Close-up of a banknote with a butterfly
#G+D World

Inside story: the alluring art of banknote design

4 Mins.

We sat down with Marc Mittelstaedt, Head of Design, Banknote Solutions, G+D, and Annette Wüst, Banknote Designer, to explore the excitement and the challenges of creating banknotes that are packed with security features, yet also tell a story about the culture of a country or region.

You both have a lot of experience in the field of banknote design. Can you highlight some of the trends and themes you’re seeing in the area today?

Portrait of Annette Wüst
Annette Wüst, Banknote Designer

Annette: We are lucky enough to work with the central banks of many different countries around the world. So, we get a real sense of what is important to them – culturally, historically, ecologically, and so on – and they want to represent those key themes on their banknotes.

For example, wildlife motifs are more popular in African countries, and elaborate Islamic and floral patterns are requested in the Middle East. In Scandinavia, the preference is for graphic designs and clear, distinct design elements. Other countries are more focused on historical background, so we have a broad range of themes. 

However, we work individually with each client to design a bespoke product. So, one cannot say that there is any “rule” about this: every banknote tells its own story, and we make sure that every story is unique to that country.

Have design themes remained constant over time?

Annette: Not at all. Technological developments have opened up design options as well as made the process more complex. Designing is much more aesthetically pleasing, even if it is more technically challenging.

Then there are other trends, such as the size of the portrait illustrations shown on notes. Also, we now see other themes emerging, such as education, culture, the environment, and energy. Some countries have even experimented with orientation: swapping a landscape note format for a portrait one. These trends can be seen as the fashion of note design.

Portrait of Marc Mittelstaedt
Marc Mittelstaedt, Head of Design

Marc: Technology has really made a big difference to the way banknotes are designed. In earlier times, the use of very fine line work (guilloche) in illustrations was an important money security feature. You can still see this in classic note designs such as the US dollar. But other countries have moved on to different designs with other structures, and there has been a lot of innovation in terms of new security features.

Over the decades, banknotes have become physically smaller but now typically include a secure window. 3-D and visually dynamic features have also become more common.

Banknotes have three levels of security: the features which are visible to the naked eye; the features which are revealed with technical assistance, such as through the use of ultraviolet light; and the secret security features which only the central bank knows about. As designers we work visually on the first two of these levels of security.

We try to link these security features to the design, so creating an integrated whole. For example, for an architecturally themed note, we might incorporate the transparent secure window into the image of an actual window of the building being shown. Images which appear on the note will also often be replicated (in whole or part) within the note’s security thread but on a smaller scale.

What makes being a banknote design so interesting?

Marc: You have real design challenges arising from the format that you have to work with. Not only are banknotes relatively small, but you also have to work within strict technical parameters relating to security features and banknote production. Moreover, you have to create something which can be reliably read by machines for the purposes of automated counting and fraud detection. You really have to work in a very detailed way on a small canvas to bring everything together –millimeter by millimeter.

Annette: Alongside these challenges, you still want to be able to tell a story about the culture, the history, or the flora and fauna of the country whose note you are designing. So, you have to research deeply into the different aspects of a country, which can provide the inspiration for the note design. It is really important to get that inspiration right, as the notes you design might be in circulation for 10 to 15 years – or more.

How do you go about tackling these challenges?

Marc: We have a clear process for development, with different stages for the more classic design elements and for the refinement of the design around security and production requirements.

Annette: Even at the pure artistic design stage you are always developing the concepts with a deep understanding of the technical requirements, so that you know that the note you come up with can actually be produced in very large volumes.

Marc: This is why we see this role as being interesting for people who are both passionate about design and passionate about its technical aspects. You have to know that your concepts can actually be translated into production, before you put them in front of the client, otherwise you can have big problems down the line.

In many ways it has a lot of similarities to being an industrial designer. You have to balance the different requirements of the customer – substrate production, machine readability, and printing, for example – and still create a beautiful design that tells a story.

G+D Spotlight readers will be interested in how you both got into banknote design in the first place, as it is not exactly an obvious career choice for a designer.

Annette: It is an unusual occupation, and one where there is no single route in. This is because you cannot go to college to train as a banknote designer; you have to learn a lot through experience. I actually started out being interested in tailoring and fashion design and moved later into print and product design, which led to a job with G+D – many years ago!

Marc: I have to echo Annette’s words: this is not a job you can learn by taking a course. My path started with studying design and sculpture at Augsburg University in southern Germany and in Barcelona before working for an agency where I was the head of the design department. 

I have been with G+D for 10 years and I have to say that this role is still as exciting for me now as when I first started.

How do you see banknote design changing in the future?

Marc: One thing you can predict with confidence is even more change as new security features are developed and built into designs. Another is that the tools involved in the process of designing will also evolve. Whereas in the past the design was entirely executed on paper, now computers are central to the process.

Workspace of Annette Wüst
Annette Wüst’s workspace

Annette: There will also be further changes in the way we work with clients. There have already been major developments here over the years with the trend progressively moving towards ever-closer collaboration and a more iterative design process. This is not unique to banknote design but it is a really rewarding way of working.

Published: 27/01/2023

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