History in Banknote Design : NHC History Blog
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Franklin Noll, PhD
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Franklin Noll's Blog on Monetary and Financial History.

History in Banknote Design

by Franklin Noll on 07/26/20



Look at almost any banknote design, and you will find historical subject matter depicted.  There are good reasons for this as historical vignettes, portraits, and other material work to perform tasks that are critical for a successful design.  I would say that there are basically three interconnected functions performed by historical subject matter.

National Identity.  Historical subject matter is uniquely suited for establishing the national identity of a banknote.  As almost all banknotes are issued by nation-states (the EU is a special form of this), this is an important function.  The special history of a country sets it apart from all others.  Presenting elements of a nation’s history clearly marks out the ownership of a banknote.  Further, those parts of a nation’s past chosen for display on a banknote allow the issuer to make a clear statement about that country.  Heroic elements proclaim a heroic nation, inventive elements proclaim an inventive nation, and so on.  In essence, the historical subject matter chosen for a banknote design creates a specific historical narrative about that nation.

Narrative.  As we have seen, the use of historical subject matter creates a narrative.  In other words, all the historical elements used (historical vignettes, portraits, and other material) connect and work together to create a coherent message in the banknote design.  This is important for two reasons: one, it gives an overall cohesion to the design, and two, it gives the designer a way to move the viewer from one element to another.  And, as the viewer moves across the design, creating meaning and reading the narrative, he or she is also looking at the security features, which is kind of the whole point of the design.  Overall, history is ideal for creating narratives.  After all, history is nothing but l’histoire or the story.

Connection.  Finally, historical subject matter in banknote design allows the viewer to connect with the design, entering it and paying more attention to it.  As we saw above, the viewer creates the narrative as his or her eyes move across the note (examining the security features along the way).  This act also creates the meaning of the note so important for national identity.  The ease of connection comes from a citizen of a nation-state recognizing themselves in the history of their country.  So, there is an immediate interest in the banknote’s design and the narrative it presents, which is basically the viewer’s narrative.  I believe some sort of connection still exists when a national currency is viewed by someone foreign to the issuing country—such is the case of international currencies.

So, historical subject matter gives a banknote design an identity, a narrative, and a connection with the viewer.  And, for good historical subject matter, you need a historian.  And, that’s what I do!

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