I Hate Money

(Note: I didn't intend to publish this entry for a few weeks, but due to a
mistake on my part it ended up in the RSS feed for a lot of people yesterday. 
As a result, I'll just post it now.  My apologies if you see it twice in
your RSS client.)

OK, hold on. First thing: if any of my managers are reading, I actually
love money
. It lets me buy things that make me and my family happy. 
Mmmmmm, money!
  Don't miss this critical point.

For it's not actually money I hate.  It's American currency.  Our
paper money.  I'm so disappointed in the random and scattershot way our
paper currency has evolved over the last decade.  It seems that the folks
at the US Bureau of Engraving and
are really only worried about making money more secure and not
about taking advantage of the opportunity to beautify, simplify, or modernize
the usability of our currency.  Last week, the money folks announced yet
redesign of the $10 bill
, this one uglier than the last one.  Change is
good, but not when it's constantly additive and pursued tentatively.

(I also think we should get rid of pennies and take the hard steps it
would take to get rid of the dollar bill and popularize the dollar coin--but
that's for another day.)

I was born in the later half of the 1970s.  The design of paper money
was something, growing up, that I felt in my gut was set in stone.  I never
considered that it would change in my lifetime.  Each of the bills was the
same shape, the same color, and pretty much the same design.  The familiar
$1, $5, $10, and $20 bills
(pretty much all I saw as a kid) were vaguely made more interesting by the
existence of the exotic but
rarely seen $2 bill
These were bill designs that hadn't changed in decades; I don't know that they
were the most beautiful or inspiring designs, but they all matched and had a
sense of solidness and history to them.  I remember touring Europe with the
International Youth Symphony Orchestra when I was a teenager and feeling
somewhat smug about not having
"Monopoly"-colored money

Then, in the late 1990s,
designs for new bills
were released
.  Featuring a big, off-center presidential head, these
bills included a number of new anti-counterfeiting measures as well as featuring
new accessibility and other design upgrades.  This seemed OK to me.  I
watched a PBS special on the engravers whose job it was to create the woodprints
used to print the presidential portrait and kind of admired the care to detail
they put into the work.  It took several years from start to finish, and
the result I thought was pretty nice.

They started with the high bills and eventually the new design worked its way
down to the bills I regularly see: $20, $10, and then $5.  And then,
eventually, I thought, the $1 bill.  But no--as abruptly as they started,
they stopped, leaving the most commonly used bill in the unmatching older design
and all the others with the new design.  This guaranteed that our currency
could never again match in style.  In addition, the old bills remain in
circulation, meaning that there were two versions of all the higher bills
floating around.  I know the money folks say that eventually all the old
money wears out, but I still see a lot of old-style bills.

Why not update the $1 bill to look like the rest of our currency?  I can
understand why they wouldn't bother to design a $1 bill with all of the
elaborate anti-counterfeit technology in it, but how about just making the
president big and off-centered to match the rest of the bills?  Surely we
could have just updated the visual design?  I feel like some kind of
closure on the whole process was never reached.

Fast forward to the 2000's.  Now, our "new" off-center presidential
heads aren't enough--I guess people figured out how to photocopy them or
something.  So
another new design for currency needs to be introduced
.  Again, we
won't retire any of the old bills, meaning that there are now three
versions of the $50, $20, and $10 in circulation.

But worst of all, the new currency is so unbelievably ugly and unmatched. 
They tried to introduce color, but in a way such that the bills would still be
gray-green.  This is because their research showed that Americans would be
too stupid to be actually able to use real colored money.  So, instead what
we get is a new $20 bill that looks like it was dragged through a mud puddle. 
And now a new $10 that looks like someone spilled a little cranberry sauce on

And this time, we're not doing the $5 bill either, meaning that they're
actively engraving 3 totally mismatched styles of money with absolutely no plans
(even long-term) to rectify the situation.  I'm a patient guy, and I
understand the engineering difficulties probably involved in tooling for new
bills--but in 50 years we're still planning to just have a scattershot, reactive
currency that looks like every bill was designed by a different committee?

It makes me embarrassed.

What might a good national currency look like?  Well, at the very least,
all the bills should look like the same country made them.  That means
similar typography and layout.  All one color would be good, or a
different, clear color per bill ( href="http://www.giftlog.com/images/magnets/$set.jpg">ala the Australian dollar)
would be good as well.  Clear colors for each bill does make rooting around
in a wallet easier, and I bet Americans could handle it.  Some currencies
use bigger bills for larger denominations ( href="http://caelina.free.fr/euro.jpg">such as the Euro.)  This seems
like it could be handy as well, but perhaps it causes problems in practice with
smaller bills getting lost between larger ones?

And lastly, come up with a plan to have a currency that is technologically
advanced enough to last for 100 years.  Or that is designed well enough
that the currency can continue to be technologically updated without having to
mess with the visual design all the time.

With most things in the world, I'm glad that the designs evolve and change:
cars, clothing, music, software.  But currency is not one of those areas in
which we need to constantly innovate the design, particularly if we never have
plans to retire any of the old designs.

Come up with a beautiful, standard, accessible, usable design, even if it
means breaking away from tradition.  And then let's redo all the bills to
match and stick with it for a while.  OK?

Comments (24)

  1. Matt says:

    Sounds like a plan. British money (I’m British, in case that didn’t tip you off) uses different sizes for different values of bills (or ‘notes’ as we call them). Each one also has a dominant colour – £5 notes are sort of turquoise, £10 are orange, £20 are purple and £50 are red (and rather rare). Periodic redesigns are primarily aimed at making it harder for people to counterfeit the money, but when we issue a new form of currency, the old one is always withdrawn within a specified time period.

    That goes for our coins too (which also come in different sizes, colours and shapes depending on denomination). This all adds up to a fairly coherent system (with the current designs for notes, it’s even more obvious that there’s a common style going on) which is also useful to blind people who have to identify their money by touch.

    It amazes me that the US haven’t withdrawn any older money. What is the point of introducing anti-counterfeiting measures if the old currency with its flaws remains in circulation? It’s not exactly hard either – just make sure every old note that passes through a bank gets swapped for a new one, and that people are aware that after a particular cutoff date, the old style won’t be spendable anymore. Simple, you’d think.

    Plus, our money’s prettier.

  2. mabster says:

    Two things that really annoyed me when I was in the US for a holiday last year:

    1. The fact that I had to keep all these 1c pieces ("pennies") that served no purpose, after paying for something that cost $1.99 instead of $2.

    2. The fact that all the notes were the same size. I actually gave a guy a $100 note instead of a $20, and didn’t find out about it ’til much later … that *really* annoyed me. Funny that *he* didn’t mention it, huh? 🙂

    Actually, the fact that the US system of tipping someone every time they passed wind in your general direction was another annoyance. It meant that I had to carry a surplus of $1 notes or coins – something that I would *never* have to do here in Aus. Heck, I don’t carry cash at at home.

    ps. Love your blog, Jensen. Keep up the good work.

  3. Gabe says:

    I always thought that changing the bills for anti-counterfeiting measures was stupid because I would just counterfeit the old style!

    The big problem with changing our currency is that, like you, most people are used to it. A currency’s value is related to how much trust people have in it. If a bank note does not look familiar, one is likely to have less trust in it, and not value it as much. If our dollar bills started looking like variable-sized multi-colored clear polyester, people who are unfamiliar with them would most likely not consider them real. What good would all those high-tech features be if you could even spend the cash?

    An even bigger problem is that our currency is not only the official currency of the USA, but also of other countries (Ecuador, Panama, El Salvador), and the unofficial currency of many more (Cuba, Russia, and a dozen others). Retiring old styles of notes is almost impossible because most of them are physically overseas.

    Indeed, given these problems, I’m surprised that our notes have changed as often as they have. Every new iteration requires further training of everybody using it for counterfeit detection. This increases false positives, thereby decreasing trust, for people who are either poorly trained or simply have forgotten the older styles.

  4. Helen says:

    "And then let’s redo all the bills to match and stick with it for a while. OK?"

    And just a couple of days ago, you yourself were telling us which Office apps get the new UI and which ones don’t… notice any parallels here? 😀

  5. David Harrison says:

    I think it’s a matter of perspective. In Canada, we’re used to the idea that the Bank of Canada will design a new series of notes every decade or so. Of course, they do make an effort to remove old notes from circulation – typically within a year or so of the new note going into circulation.

    Having a distinctive new note design actually clarifies counterfit detection since everyone comes to realize that the new design *must* have the new security features, and therefore counterfitters cannot fool people by simply leaving the security features off. The visual design serves as a key to the specific security features.

    Current notes are at:


  6. Jon Peltier says:

    As I read this entry, I was expecting some kind of parallel to the Office user experience; it could have been inserted in a dozen places. It didn’t appear until Helen’s reply.

  7. I_thought_you_meant_ms_money says:

    "And lastly, come up with a plan to have a currency that is technologically advanced enough to last for 100 years. Or that is designed well enough that the currency can continue to be technologically updated without having to mess with the visual design all the time."

    100 years ago, the closest thing we had to a computer were mechnical calculators and Hollerith (punch cards) tabulators. Printing was done in black and white with lead type, and personal transportation generally had four legs and exhaust you didn’t want to step in.

    What I’m getting at is that given technological change, it’d be virtually impossible to anticipate in 2005, the kinds of things counterfeiters might be doing to duplicate printed bills (if they aren’t a historical curiosity) in 2105.

  8. oops_forgot_to_mention says:

    Having distinct visual styles for distinct levels of anti-counterfeit technology is probably a good thing. If v2.0 of a bill looks different than v1.0, you know that if you don’t find a v2.0 security feature in a v2.0-looking bill, you have a fake. If v1.0 and v2.0 look the same, and you don’t find a security feature in a bill, you now have two explanations: the bill is a fake, or it’s the older version. Because of this, and the wide audience for bills, I think you’d want to make the distinction between versions of bills more clear than a serial number range or a small version number imprint.

    But the Euro’s multiple sizes of bills is a very good idea, particularly for the blind. Even then, it would require changes to wallets, money envelopes, bill acceptors, and a thousand other things to implement…

  9. jensenh says:

    A release of Office is not currency and obviously has a different set of issues. But I do think there are parallels–if there was never a plan to reunite the user interfaces of all the apps, that would bother me. Or if we were planning another totally new user interface for the next version, that would bother me too.

    We’re trying to follow the principles I laid out for currency actually: coming up with a design you think will last a long time, planning for the long-term rollout of it to all the pieces (even staged over multiple years), and don’t keep the old thing in circulation forever (no "classic mode.")

    It’s not the change that bothered me; on the contrary if they changed it once and did a great job, I would have taken almost any amount of change in stride. It’s this long pattern of half-changes that I think lead to an overall degradation of the design.

    I hope the American government will do exactly what we are doing with the Office 12 UI: take a bold step forward towards the right thing, even if it breaks a little with tradition.

  10. Anthony says:

    We’re mostly stuck with one-size currency, because there’s a lot of money invested in bill-handling technology, all designed for the current size, but that’s not a really big issue – color can handle most of the distinction issues, and maybe we could do raised dots like the Dutch.

    While we can, in theory, "withdraw" money from circulation, the United States has <b>never</b> demonetized any currency or coin it’s ever issued. If someone brings a $20 gold certificate from 1934 into a bank, the bank must credit him with $20. (A smart teller will pocket the Gold Certificate and replace it with a modern $20, but that’s a different issue.) A $10 gold coin from 1888 is still valid for $10.

    Currency does wear out, and requesting banks to pull the old stuff will clear out the supply of older currency pretty quickly, but it will never be complete.

  11. zzz says:

    paper cash is already a curiosity, visa electron penetration is rapidly heading for 100% and it’s quite difficult to find a place that doesn’t accept electron. Unfortunately its adoption in the Internet has been much much slower nationally – not to mention internationally.

  12. Rob says:

    Two quick things.

    1) The US mint continuly prints new money, and recycles old money. They will take old, worn-out coins and bills, and replace them with new ones. Circulation is a big issue for those folks.

    2) I think the reason why they didn’t replace the $1 bill is that many counterfiters wash the $1 bill and imprint the $20 bill on it. If the $1 bill is made to have the same ‘look and feel’ as the $20, it makes counterfiting easier. I am sure they have reasons for everything. I personally like the new money, and like the new quarter series and new nickle series. Yes, it will cause some ‘upgrade’ problems, but so what. That isn’t the concern of 99.99% of us.

  13. bowerm says:

    The varying colours and sizes of Euro and GBP notes are designed to help visually impaired and blind people use the money. Blind people can use a plastic device a little like ruler to determine the denomination of the note they are holding just by size.

    Frankly in a country where minority rights are valued so highly, I have always been amazed that all US bills are the same colour and size.

  14. Edge says:


    Funny you should bring this up, it bugs me too. 😉 I really wish they’d move their redesigns to the $1 and $2 notes. But the thing that bugs me even more?

    According to the press releases for the new $20 and new $50 notes, they plan on redesigning the bills every **7** years or so. So even after they launch their $100 note redesign next year, we’ve got even more redesigns coming in another 3 or 4 years…

  15. David Candy says:

    Our Australian currency is also different size of each note. With colour and size different one never confuses notes. Our currency will last a fair few years as it is plastic.

    Here’s some background and advantages of plastic notes.


    And the Kiwi perspective (Australia makes the kiwi’s money in the same factory as Australia’s).


  16. Chris Lundie says:

    My favourite thing about Canadian currency is watching the Queen’s head grow old. I know, I’m pathetic…

  17. When I was in the U.K. years ago I was told that the reason for different denominations of bills being different sizes was that so blind and visually-impaired people could distinguish them. Color doesn’t help with that.

    Another distinguishing characteristic of U.S. money is that the coins don’t have the numeric representation of their value on them — instead, they say things like "FIVE CENTS" and "QUARTER DOLLAR" — which makes it harder on those tourists who are not well-versed in English. Could we be trying to send them a message?

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