With faith in the US dollar hitting new lows, some believe the solution lies not in politics, but in design. Meet Richard Smith, architect of the ambitious and infectiously popular “dollar rede$ign project.” Smith is a creative strategy consultant who feels, “…our great rival, the Euro, looks so spanky in comparison,” to US currency that, “…it seems the only clear way to revive this global recession is to re-brand and re-design.” But rather than merely arguing for a new-look dollar, Smith drummed up an impressive wave of support for a redesign by allowing people to submit their own ideas to a web-based contest.
The idea is roughly similar to corporate re-branding, which seeks to change the face of struggling organizations by adopting fresh, new images. Several banks, for instance, have undergone name, color and logo changes since 2008 to erase the negative perceptions attached to old branding. In Smith’s view, a re-branding of the dollar targets the same goal: expressing and revamping its emotional value and the connections people make with currency. Seen from this perspective, the negativity people feel about our money and economy stems not just from economic indicators and discouraging news reports, but from the very look and feel of the money we possess. Change the “brand”, Smith believes, and you take a bold step toward changing our entire emotional response to US currency. And Smith isn’t alone in advocating a graphical overhaul of the dollar. In a blog post applauding the redesign project, the New York Times quotes designer Michael Bierut calling the current dollar, “…a cake that has been decorated to within an inch of its life.” Specifically, Bierut derided the dollar’s new enlarged purple numbers (an anti-counterfeit measure) as, “…a denim patch on a satin dress.”
Few could argue with Smith or Bierut that the dollar could use a new look. The world was quite different when the dollar got its last, major visual upgrade in 1930’s. And to its credit, the dollar redesign project has produced numerous, beautiful designs that most of us would be proud to carry in our wallets. Take this concept from Kottle.org, featuring a sleek green layout, a bluish-purple vertical stripe, George Washington’s portrait and text from the First and Second Amendments to the Constitution. A full inventory of all redesign project submissions can be seen here. The project’s winner (announced patriotically on July 4), however, was 25 year old Kyle R. Thompson. Beginning from his convictions that, “…conceptual design can really transform the way people deal with their communities” and that current dollars, “…feel cold and outdated”, Thompson took home top project honors with this submission (shown below.) Indeed, Thompson’s concepts breathe some much-needed fresh air into US currency while honoring the great traditions of our founders and history. On purely artistic grounds, Thompson and the entire dollar redesign project are to be applauded.
Artistic merit notwithstanding, however, it is unclear whether redesigning the dollar will address the severest criticisms leveled against it. For all the similarities between currency redesign and re-branding, there is one large difference: a corporation’s products or services are consumed. A business can properly engage in an image overhaul on the assumption (or at least the hope) that a better image will attract more sales, customer loyalty or other results. Currency, on the other hand, is simply a nation’s medium of exchange. Put another way, a dollar de-design project that made our currency as hideous and unappealing as possible would still result in everyone who currently uses dollars using the new ones. While businesses can lose customers, citizens cannot start paying the local Wal-Mart (*now, Walmart) in Euros if they decide they’re unsatisfied with the dollar.
It is also worth noting that physical currency is not as prominent in day to day commerce as in generations past. The lion’s share of today’s transactions are digital — facilitated by debit/credit cards, PayPal accounts, wire transfers, gift certificates, direct deposit, electronic stock exchanges and other mechanisms that reduce the number of people physically using dollars. While cash-based businesses are still with us, the economy has largely “moved on” from printed money. Therefore, exactly what or how big of an effect a nicer-looking dollar would have on the economy is hard to forecast.
Of course, one could argue that a snazzier dollar will attract currency speculators to invest here what they would have invested in the Euro, yuan or other currencies. No one can deny the worthiness of that goal. Harvard MBA John T. Reed recently likened bond traders and forex traders to, “…the canary in the mine” who would be, “…the first to herald the arrival of the financial apocalypse.” But unlike commodities (like coffee beans or diamonds) currencies do not share an ubiquitous price. Rather, currency speculators decide which currencies to invest in based on current or predicted value. Variables considered in currency speculation include political stability, national debt, deficit spending, and the willingness of foreign governments to buy your debt – all decidedly non-aesthetic considerations. Taking this into account, it’s hard to imagine currency speculators staking thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own money on a currency solely because of a graphical makeover. Far more weighty in such decision making are things like China deciding to cease buying U.S. bonds.
None of this, again, downplays the artistic value of a new-look dollar. Few would oppose Kyle Thompson’s design replacing current dollars in our wallets and bank accounts. That being said, the link between how our dollars look and how they are percieved by foreign governments and speculators is less certain.