We tend not to think much about what our money looks like, but lots of us probably see the dead-president faces on our bills more often than, say, the faces of our mothers. The media frenzy surrounding England’s forthcoming Jane Austen 10-pound note has mainly focused on the successful grassroots campaign that persuaded the bank to replace Charles Darwin’s portrait with that of a female writer—and the disturbing hate-tweets that followed.
But what of the actual design of the banknote?
Co.Design spoke with Pentagram partner Paula Scher—the graphic designer behind plenty of iconic book jackets and the identities of everything from world-finance giants like Citibank to cultural leaders like The Public Theater—about the design of the controversial tenner.
"I am delighted that the British Government is putting Jane Austen on their paper money," said Scher. "No one wrote better about women and money."
The design of British paper currency in general, however, offers no such clear consensus. Its many, many visual and security elements, all packed into a few inches, include metallic thread, raised print, watermarks, an ultraviolet feature, microlettering, and holograms.
In other words, the brief is a graphic designer’s nightmare. But Scher thinks it may have ultimately benefited the bill’s designer, who had to embrace the mess: "I am suspicious about money that looks too well designed. It always looks a bit counterfeit to me," she says. "I also don’t trust well designed wine labels for more or less the same reason. It’s often the lousiest wine. So I would frame my judgement in this way: Is the paper money believable? I think the answer is yes."
On what will become one of the most ubiquitous images in British daily life, a sepia-toned Austen wears a jaunty bonnet and ruffled collar in an illustration adapted from a sketch by her sister Cassandra. "Austen’s portrait seems appropriately complicated, meaning finely engraved with the correct use of all the bells and whistles," says Scher. The author’s likeness alone has been the subject of endless forensic team-fueled controversy, as Cassandra’s is one of just two confirmed portraits of her. "Since we don’t really know what Austen looked like," Scher reasons, "her portrait doesn’t seem pretentious or laughable like, say, an elaborate engraving of Sir Paul McCartney or Sir Richard Branson might."
In the background, in faint green, Austen presides goddess-like above an image of Godmersham Park, which inspired many of her novels. "The smaller image of Jane writing at her desk seems a little superfluous," says Scher. "I suppose it could be argued that some people may not know that she was an author and assume that she was either royalty or a politician. But I personally would prefer the note without the second illustration."
Were it up to her, Scher would also improve on the "weak" typography, incorporating the quote ("I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!") more artfully into the image. Jane’s graphic will replace a beetle-browed, bearded Darwin and his hummingbird among yellow flowers.
"The design of contemporary money is not the design of cash. Contemporary money is electronic and demands simplicity," Scher says. "Cash is an antique and new cash is like antique reproduction."
While she endorses the choice of Austen as the face immortalized on the antiques, she says, "My hope is that in the future all money will derive from our fingerprints. We all have 10 digits. It would be easy." A great idea, but how would a designer leave room for the bonnet?