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MONEY: The Branding of a Country through the Design of its Currency

People covet it. Countries fight over it. People have dedicated their lives to the control of it. They will even kill for it. Always wanting more, never having enough. It really is not that special. It represents a common article for bartering, a medium for exchange. A mere piece of paper measuring approximately six by two and a half inches, printed on both sides. They say it is the root of all evil, this small and rather unimpressive piece of paper, but for hundreds if not thousands of years, in every country around the world, it represents national pride, historic figures and events as diverse as the pieces of paper themselves. It is money.

What makes a simple piece of paper so important to so many individuals is what will be explored in this paper. Slowly peeling back the layers that go into the creation, production and security of these documents, I discovered common themes and best practices. Each with their own distinct styles, more countries share concepts than don’t.

As many successful businesses know, effective branding and implementation of their brand is key to their success. All countries have a brand. People within and outside of the country have an idea in their minds of what the country represents. In the United States you can find this information outlined succinctly in our Constitution. It is important to also be aware of the history of paper currency - to understand where it came from, why it was needed, and how it was used as a communication tool. Great stories and statements have been made on early currencies, many of these stories remain on notes throughout the world.

From color-shifting inks to microprinting, printing currency is a highly sophisticated process. It is more than just laying ink down on paper. Many modern techniques are pushed to their limits to insure that currency has a unique look and feel as compared to any other printed document. Even the traditional papermaking processes are tested when producing the new media for currency.

A very common element that currencies throughout the world share is the protection of their currency from counterfeiters. Many of the processes, design choices, and methods have all been fine tuned and altered to ensure that the document is nearly impossible to easily duplicate. The United States Treasury sums it up quite succinctly with their motto “Safer. Smarter. More Secure.”

Qualitative research used books, various articles, and websites for branding, history, production, printing, and counterfeiting topics. Quantitative research, in the form of actual collected currencies, lead to the overall design survey. Together the research was used to discover the mysteries behind and within currency. The results of this research shines the light on a subject often taken for granted. In the end, an understanding of building a better, perhaps more secure, note will be uncovered.

Download MONEY: The Branding of a Country through the Design of its Currency [815 Kb], thesis, Syracuse University 2004.

As Richard Zeid Design, Richard has served a wide range of clients from not-for-profit theatre companies in Chicago to Fortune 500. Prior to his self-named practice, he was the corporate senior designer for Morton International, Inc. His work has been recognized by Creativity, Art Direction Magazine, American Corporate Identity, and Graphic Design USA. Most recently his work has been included in the book Logos: Making a Strong Mark published by Rockport Publishing.

As an educator at Columbia College Chicago, he has taught throughout both the graphic design and advertising concentrations for the past 12 years.

Richard received his undergraduate Bachelor’s of Arts degree in design from Columbia College Chicago and his master’s of Arts Degree from Syracuse University in advertising design.

Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON Mar.16.2005 BY Speak Up
Rebecca C.’s comment is:

I believe the quote is:

"For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil." (Emphasis mine.) 1 Timothy 6:10, New International Version, Bible

As a former banker and current designer, this is a thesis topic I can get behind. I love the design of money (evil?) and would love to get a crack at remaking our bland US greenbacks. Can't wait to read your thoughts on this.

On Mar.16.2005 at 09:10 AM
Steven K’s comment is:

Interesting post. Can't wait to read the whole study.

What popped into my mind immediately was the puzzling design of the latest US coin, the Sacagewea dollar.

I read the United States Dollar Coin Act of 1997 that outlines the design's legal requirements, and I can only conclude a coin like this is (obviously) introduced for symbolic reasons, but does it send mixed messages?

Too big and bulky to be practical. Why not shrink the size? Counterfeit concerns, of course. But I also wonder if shrinking the Sacagewea dollar to a practical, carriable size would somehow contradict what it's supposed to represent and symbolize?

On the other hand, does the impractical size of the coin speak negatively about its significance as well? Or maybe the words "In God We Trust" smack next to Sacagewea's face takes care of that?

On Mar.16.2005 at 12:34 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Interesting thesis, but I'm not sure this is about money as a branding tool. The thesis does a very thorough job of explaining the facets of production, design, encryption, and use of monetary bills across the world — but I think the thesis does a very weak job of making a case that legal tender has become relevant, accurate, representative brands for countries across the globe.

Yes, a dollar bill is recognizable. Yes, it has crests and marks and graphic elements unique to it. And yes, the idea of a dollar bill is uniquely American. But that doesn't necessarily mean it's a brand. It's a societal artifact — a tool which we have developed for trade and represents financial worth.

Think of money as a package that displays information for one of our most basic, utilitarian needs. Now, some packaging do indeed become brands — like iPod's box. But most don't. Most milk cartons are just milk cartons. The carton may represent "milk" but it is not a brand. Most TV boxes are just TV boxes. And most currency notes are just currency notes. They may represent financial worth, but to me, they don't embody the culture and personality of a particular country enough to say that money=national brands.

I have to apologize and admit that I did a very quick read of the thesis — and found little support for the main argument besides some basic explanations of what brands are. I'd love to see or be pointed to specific sections that make a connection between legal tender and specific brand development. And historical context, while fascinating, doesn't necessarily make the case.

On Mar.16.2005 at 02:07 PM
richard’s comment is:

Tan: Thanks for your input. May sound odd, but I agree with many points you make. And that is why I chose the topic to explore. there is already a debate over if you can even brand a country, a current article on that topic can be found at Logolounge.com.

I have always felt that as the American Flag is clearly an American icon and thus supports the American brand in what it represents, that currency could do that as well. Looking at other country's currencies only made me want to investiogate the topic and see if it does indeed pan out.

Something does have to be said that our currency is an international currency due to what it represents and its acceptance throughout the world.

I would take you to task regarding the "packaging" idea. If you put iPods in brown paper bags, people would still want them for what they are. If you actually chnaged the iPod, maybe not. The package is certainly an artifact of the brand, but not the brand itself.

Brands are ideas, and in the context of currency those ideas manifest themselves in the pictures, elements, motifs across the faces of these notes. Is it a true branded element can still be debated. But I would ask myself what does this document say about the country it represents?

On Mar.16.2005 at 02:30 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Richard, I do think you're on to something re: money and brands. The parts and pieces are there — but the trick is to look at it as a brand study, rather than a historical piece about paper currency. By that, I mean, examine whether the manifestation of those ideas in currency is unique to each country; whether they are relevant to any cultural context; whether they represent more than monetary worth, like nationalism, etc.; and whether the cumulation of these traits provides a tipping point that turns currencies into brands.

As to the iPod box — the packaging represents a brand experience unique to the product. Peal it away and you're still left with the core brand and product inside. In that particular case, it is an artifact that carries the brand. It's not an easy thing to achieve.

Gotta run to a meeting, but will look forward to more dialogue later today. Promise. Good topic.

On Mar.16.2005 at 04:25 PM
richard’s comment is:

Again Tan, I cold not agree with you more. This was a grad school master's thesis complete with a thesis advisor who was a big proponent of the historical and printing aspects.

I did explore the various iconography, symbolism, people and motifs used on various country's currencies. And through that aesthetic research tried to answer if what is shown on their currencies follow their view in the global community. Just as I expressed that with our American currency, do the icons and symbols of a new young country still hold true in with an America that is a international leader?

Perhaps, as you said earlier, your quick read did not bring these topics to light.

As stated in my conclusion, the currency of the United States is most secure by lacks a lot when it comes to a branded piece. Australia has been an innovator in using new materials and many countries like mexico have followed suit using a Tyvec like substrate.

The Netherlands, pre-euro, used designers, visual communicators, to create their documents that spoke to the Netherlands many unique cultural icons as well as the beauty of their country that made bringing a guilder home like bringing home a little piece of the country.

On Mar.16.2005 at 06:24 PM
marian’s comment is:

Too big and bulky to be practical.

?? at 26mm in diameter (just over an inch, or about 6pi, 1 pt) it seems to be exactly the same size as our Canadian Dollar coin. Not impractical at all.

I do find the choice of imagery very odd however. For a country that nearly wiped out the native population and "traded" their land for a pittance, to put the image of a native American on their first dollar coin seems hypocritical in the extreme. Almost laughably ironic, if it weren't so tragic. Now what does that say about the Brand America?

On Mar.16.2005 at 06:56 PM
Steven K.’s comment is:

marian, fair enough. I should have discussed the weight of these things. Ever try carrying even five or six of them in your pocket? Make sure you have less than a $20 if you decide to buy a ticket from NY MTA.

For the record it is not the first dollar coin. It's meant to replace the Susan B. Anthony dollar. Now that was one cool coin!

I agree on the imagery aspect, and that was what I was trying to get at with the "In God We Trust" smack next to Sacagewea's face comment. Even when they try, there's no hiding the truth.

On Mar.17.2005 at 09:46 AM
Dave Grager’s comment is:

the ipod box is NOT a brand - it's a box. it is a cool box, but just a box. is the box "on-brand"? sure, apple has always done that very well. also, the american dollar is NOT a package... i knd of know what you're saying here, but... what a stretch. some packaging can come to embody the brand, such as the hershey bar (read my candy bar paper), but the ipod box does not.

On Mar.17.2005 at 11:46 AM
Rob’s comment is:


That's not what Tan said. He said "As to the iPod box — the packaging represents a brand experience...:. And clearly, the IPod does represent the brand experience that is Apple and in a big way.

As for this money being representative of the brand of a country, well, I just have to read the thesis first. My first impression, considering the poor yet techincally sophisticated design of US currency, that it really doesn't represent the 'brand' if one can define a country as a brand (obviously a whole other topic to discuss).

And how, might the Euro fit into this picture of monetary representation of a country's brand. It's the official financial instrument of the European Union. And does the EU have a brand? Interesting thing to ponder on a March Madness Thursday.

On Mar.17.2005 at 03:55 PM
gregor’s comment is:

I think we may be looking at currency backwards, from present to past, rather than past to present, and imposing an archaeologie of design on top of it. Currency, whether coins or notes, have been in circulation for centuries before the notion of a brand or branding existed.

In it's origin, currency's communicative intent was value and exchange power alone. In the time between now and the present, has currency incorporated elements of Identity & Branding? Reading the thesis, while quite thought provoking, and pondering the idea and reading the posts here, I'm not quite convinced (though I'm open to being convinced).

While contemporary design & manufacturing (printing/minting) of currency does follow guidelines, the locus of such guidelines are quite different from brand and identity design as we practice it.

As I'm writing this I'm fortunate enough to be in Paris: I'm staring at several demoninations of Euros, American Dollars and coins, as well as Marian's Essay Cha- Cha- Change.

One side of the 20 Euro note I see what appears to be the stained glass windows found at Notre Dame: the other side of that bill has a map of the E.U. and a bridge - perhaps the Pont Nuef. Coins, such as the 2 Euro have a variety of Images - a Germanic looking eagle, a spanish king from a few centuries ago, and similar imagery -- not necessarily what one would call an identity system - or part of a larger identity system. Iconic yes, systematic no.

Branding is strategy, with the sole intent of recognition for an advantage in market share and sales, So while it would make sense that a region or city (such as the Milwaukee logo discussed in the January Recent Rebrandings discussed on Speak Up, would brand itself to attract tourism, business, etc., but for what purpose would a country brand itself through currency?

While currency, like postage stamps, may attempt to depict a historical and cultural overview, I don't beleive it is designed to call forth results similar to Apple. Motorola or Mercedes Benz. Currency, limited by demonination and location, sells nothing and buys everything: the inverse of branding.

With this said I would tend to agree with Tan's direction that currency is artifact, and from a traditional archaeological perspective that would be the case: but then design as we practice it would be artifact as well from an archaeological vanatge point.

On Mar.17.2005 at 04:59 PM
Brian Collins’s comment is:

I don't agree with Tan. I do believe that monetary design does some level of branding, or at least impression-building. Money from nations I have never visited have had a sort of "nation-flavor" created by the sensibilities (or lack thereof) found engraved on their legal tender. And I would again state that moneypersuit,

On Mar.17.2005 at 05:34 PM
Brian Collins’s comment is:

Sorry! What I was going to finsh with was that money is not the root of all evil, but the persuit can be. That's the only thing I think Richard has a bit off. But maybe that's what he meant to say. Chalk it up to the Little Rascals.

On Mar.17.2005 at 05:38 PM
Tan’s comment is:

First of all gentlemen, read Richard's thesis. Then discuss whether or not my questions regarding his argument and conclusions have merit or not.

Brian — I told Richard that I do think his topic has merit. I agree w/ you that currency design does indeed have the potential to become national brands, to become more than just artifact. But my specific criticism was that Richard's thesis fell short of making that case. The thesis examined the development of currency, but had little proof of why and how it has developed into global brands. I suggested that a better way to approach the thesis would be to treat it more as a brand study, rather than a history lesson. Richard seemed to agree.

And thanks Rob. Dave, you're taking me too literally. I know the dollar is not a package — but it embodies monetary worth, encased in a "package" of information, history, and symbols.

On Mar.17.2005 at 06:26 PM
richard’s comment is:

WOW! At least a lively discourse is happening.

I do not feel that a black or white conclusion was made nor did I intend to make one in my paper. I was exploring the possibility of currency being another touch point of a brand of a country, which in itself could be debated.

My intent was the investigation AND instigation of a dialogue. Does currency hold tha brand of a country? Can a country use currency to help brand itself? Are cointries doing so? If so, which ones? How?

So I suppose this could be the tip of an iceberg. Maybe the thesis itself is simply chapter one of a much more comprehensive piece.

I, however, do feel that currency is a piece of a country;s identity which can hold some brand value. I have pointed out other countries as examples of smart design with consideration of brand, and illustrated many countries that have no concern for either design or what their currency says.

Read the section on JSG Boggs and his vision of what our currency should look at. Their are others cited as well that explore he meaning of our currency and the value of that meaning (and aint that what brand is about?) to the global community.

Beyond economics, the phenomena of dollarization, I feel speaks directly to the brand of American currency and other nations to have a piece of that American idea.

On Mar.17.2005 at 06:56 PM
Sonyl’s comment is:

As an aside, I have to say I will be sad on the day when (if?) the Swiss decide to adopt the Euro; when travelling through Europe with a crew of design friends, we ogled the Swiss currency for quite a while (and even felt somewhat guilty when we had to surrender it in order to purchase something, as if we were trading a beautiful artwork for something as profane as food.)

Though I will have to say the reduced need for moneychangers was sanity-saving, I did miss the multiplicity of design. (It also threw my tattoo out of context, as the 50 FF. note no longer had its Little Prince star.) I wonder if the Euro will lead to a softening of cultural boundaries as the branded image of each country diminishes somewhat.

It certainly didn't diminish Italian shopkeeper's anathema for making change. :D

On Mar.17.2005 at 06:57 PM
richard’s comment is:

Thirteen countries all homogenized into the same currency? And they wondered why there was resistance to using it!

Switzerland's currency was amazing. As was the netherlands and all the other participating countries. I always saved currency when I travelled abroad as a reminder, a souvenier, a little piece of that country. Each country told you their own story, whom they reverred, what they held special on their currency.

Now, the European Union is full of fanciful artificial gates and bridges, sorry Gregor! No actual landmarks here! No specific landmark was allowed. An early note's bridge resembled the Pont Neuf and was quickly kicked back for alterations.

Where is the individualistic expression? Their is great national pride among many European countries and now that pride is relegated to the back side, that's right the BACK side of the euro coins.

Homogenization of a whole continent? Has Europe gone generic? Yet another point of discussion!

On Mar.17.2005 at 07:07 PM
Jeff Gill’s comment is:

A little note of clarification: Switzerland is not part of the EU, so I don't think they will be adopting the Euro any time soon.

On Mar.18.2005 at 01:47 AM
ian’s comment is:

when ever friends of family travel i always ask for them to bring me back money. small bills and coins. the change they have left over before coming home. thailand and bahamas are my current favorites (a full color coral reef—beautiful)

as to the money as a brand, it was explained to me in school that the look of america's money (the etched presidential portraits, embelishments, decorative borders and typography) was established early on because when america was young as a counrty they wanted the money to look like it had a heritage to it like england. that it was a part of a long standing institution, not the fledgling country america actually was at the time. it was a way to instill value in something the general public and those abroad might question.

in this sense i can see money functioning as a brand. but the question becomes does it today reflect an accurate portrait of america's brand. like tan said, look at it as a brand study of how it functions today, not a historical perspective. and who's version of america? i think if you asked the international community ro rebrand america through the design of our money, we wouldn't be very pleased with the results.

also when you think of where the money is in america it's all stocks and accounts. it's all numbers, there is no value behind it any more. there is no more gold standard and hasn't been for a long time. that is why our money says "in god we trust" cause that's the only value left in our currency: faith. how does that concept of money "brand" america?

my two cents...now i'll read the 113 page thesis.

On Mar.18.2005 at 03:17 AM
marian’s comment is:

OK, I confess, I still have not read the 113 page thesis (sorry), but ... at the risk of putting my foot in it on a subject I'm no expert in (branding), here's what I think.

Yes, money is representative of a country. At first this is artificial, in that the money is usually used as a canvas to depict people and places that are important to or famous in/for that country. Then by association, as the money is used over time, it becomes part of the fabric of one's experience in that country.

But to me, this is not a "brand." There is only ONE country in the world that can come close to making a case for their currency as brand and that is the United States.

Why? Because the US dollar (the old design) was used for so long, and its power was so symbolic that it has taken on a brand-like status. I know of no other currency, the effigy of which is reproduced on t-shirts, towels, lighters, money clips, and various other paraphernalia around the world. You go into any street market in nearly any country (esp. 3rd world countries) and you will see that dollar emblazoned on something.

Furthermore, it means something. It is representative of the United States AS the almighty dollar. It's an icon of wealth. America's BRAND in the world is money. This can be, and is, interpreted both negatively and positively: the land of greed / the land of opportunity.

That's what that image means to the rest of the world. No other currency can claim that.

On Mar.18.2005 at 12:38 PM
richard’s comment is:

even without reading the 113 pages (and by the way, that includes notes, bibliography etc.) marian understands the concept and thought behind the exploration! THANK YOU!

but the question you failed to answer marian is, do you feel that the good ole American greenback is an accurate reflection and artifact of the American brand? Can it be? Should it be? therein lies the point of my research, or at least one of them.

there also has to be some credence to U.S. currency being the most counterfeited, and thus use of some of the most advanced counter counterfeiting methods being used in the production.

By the way, no one has had anything t say about Dollarization, a REAL phenomena that is occuring. What is the purpose? economics? there are many other countries richer than the countries adopting the US dollar and yet they have chosen the US dollar to adopt? Could it be they want to be associated with America and all it represents?

today, many scanners and their software will not allow you to even scan currency. try it, you may be surprised!

On Mar.18.2005 at 03:33 PM
marian’s comment is:

but the question you failed to answer marian is, do you feel that the good ole American greenback is an accurate reflection and artifact of the American brand? Can it be? Should it be?

Well ... in a way, yes. But again, my understanding of the true meaning of the word "brand" is shakey (which is why i try not to use it), and I think there are 2 things on the table here. As with all brands, there's the image the company/organization wants to project, and there's the image the public has of them. If the "brand" is working (and by that i mean not just the marketing, but the actions of the co/org, the product etc.), they are one and the same.

Does America have a "brand projection"?: That is, what does "America" think they are, and how do they want the rest of the world to perceive them? Who would decide this? Who is "America"? Who speaks for them? George Bush?

My perception of how America wants to be perceived is: Strong, Free, Wealthy, Fair. ... Something like that? (But where does this come from? I don't know.) My perception of how America is perceived (and I speak as someone who has travelled a lot, to Asia, Europe and Africa ... and who has spoken to people all over the world about America, because, being Canadian, the subject always comes up—and people are very candid about their opinions of our neighbour) is often as Domineering, Ignorant, Rich, Greedy ... sorry kids, don't shoot the messenger.

But the identity of America is VERY tied to money, as I mentioned before. Those who hate it, see money as a driving factor in the way Americans behave (coming into their countries and behaving as bad tourists, as though the world is their playground; or invading countries for nefarious purposes; or supporting unsavoury regimes for business gain ...). And those who love it see money as what you get either when you deal with Americans, or become one.

And there are still many around the globe who say "America Number one!" with the big thumbs up sign. They don't print that dollar bill on t-shirts for any other reason than their admiration of a country that to them EQUALS money.

The American dollar is (or certainly was 15—20 years ago when i did most of my travelling) a very powerful symbol in the international market place. Things are different now, but it used to be that you just didn't go travelling without some American cash. The American $$ was the currency used for bribes, tips, and black-market trading. No wonder they make towels printed with the US$100.

And, I've harped on and on about this, but a logo/identity/brand is, imho, most effective if it is used unchanged for years and years. The US dollar, up until a few years ago was one of the most antiquated designs on the market. Y'all didn't change it because it is part of your identity, it does represent you in the world. And as a result it became one of the most easily counterfeitable currencies out there. Partly because it was desirable currency, partly because it was used all over the globe, and partly because it was so damned easy.

Now that you've had to change it (reluctantly and with an obvious resistance to design change), I'd be interested to see how this weakens the "brand." Will t-shirts be printed with the new image of the dollar? I'd be a little surprised if they are: the icon is the old design; the new design is just currency.

On Mar.19.2005 at 01:49 AM
jamie’s comment is:

To anyone who is interested,

I’d love to get your feedback on some MFA papers that are in the works. These are just being developed and the students welcome your advice and insight. You can find them here at re:design.

On Mar.20.2005 at 10:13 PM