— When it comes to paper money, the Swiss franc is a beaut, one denomination featuring the art of the modern Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti. Hong Kong’s dollar is vibrant and futuristic, cash as Cubism; New Zealand’s five-dollar bill depicting adventurer Sir Edmund Hillary is like a dreamy magazine ad; the old Dutch guilder is also a knockout with a palette of colors that is more Kandinsky than currency.
By comparison, the mighty American dollar is staid, dour and bloodless, based on a design that has not changed in 80 years. Even the money of poor nations like French Polynesia, the Maldives and the tiny African island republic of São Tomé and Príncipe are works of art compared to the American dollar. The U.S. economy might still be the biggest in the world, and its currency still the paragon of stability, but the mighty greenback is not about to win any beauty contests, or inspire deep reverie.
If Richard Smith has his way, that will soon change.
British-born Smith is the man behind the Dollar ReDe$ign Project, a grass-roots movement to redesign America’s paper currency. For the second year in a row, Smith, a design consultant in New York with years of experience in the advertising and fashion industries, has run a contest to come up with a new look for the dollar. More than 60 entries were submitted this year, mostly by graphic designers and artists.
A winner was chosen by online vote after more than 50,000 votes were cast. The winning design is below.
In other results, the favorite person to appear on a new bill design is Barack Obama, while the favorite slogan is a classic: "In God We Trust." The site said two of the most obvious comments they received were "Reminds me of Monopoly money" and "They better keep God's name on it!"
The competition was modeled after a similar one held in 2005 in Switzerland. The designs submitted then by graphic artist Manuela Pfrunder will soon be incorporated into the country’s currency. The Swiss contest, however, was run by the Swiss National Bank. Smith’s contest is purely a citizens’ effort. (Smith is not even a U.S. citizen; he possesses a green card.) Although he wrote to several government agencies to ask them to join the project, he received in return only a simple “thanks, but no thanks,” in Smith’s words. Even he admits the likelihood of the U.S. Treasury’s adopting one of his contest’s designs is unlikely.
“It’s such a huge impossibility, it makes me think it could actually happen,” Smith said. “I just hold on to this hope that it could happen … It’s my dream.”
What began as a lifelong interest in paper currency and a tongue-in-cheek effort to stimulate the economy has become a personal crusade for Smith, who has taken his lumps from critics online who find the contest disrespectful or short-sighted. Some have peppered the contest website’s comment board with insults and expletives.
“It really means something to people,” Smith said. “The content and symbolism of money are deeply philosophical. I started this from an intuitive point of view and used the idea of design as a simple manifestation of that thought. But as the project gained popularity and people started criticizing it and said it’s not possible, it made me think deeper and deeper about it.”
The policy of the U.S. government is to redesign currency every seven to 10 years, but only for “security and not for aesthetic reasons,” said Lydia Washington, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which prints currency.
To that end, the U.S. Department of the Treasury will introduce a redesigned 100-dollar bill in February featuring a new security strip and symbol, a bell contained in an inkwell, intended to thwart counterfeiters. But the color, shape and predominant image, a portrait of Benjamin Franklin, remain the same — and, it appears, always will.
The basic design of all denominations of U.S. currency has not changed since 1928. Since then, George Washington (on the one-dollar bill), Thomas Jefferson (two dollars), Abraham Lincoln (five), Alexander Hamilton (10), Andrew Jackson (20), Ulysses Grant (50), and Franklin have been the faces of our money. The backs of bills, for the most part, feature structures like the Lincoln Memorial, the Treasury building, the White House, the Capitol, and Independence Hall. The motto, “In God We Trust,” first appeared on U.S. coins in 1864 and has been on bills since 1955.
The inertia of that tradition would be very difficult to overcome. Washington, with the Bureau of Engraving, pointed out that the unchanging look of U.S. currency is part of its integrity, what she called “a distinct American look and feel which is important for universal recognition.” The message is clear: Countries rise and fall, but the U.S. dollar never fails and does not change. For the foreseeable future, that means American money will feature the same faces.
But Smith sees a different purpose. “Currency should be used as a vehicle to talk about more than the founding fathers,” he said. “It does not have to be so one-dimensional.”
Ani Ardzivian submitted a design that dwelled on America’s social history with images of the naturalist John Muir, aviator Amelia Earhart, Martin Luther King, Jr., and astronaut Neil Armstrong, representing conservation, women’s rights, civil rights and technology respectively. Her color scheme is muted and relatively conservative, although her bills are trimmed in strong, contrasting colors. Embedded in the background of each bill is a timeline of America’s history, the print barely large enough to be read by the naked eye.
“Our currency is a symbol of our country and as a country we’ve come so far,” said Ardzivian, a recent graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design who based her senior thesis on redesigning American currency. “I tried to think about why people risk their lives to come here and start a new life. It’s not because of our presidents but because of our freedoms and rights.”
Tobias Treppmann, a graphic designer in Lancaster, Penn., submitted a simple, whimsical design based on brightly colored arrays of the heart symbol, bringing to mind the doodles of a love-sick teenager, a comment on the corruptive effects of money. On the back of his bills is the phrase, “for the love of money,” a reference to the Bible quote, “for the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”
More than a practical exercise, Smith’s contest has become an allegorical and interactive debate about what America stands for.
“I see it as a tool to promote your country in a tangential kind of way,” Smith said. “My real ambition is to see it come to fruition. That would be amazing. But if that wasn’t the case I hope some interesting ideas open up about what’s relevant in America today.”