As part of his thesis as a student at the Basel School of Design in Switzerland, Travis Purrington wondered what the dollar would look like with a more modern look. His concept jettisons America’s nationalist design language to take a more humanist look at American culture. And it’s about time.
The design of the United States dollar has not significantly changed since 1929, when the older, larger notes used at the time–colloquially referred to as “horse blankets”)–were shrank down to the smaller greenbacks we all know today. Since then, there have been numerous minor revisions to the design of the dollar, mostly as anti-counterfeiting measures; 1957 saw the addition of “In God We Trust” to every bill. But the general aesthetic has always been the same.
“After the American Revolution, Congress originally struck down the suggestion that George Washington or any other living man be put on the dollar,” Purrington tells me. “They thought it was monarchical; in fact, that’s why Lady Liberty was invented. I guess you could say I was trying to think about what our bank notes would look like had Congress stuck to its decision.”
It’s not just the presidents that have been kicked to the curb in Purrington’s reimagined dollar. Also gone are all of the eagles, national monuments, ivy creepers, and bizarre masonic symbolism. In their place are patterned corn fields, astronaut helmets, crashing surf waves, and our national forests. The green ink we normally associate with our currency has been swapped out for a more colorful, but still restrained, palette.
Purrington was inspired by the Swiss franc, which is completely redesigned every 20 years or so to make sure that the currency’s design language is up to date. But Purrington did not choose to model his redesigned dollar after the current Swiss franc. Rather, he chose a “lost” design for the franc as his model: the currency designed for Switzerland in 1991 by avant-garde poster artist Werner Jeker. Jeker’s design actually won a contest to replace the current Swiss franc, but it was considered so forward thinking that the President of the Swiss National Bank himself vetoed using it.
Compared to the Warholian vibe put forward by the lost Swiss franc, Purrington’s reimagined dollar bill feels much classier and refined. But just like Jeker’s design, Purrington thinks it would be impossible for his reimagined U.S. currency to ever go into circulation.
“Not a chance,” he laughs. “The U.S. Department of Printing and Engraving has actually done extensive research on whether or not America is ready for a modern redesign.” He cites a report given to Congress in 1983, arguing that while making each bill denomination a different size would be the “most broadly useful currency design change,” they ultimately concluded that “the effects . . . on broad and diverse segments of the population would be monumental.” And Congress isn’t exactly known for loving monumental change.
To Purrington, that’s a shame. “I guess my view on the matter is that perhaps a civilization’s neural firewalls should be tested from time to time by changing the design of iconic but still ephemeral objects to make sure they are still functioning properly,” he tells me. And in this regard, it makes sense that each of his concept bills has been designed with a primarily vertical layout, which he says not only better reflects how we actually hold money in our hands, but also serves “to reset America’s perspective on what a dollar bill actually is.
Some people might argue that the design of the dollar bill isn’t broken, so why change it? But maybe we won’t know how broken the dollar really is until we try.