There are few acts of graphic design more daunting than that of creating a new face for an entire country's currency. Even in a world full of digital payment methods, cash still passes through the hands of essentially every citizen, as well as international travelers. Much like the national flag, it's a visual representation of a country's identity. And there are not only political factors to take into account when deciding what—or who—should be represented on bills, but security issues and anti-counterfeiting measures to consider.
All of which makes it particularly impressive that Norway's brand new currency design manages to be not just passably interesting, but beautiful. ("The world's best money," even, to quote one of many laudatory headlines.)
In a competition between eight teams, the central bank of Norway, Norges Bank, chose designs by Oslo-based graphic designers The Metric System and architecture and design firm Snøhetta for the front and back of the new banknotes, respectively. Snøhetta's design, an abstract, pixelated artwork inspired by ocean winds, looks like no other money in the world.
"Where sea meets air or land, interesting things happen," says Martin Gran, a partner in Snøhetta's Oslo office who worked on the design, called "The Beauty of Boundaries." These horizons served as the inspiration for the pixilated pattern that will appear on Norwegian banknotes starting in 2017 (though the exact design may change slightly as the process moves forward).
This was a project particularly driven by rigid constraints. Norges Bank gave each of the design teams a common theme to work with: the sea. Each denomination was also given a sub-theme, such as the ocean as a source of food. Norway is a country defined by a lengthy coastline—one of the longest in the world at 64,000 miles—and it has centuries of cultural and economic ties to the ocean, from the Vikings to the fishing industry to modern-day oil drilling.
Colors were chosen based on the current color scheme of Norway's bills, so as not to present Norwegians with too much confusion as they switch to the new bills. And the central bank wanted to upgrade the security level of its currency, meaning the designers had to be conscious of how their designs would eventually need to incorporate anti-counterfeiting measures (which according to Gran, they are not allowed to disclose.)
"You have to take into consideration all the security elements. There’s a template for where all the numbers should be," Gran explains. "You kind of feel it’s a little bit hard to ideate and to be creative when you have such strong guidelines and direction," he tells Co.Design. And yet, here, constraints proved to be an engine of creativity, forcing the designers to come up with something unique within the confines of numerous fixed parameters.
Though the pixelated design is undeniably modern, the root of the design in antiquity. "It’s very common design thing from the mosaic tradition from 3,00 years ago," Gran explains. Abstracted mosaic motifs, like an oil rig and a harbor beacon, play into the sub-themes dictated by Norges Bank. Rendered in the pixels that make up digital images today, the design links past and present. And though each of the bills stands alone, the image itself is designed to connect—colors bleed from one bill to the other, creating echoes of continuity throughout the system. Each bill "steals a little color from [the others]," Gran says. "We wanted to make a symbol of the long coast, and everything is obviously connected to the coast."
Within the cubic design, there's also a subtle bit of data visualization. Gentle waves run through each of the horizontal stripes, representing the wind. The patterns of the waves and the length of the rectangular pixels of color are based on the Beaufort scale, a measurement of wind speed that gives a precise categorization for everything from a gentle breeze to hurricane-force gales. The 50 kroner note features a soft wind, with short cubes of color and a long, gentle wave pattern running within the pixelated pattern. The 1000 kroner note, by contrast, portrays "almost a full storm," Gran describes, with long stretches of color and short waves to represent a strong, fast wind.
Given that everyone interacts with money, the appeal of designing a banknote seems undeniable. "We couldn’t think of any other design project that shifts hands more than this one, so it's very social somehow," Gran says. It also let Snøhetta designers in on a complicated, high-security design process they would have never experienced otherwise. "You feel you’re a part of something very stately, it’s very governmental," he explains. "You’re let in on something that’s run by something higher than yourself."