Commissions to design a new banknote are typically unclear, hiding many implicit aspects. In 2008 Hans de Heij started a Ph.D. on the subject of key elements in banknote design. With the help of his thesis he aims to make these key elements more explicit in order to make them more manageable. This article is the first part of his research, which deals with the key elements of the banknote seen from a product perspective. In the next issue of KJD&I the process perspective will be discussed from a design management point of view.

Ever since I started working in banknote design, people have asked me: ‘why do we need a new banknote?’ I usually reply: ‘to keep up with the technological developments in the graphic industry.’ This is, of course, a very general answer. In fact, there are several reasons whether or not a new banknote series needs to be introduced (see box 1 and table 1).
DE_9088_tab1An example is the development of the second series of euro banknotes (ES2), in which one or more innovative security features would be introduced for public use (the so-called ‘quantum leaps’). Instead of a new design it was decided to upgrade the current banknotes, re-using the main design elements from the first series.

DE_9088_box1The design process of a new banknote is definitely not plain sailing, as evidenced by the delay of several major banknote design projects. The new Danish banknotes were issued in 2009, one year later than planned. The recently introduced new USD 100 banknote is about two years behind planning. A similar delay of one more year is recently announced for the new Swiss banknotes series. The new series of euro banknotes will experience the most serious delay up until now. Announced in 2003 to be issued by the end of the decade, this date was first moved forward to 2011 and is now delayed for an unknown period of time.

Key factors for a successful new design
One of the key factors for the success of a new banknote project is to launch the new banknote design on time, but more factors can be distinguished:
• At least 70% of the public appreciates the banknote as attractive.
• There are less than thirty counterfeits per one million notes in circulation during the first two years.
• The development time is less than 2.5 years.
• The development costs are less than two million euro.
• The intrinsic value of the banknote is similar to the previous banknote or, when a new technology is introduced, is increased by not more than 5%.
• The banknote poses no difficulties for banknote logistics such as Banknote Equipment Manufacturers (BEM), Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs), banknote accepting machines and sorting machines.
• And last, but by no means least: there is no room left for mistakes, since once issued a new banknote can not be withdrawn.

figure 1.

These goals can be achieved by fulfilling all key elements of a new banknote design project. Figure 1 provides an overview of those key elements. The figure shows that there are two separate groups of key elements, related to:
a) the product, i.e. the banknote;
b) the process, i.e. the design management.
Both product and process are divided into six fields of key elements, and each element is subdivided in several subjects.

Programme of Requirements
Linking pin between the product and the process is the Programme of Requirements (PoR), the key of all key elements. In 2004 the importance of such a document was outlined in an article in this Journal. The PoR is a complete and detailed design assignment, set up according to an appropriate methodology. Compiling such an assignment takes up a lot of time and attention and is done by a dedicated team within the central bank. All this hard work is definitely worth the effort, as the design project will benefit greatly from it.

A number of pitfalls can be identified during the development stage. One might be tempted to include R&D-projects within a banknote design project, but this should be avoided at all times. Only proven and finished R&D-results should be used within the PoR.

Poor judgement at the beginning of the project with regard to the roles of the participants is often the main reason for failure. It is crucial that each participant plays his role. The most underestimated role is the one played by the central bank, the principal party to communicate its thoughts on the design on behalf of the stakeholders. Starting point should be a thorough analysis of the previous design, the old banknote, to try and learn from its counterfeits, public use and circulation behaviour.

DE_9088_tab2The central bank might become involved in production issues if the roles of the participants in a banknote design project are unclear. It is not the task of the central bank to oversee all kinds of printing trials; these should be left to the manufacturers. Instead the central bank should concentrate first and foremost on being an expert principal, one who is trained in contracting banknote designs and providing independent R&D for new banknotes while focussing on the stakeholders.
To explain the roles of the participants more thoroughly, the design of a new banknote can be compared to building your own house (table 2). If someone wants to build their own house, the owner, as the customer, should list their requirements. In the banknote design process, the central bank should list its stakeholders’ requirements. This can not be done without research, a stage that is all too often left out. The central bank is usually inclined to deliver a short and incomplete ‘design brief’ or ‘terms of reference’.

figure 2.

Subsequently the contractor , who is either the building contractor for your house or the banknote printing works for the banknote project, has to work with an unclear design assignment. Instead of using a proper architect or graphic designer, the banknote becomes a product out of a catalogue. Large printing works offer these so-called catalogue banknotes because they can be delivered fast at a relatively low cost. Contractors tend to make it easy for them. As long as they deliver on time everything is fine, large tolerances are accepted and quality measurements are avoided. Another option is re-inventing the previous banknote. This is an example of an ‘upgrade design policy’ and often looks like a ‘cut-and-paste’-job. The recent US Dollar 10, issued in 2006, illustrates this (figure 2).

Key elements of the product
As stated before, there are two separate groups of key elements that are relevant for the product and the process. The key elements of the banknote seen from a product perspective are outlined below. In the next issue the elements relevant for the process will be discussed.

There are six key elements for the product, as shown in the purple schematic presentation in figure 1:

figure 3.

• banknote identity;
• communication;
• value recognition;
• anti-forgery devices;
• durability;
• graphic design.

Banknote identity
Commercial companies have a corporate identity, set by the top management. Similar to a corporate identity a banknote requires a banknote identity, a task for the Board of the central bank. This work on the ‘calling card’-function of the banknote should be done before a graphic designer is selected.
DE_9088_fig4The description of the banknote identity includes statements on:
• Upgrade policy: should the new note be forward looking and should the appearance of the note be completely new? Or is an upgrade desired, similar to the existing note? One should bear in mind that any upgrade design policy has its limits and ends after two or three cycles, just as in the car industry. Ultimately an upgrade policy is a dead-end street.

• Advanced versus middle of the road: should the new note be the most advanced banknote in the world or is second-best good enough?
• Public involvement versus paternalism: should the public be involved during the design process?
• Familiarity: which banknotes and which countries are considered an example? With whom do we associate? Which national feelings – or in case of the euro which European feelings – should be addressed? An example of familiarity can be seen in figure 3, a pre-study for the new Aruba florin banknote.
• Emotions: to receive public attention emotion-driven design is a requirement. What kind of emotions should the new banknote evoke? Should it exude happiness or create a warm feeling (figure 4)?

figure 5.

A communication concept is the next key element necessary for a successful banknote design. Once again such a concept should be drawn up before the start of the graphic design. If the designer has already been selected, he of she could be involved in this central bank guided process. Recommendations for a communication concept are:
• a serial theme: try to limit the banknote themes to just one, for example ‘bridges linking people’ (euro) or ‘local flora’;
• a motto for the public security features, for example ‘all features in a row’, E‑U‑R‑O‑P‑A or the ‘feel-look-tilt’-method;
• a name, for example ‘Snipe’ (NLG 100) or ‘Mona Lisa’;
• placing all public features on the front of the banknote, which will enhance the communication, since only the front image has to be explained;
• the combination of simple public recognition with high counterfeit resilience (figure 5).


Value recognition
The two main functions of a banknote are its value and its security features, which in themselves are sufficient to result in a characteristic design. Research by DNB has shown that the main images on the euro banknotes – the windows and doors – are not contributing to value recognition. Switching the main images on the euro banknotes went unnoticed by more than 80% of the public. So what purpose do they serve? A main image on a banknote only adds value if such an image contributes to an immediate recognition of the banknote or if the image contributes to a positive emotion or appreciation. A recent overview of the key elements of value recognition, such as the use of large numerals and colours is provided in the publication ‘Banknote design for the visually impaired’.

Anti-forgery devices
The banknote security concept lists all stakeholders and their planned security features. The most important stakeholder is clearly the retailer, preventing the acceptance of counterfeits. New banknote designs should focus first of all on the retailers instead of the general public.

In the case of the euro banknotes six security features are dedicated to the general public, while only three are needed for a reliable authentication. Furthermore, the public tends to remember about two and a half security features and nobody recalls more than four. Therefore, four public features should be enough. However, in using six features people can make their own choice and older people can stick to the features they have become acquainted to. The communication plan may be further fine-tuned to actively promote for example three features on television and to keep the remaining features from the public.

If the decision has been made to introduce new security features, then obsolete features should be abandoned. This is usually a though choice for a central bank; once a feature is in, it is hard to get it out. Preferably the bank should first of all decide on the feature that will be abandoned before it makes a decision on a new feature. The new feature should meet the user requirements, the most important one being the time needed to check the feature (five seconds for the note, less than two seconds per feature). Apart from the public features (level 1) so-called ‘trigger features’ (or level 0) are required. These features contribute to the perception of the quality of a banknote, also known as ‘heuristic quality’. When someone gets handed a banknote that feels limp or looks blurred or pale, these features trigger their brains into refusing the note or thoroughly checking its authenticity using the dedicated security features.

Recommendations for the durability concept are:

  • ‘Green’ banknotes: banknotes should be environmentally friendly, should have a low ecological footprint and shouldn’t pose a health risk. From 2007 onwards DNB includes at least 15% fair trade cotton in its euro banknotes.
  • Sustainability: the sustainability of the notes may be improved by using a polymer substrate instead of cotton paper. Polymer notes have a longer life (up to four times longer), but are also more expensive to produce (up to 200%). A varnish will also increase the life of a banknote, as well as using a combination of paper and polymer (a hybrid banknote, for example the recently introduced hybrid banknotes by Landqart and Papierfabrik Louisenthal).
  • Dog ears: a durability feature to prevent dog ears is the Cornerstone, a reinforced watermark (DeLaRue).
  • Soil resistant: soil becomes less visible on the note when ‘anti-soil design’ is applied, a method whereby the unprinted and light areas are reduced and white borders are avoided. However, anti-scan features or Counterfeit Deterrence System-features result in pale and blurred banknotes, thus conflicting with the principle of ‘anti-soil design’. Also, strong colours are much more appreciated by the public, whereas pale colours prove to be a dissatisfier, reducing the heuristic quality.

Graphic design
It is a graphic designer’s job to give expression to the new banknote concept, to the ‘meaning’ of the identity, communication and security concept. The graphic design should focus on the usability of the banknote, on ‘interaction design’ rather than on the manufacturing or ‘product design’. This is one of the reasons to opt for an independent, open-minded graphic designer. Preferably the chosen designer is not associated with the security industry. DNB always tries to attract outstanding designers who have already won their spurs in graphic design, such as Ootje Oxenaar and Jaap Drupsteen. The designer should be trained in applied design and should be interested in technological design aspects, and in using graphical software and media such as art directing and mass advertisements. The graphic design phase may be supported by perception research such as ‘eye movement planning’. Once the visual layers for a new banknote concept are set, the eye tracking path is designed and the features may be worked out in further detail.

This article discussed the six key elements of a banknote seen from a product point of view. In the next issue of KJD&I the process perspective will be discussed from a design management point of view.

1 H. de Heij: “Attractive banknotes… a question of design management”, Keesing Journal of Documents & Identity, Issue 9, 2004.
2 H. de Heij: “Programme of Requirements: a powerful tool to develop new, secure banknotes”, De Nederlandsche Bank N.V, presented at the Conference on Optical Security and Counterfeit Deterrence, San Francisco 23-25 January 2008.
3 H. de Heij: “Banknote design for the visually impaired” Occasional Study 2009/2, De Nederlandsche Bank N.V., November 2009.

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Hans de Heij works as an engineer at the Dutch Central Bank (DNB), where he was in charge of the introduction of five new guilder banknotes during the period 1981-1997. He pioneered the inclusion of public (consumer) feedback in banknote designs and has published several articles on the subject. Hans proposed the colour scheme of the current euro banknotes and led the contribution of DNB to the Euro design contest both in 1996 and 2006. In 2008 he started a Ph.D. on the subject of Using and Experiencing Banknotes.

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