Today we have a very welcome guest post from Tom Badley who is a currency designer at Sustainable Currencies. This is a pretty rare bread of individual with an intriguing insight into the design of money. Enjoy!
Tom: I’ve always loved to make money. I started in primary school, where I made a series of credit cards (out of actual card) and accompanying vouchers, enclosed them in letters, and mailed them out to parents of friends.
Then I made a series of banknotes and released them, one by one, into the playground – some were still in circulation a year after I left for secondary school. These first endeavors were crude black and white photocopies, individually hand-colored in pencil. When I found out that real banknote designs were produced first in large format, I started taking my early attempts to a local printer to have them scaled down. This was long before I had any access to Photoshop.
Little did I know that the process of ‘making money out of thin air’ is exactly how ‘real’ money is made – a mechanism which is leading us into a tenuous and critical point in economic history, and is leaving many looking for alternatives.
So, two decades after the ‘playground currencies’, I’ve initiated the Sustainable Currency Project, specifically to work with communities who wish to implement their own affirmative solution to the global economic crisis.
The scope for the project is worldwide, and every community has a different reason for initiating a local currency. For some, it focuses around a particular function within the community, for others it’s an environmental imperative.
In my collaborations, I find it interesting to note that even without an economic crisis, there’s an insistent feeling amongst people in the EU and US that they presently have a money system that has been insensitively imposed upon them.
The Euro is a failed attempt to do by consent what others tried to do by conquest. A united Europe is an impossible dream, like trying to fit a cylinder into a square hole; the Euro has stripped each country of its identity, expressed in its money.
In the US, the constitution explicitly states that the currency of the country should be gold and silver, and the ‘founding fathers’ were very vocal about the dangers of a central bank – a central bank that gained power over the US money supply in 1913.
The narrative in Britain is a little different. The biggest change to UK money was the shift to Decimalization in 1971 and the removal of silver coinage from circulation in 1947. But any ideas about restoring these dusty memories seem ludicrous today.
With that said, Britain has a rich history of local currencies. While working at Spink & Son, I helped catalogue part of the David Kirch Collection of English Provincial Banknotes
– the largest collection of privately issued, locally circulating paper money to see an auction room. With over 4,000 notes from every corner of the country, the amount of local currencies that were once circulating in Britain is staggering.
An essential part of the British industrial revolution, local currency is now being restored as the antidote to the industrial revolution’s grandchild: globalization.
Everyone comes to local currency at a different stage in the journey. Some are at the very beginning, with a final artwork a long way off into the future. Some groups have an urgency borne out of necessity, having grown impatient with the red tape of local government.
Some already have a pilot circulating currency, and after securing funding and local support, wish to re-launch their new local money – with a brand new design.
Whatever the stage, I begin with the same brief: alternative currencies may be local, provisional or temporary, but there’s no reason why they should look so; they should communicate the aspirations of the community, and have a design quality that conveys trust and permanence.
With enthusiasm for alternative paper currencies exploding, the urgency and complexity of the projects can sometimes make the artwork an after-thought. Communities may approach a local graphic designer, who will usually deliver designs constructed from off-the-shelf graphics and re-worked Internet images – not really consistent with the radical gesture of launching a new currency.
On the other end of the scale, groups have been known to seek the talents of specialist artists and designers with a history of designing national currencies. Not surprisingly, these services carry a heavy price tag, which is unattractive for grassroots movements.
Keep in mind that currency design is a political activity: money is a product of a central bank, for which it has a monopolistic control, and seeks to retain that control. A central bank’s product – its money – is sacrosanct to its operation. Consequently, currency designers who took part in the creation of these products often shy away from creating local currencies because they would potentially put the confidence of a central bank’s product into question. I bridge the gap. Having no hand in national currency design I’m free from any political implications.
The banknote is the ultimate artwork. It epitomes bespoke design, yet it’s printed in the order of millions; it has to be of the highest quality, yet its a very personal object, being handled, smelt, kept close to the body; it has to be familiar and easily recognizable, even for the visually impaired, yet with an enough detail to discourage forgery; a banknote is ubiquitous, yet sought-after. And all in the space of a small rectangle.
Currency design is extremely specialist, so the scope for radical and interesting design is wide open. Sometimes groups have very specific ideas about what should go where. More experimentally minded groups will let the artist roam free.
Even so, I feel I haven’t even scratched the surface in terms of what money could look like. And what money could look like is limited only by the imagination of the group involved: a banknote could just be a piece of paper that solves a practical purpose, or it could be the expression of an aspiration to transcend our narrow cultural crisis, into a whole new realm of being…
What i think makes the Sustainable Currency project attractive is that the design is the focus, rather than simply part of the a package. However radical a client’s idea might be, its quality is assured by a dedicated artist. Another thing that communities may not realise when starting the process is that marketing costs can quickly escalate; a good design sells itself, helping to save time, money and effort on selling the idea to sponsors, potential angel investors, as well as the public.
Regarding the future of paper currencies, a question often comes up about paper’s viability. In the age of contactless payments and RFID, hasn’t paper money had its day? There are many things to say about this.
There is no question that technology has changed our perception of value and how value can be exchanged. Goods and services can be paid with smart phones. Crypto-currencies such as BitCoin have blended commodity and electronic currency with a mathematically defined scarcity (I see no reason why the same idea can’t be applied to paper money…I look forward to that project!).
But paper is privacy – a rare commodity today. As a society, we’re facing a fork in the road as to what level of privacy we’re prepared to give away. If every phone conversation is recorded, cameras can biometrically identify you from your face, linked to Facebook; and phones are built with fingerprint identification that feeds huge databases, then a totally electronic monetary system could be the link that completes the circuit to a global technological control grid. Many of us will have to decide which side of line we stand on, and central to that discussion is the medium of money.
I don’t believe there’s an ultimate solution to any problem. If it were so, you rule out any possibility of innovation. Alternative currencies could merely be the stepping-stone to a completely new paradigm of money.
There’s talk of a new ‘global currency’. But to me, a consolidated world currency not only sounds boring, but unworkable. A centrally planned, centrally issued currency has more to do with control and idealism, than it does with encouraging human spontaneity and innovation.
A better idea: what if a ‘global currency’ was as fragmented as the amount of local currencies in existence? Just like the flourishing exchanges for crypto-currencies, community paper currencies could be globally exchanged – and their relative value would be dependant on the confidence in stewardship of each community. Exciting stuff!
I like to be surprised. Like returning to school and finding my pieces of paper being passed around, one experiment today could find an unexpected application tomorrow.
Tom Badley is an artist and writer currently living in London.
Credits: All images courtesy of Tom Badley