t know anymore – or, since democracy exists less and less – how to bring about a productive dialogue between commissioners and designers. Such a productive dialogue is necessary because the commissioner is responsible, not the designer. It is the initiative of the commissioner to communicate by the means of a work of graphic design which, in the case of the banknote, and the coin, expresses a certain value; not only a value, but also the philosophy behind this value and a whole set of connotations.
It is the commissioner who must decide what kind of themes and what kind of mentality must express the wish to let circulate banknotes and coins. At the other side, the designer is the person who has the capacity to clarify this mentality, those themes, and those safety standards in material form. The designer does what the commissioner can’t do: that is to make images and representations which tell a story and which have many different layers so that many people of many different cultural backgrounds feel attracted, or at least acquainted to it, year after year. The designer knows about the working and connotations of images, colours, shapes and representations and is able to shape them to a form. When there is a productive dialogue between the commissioner and the designer the visions of two perhaps stubborn persons may bring the design eventually on a higher level.
Commercial Purposes versus Public Matters
Both, designers, who work for public commissioning, and public commissioners have since several decades a problem. The designers live in a world which is full of designs made for commercial purposes. The values behind such commercial designs are of course completely different from what is meant by communication on public matters. It represents another way of thinking and consequently also another way of representation. It is not only different, it should be different as well.
For instance, democracy is about inclusion; commerce is about exclusion, is about winning or losing. Democracy is about participation and about equal chances. Democracy is a slow process; trade challenges you to take your chance now and to forget about broader sets of, maybe social, interests. Obviously those two worlds – the public domain and the commercial interests – must be represented on completely other ways. In a world in which the respect for the public matter is declining one sees also that the design which is meant for commercial purposes is becoming the dominant standard which influences the ambiance of the public communication as well.
So the designers who work for the public cause have the problem how to create representations which really tell something about what is characteristic for the public debate, for the public affairs, for democracy. They must create designs which may be felt as integrated parts of the public sector of social life and which must be recognisable as such. But the tradition how to do this is becoming swept away under the torrent of commercial images. The commercial ways of thinking are an inseparable part of those images and of the mentality which pushed the creativity.
The Design of Banknotes
Of course this conflict becomes a very sharp one in the case of the design of banknotes and coins. Are those representations of value still part of the public domain or do they belong exclusively to the commercial sector and to the philosophies which are the essential part of it? And if they are still part of the public domain what does this really mean at the end of the twentieth century? Obviously, for the commissioning and for the design it may matter enormously how we consider money in the future European context.
This brings us to the commissioner. After all, the commissioner must decide with what connotations the money will function in the Europe of the twenty first century. However, who is the commissioner? The answer may be a simple one – the bank director -, but the reality is more complex in a democracy. The Central Bank fulfils a public task in the European countries. Whatever the precise procedure in every country may be, there is always a link between the bank and the minister of finance and thereby with the parliament. Saying this we must conclude that every citizen is also the commissioner. It is obvious that this is not a helpful and certainly not practical conclusion.
With reason the observation must be made that we are still at the start to learn how to commission works of design with such important public implications. If we don’t care about democracy there is no problem at all. It is quite simple: the bank director decides and asks perhaps for advice. Of course, at the end that is the way it should happen, because the director represents the public interest.
The Need of a wider Public Debate
But in a democracy this decision must be the fruit of a wider public debate, not only a debate in which designers participate. The debate must go on questions such as what are really the ideas or themes which must be represented on the paper money and coins in the new European context. Should it be buildings, animals, trains or cars? Really buildings, animals, trains or cars?
I don’t belief so. Perhaps we should represent on our banknotes and coins the important democratic values with which we try to build up the European society; one may think about democracy, social justice and equality, personal integrity, cultural diversity, the constitutional state, sustainable development, safety and protection for all human beings. When I count well I came to seven themes and it seems that there will be issued seven euro banknotes!
Those subjects would be my contribution to the public discussion on the design of the new European banknotes; others would come up with other philosophies and ideas. The discussion should be also about the mentality which must speak out of the design. Should it be fancy, sober, playful or ironic? Should it draw its inspiration from history or should it be implanted in the perspective of the contemporary design? Should the design for every banknote be based on another style?
Nobody could give an answer on such fundamental questions because a public debate on the character of the designs was not animated. Such secrecy is the wrong way of doing in democracy.
Joost Smiers, 1996 (please find this text here in pdf-format)