Daily Features

Making Money: The Design of Currency

The U.S. Mint recently released a new design for the $100 bill. What’s the design verdict?

By Amanda Kolson Hurley, Superscript January 14, 2014

If you’re a high roller or someone who stuffs your money under the mattress, you may already have come across the new $100 bill, in circulation as of October. This is the most significant redesign the Benjamin has undergone since 1929, when it and other denominations switched from a large-note format to a smaller size and the standard portrait-head design.

The redesigned 100 dollar bill. © U.S. Mint

Ben’s still here—in fact, he’s bigger than he used to be, and the old frame around his face is gone. To his left, a blue security ribbon now runs down the middle of the bill. Tilt it, and a line of Liberty Bells changes to 100s. A new inkwell contains a larger image of the Liberty Bell that shifts from copper to green.

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Franklin’s right shoulder feels slightly rough to the touch, a result of intaglio printing that produces a raised surface. On the reverse of the bill, a new vignette shows the back of Independence Hall, and a large gold 100 spans the bill’s height for legibility.

How many of these changes are supposed to deter counterfeiting? With the exception of the gold 100, all of them, said Tom Serfass, curator of the Newman Money Museum at Washington University in St. Louis. The $100 bill is a massive export: About two-thirds of all bills in circulation are outside the United States, held as the world’s favorite reserve currency. Most counterfeiting also happens abroad. The Federal Reserve is trying to stay one step ahead with security features like the 3-D blue ribbon and a two-sided watermark that reveals a ghostly image of Franklin.

The 1928 Series 100 Dollar Bill. © Deer Run Mercantile

“These changes are exceptionally good, because they’re pretty high-tech,” and therefore almost impossible to fake, Serfass said. (He added that there are probably other anti-counterfeiting measures the Federal Reserve and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing don’t want to talk about.)

From a design standpoint, though, the changes are unlikely to convert critics of the staid greenback. Richard Smith, a New York creative director, leads the Dollar ReDe$ign Project, which has solicited new currency designs in an effort to “rebrand” and stimulate the challenged U.S. economy. Smith is unimpressed by the hundred’s new features, describing them in an email as “overdone.”

The Yugoslavian Dinar. © Wikipedia

He added: “Yet again, they've passed over the visually impaired. … [S]eriously, why can't we add features for the visually impaired, knowing [that] the difference between the denominations is a ‘security’ issue for them?” The big gold 100 may be legible to some people with low vision, but as Smith points out, it’s useless for people with no vision. By contrast, Swiss money has Braille printed on it.

If different denominations were different sizes, that too could help people with disabilities tell them apart. But there are drawbacks to this approach as well. Currencies with wide variation in banknote size or color, like the former Yugoslavian dinar, let our eyes and hands become complacent. “People don’t look at them very hard,” Serfass said, and that can give counterfeiters an edge. Plain U.S. bills are pretty safe, in both senses of the word.

Current designs for other U.S. currency notes. © U.S. Mint


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