Monday, September 20, 2010

The money shots

It would be a more pressing concern, of course, if you had more of it to look at in your wallet in the first place, but never mind: U.S. paper currency recently got a major whimsical makeover courtesy of the Dollar ReDe$ign Project, a competition for the best paper money redesign launched by creative strategy consultant Richard Smith. The winners of the competition (now closed) will be decided after an online vote that ends on Sept. 30.

Smith’s rationale for the competition is shaky, at best. “It seems so obvious to us that the 'only' realistic way for a swift economic recovery is through a thorough, in-depth, rebranding scheme ... Our great 'rival', the Euro, looks so spanky in comparison it seems the only clear way to [end] this global recession is to rebrand and redesign," the project Web site notes. Wow! Imagine! We can dismantle the recession with different-looking money! Who knew?

Notwithstanding such a silly premise, the project is democratic at its core, generating a wide range of artistic expressions, some worthy, some that are, let’s just say, underinspired. One reimagines the dollar as pop-art traffic signage, others are cryptic Photoshop jokes or fanciful visions too cute by half.

Four of them are, to these eyes, the most arresting of the lot. Self-taught Web designer Sean Flanagan shows that good things can happen when you’re not formally trained. His remake of the dollar hews to a traditionalism that’s both comforting in its familiarity and striking in its departure from the past. A portrait of George Washington adorns the Flanagan dollar, like he does now, but there’s more  of him to see. Washington assumes a human scale unlike the isolated, imposing visage that stares back at you from the sawbuck now. Simple, elegant typography and a background that reinforces national history makes for a redesign that’s understated, quietly magisterial, and therefore plausible.

In much the same way, a remake of the $5 bill by the designer known as Frank, bears a powerful simplicity. A portrait of Abraham Lincoln appears on the left side; on the right is all the information that’s on the current bill (necessarily) but arrayed with a spare, uncluttered visual style that runs to the edge of the bill — all in all a look that shouts “modernity!” without beating people over the head with it.

Jose Hernandez brings much the same thinking to his idea for a new currency. His family of denominations preserves green as the foundational hue, as well as the traditional elongated American Western-style typescript, but the artist imparts a clean, borderless immediacy that’s both striking and satisfying (the Kennedy $10 thoroughly communicates Hernandez's vision).

Leave it to the Brits to really take the idea of what our money should look like off the rails. Dowling Duncan, a British design team, came up with a family of multi-denomination designs suggesting that, perhaps subliminally, that the designers envision a future in which the euro takes center stage in the world economy.

Their designs for U.S. currency break with the past completely, conjuring dollars of different sizes based on their value, done in vibrant colors and illustrated with snapshot images of American achievements or American achievers. George Washington has been kicked to the curb on their $1 bill. Replacing him: President Obama. President Lincoln’s services are no longer required on the Dowling Duncan fiver; he’s been replaced by an Indian teepee (why not Geronimo or Crazy Horse?). If Stanley Kubrick had shown any images of U.S. money in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” this is what it would have looked like.

But hold on. Commenting on the project Web site, mgencleyn noted: “Just thought you should be aware, if you aren't already: A recent court ruling -- Civil Action No. 02-0864 (JR) -- has required future U.S. currency to comply with anti-discrimination laws for the blind. This means that all bills will have to be capable of being differentiated by the blind and vision-impaired. That pretty much means bills of different sizes or shapes for each denomination.”

The Brits may be onto something. Social media reactions suggest they are; the latest vote count puts Dowling Duncan’s submission well out in front of all the others (1,952 votes so far).

We’ll see which one prevails. It’ll take more than this to revive the national economy, but the best of these designs would make earning and spending cash a more colorful experience. Until we get used to it. And we find we just can’t seem to get or keep enough of them in our wallets.

Just like now.

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