At the time of this writing, seven years have have passed since the citizens of Europe had to abandon their respective currencies – the Francs, the Liras, the Marks, the Pesetas etc., and get accustomed to the use of the new currency, the Euro.
In order to introduce a common currency to all the countries pertaining to the European Union, on February 1996 the European Monetary Institute (EMI), predecessor of the Central European Bank, presented a competition for the design of the new banknotes. Not everybody could participate. Only members countries of the European Union had the authority to invite in each case three designers, the great majority of which had never designed banknotes in their professional life.
All the chosen participants were invited to a meeting in Frankfurt, official seat of the EMI, where technicians explained to them the extraordinarily complex material producton of banknotes, the process to be followed for the delivery of the projects and, also, the proceedure chosen to determine which would be the winning project.
Each participant received two briefings: one conceptual and the other technical. The first one expressed the two communication concepts on which a project should be based, and one could choose one or the other or could present a project for each of the two concepts. The first of these was “Ages and styles of Europe”. The period which had to be represented in each of the seven banknotes, was indicated in the briefing as well as its corresponding colour:
- € 5 — grey — Athens, Rome
- € 10 — red — Romanic
- € 20 — blue — Gothic
- € 50 — orange — Renaissance
- € 100 — green — Baroque
- € 200 — ochre — 19th century
- € 500 — violet — 20th century
The second communication concept was “abstract-modern”. This concept, of very broad interpretation, actually left the choice of the concrete theme for the design of the seven banknotes to the designer himself who chose to work on this concept. For both communication concepts, however, there were a great number of limitations and conditioning factors, one of them being the fact, that the content of an image chosen to represent an age, had to be unidentifiable. In other words, if one chose a portrait, for example, the portrayed person should not be identifiable, nor its painter nor the museum where it was exhibited. The reason for this norm was dictated by the politicians, who, as usual, put their political foot in things, declaring: “… we don’t want to create nationalisms between the European countries…”, because, supposing that, for example, someone would choose the portrait of the Mona Lisa to portray an age, that would immediately evoke the name of Leonardo da Vinci and, consequently, Italy, which, according to these gentlemen, would “discriminate” other countries of Europe…
The technical briefing, on the other hand, represented a challenge of unusual complexity which conditioned to a very high degree the design of the banknotes. The dispositions which had to be taken into account in order, if not to make impossible, at least make it difficult to falsify the banknotes, were of unprecedented complexity. Similar precautions against falsification are also reflected in the printing of the banknotes, apart from a special paper, four different printing systems are used besides a silver stamping print, with visible and invisible security measures. To satisfy all these technical and conceptual requirements was extraordinarily complex but, at the same time, a very interesting creative and intellectual challenge.
The participants in this competition had a time limit of six months to realize their projects and when the delivery date arrived, one had to send them to a notary in Francfort. Since all these projects were going to be submitted to different commitees who were going to analyse them in terms of their technical feasability and, later, to a jury, one had to take all kinds of precautions so that nothing in the projects would indicate who designed them or from where they proceeded. 27 projects were presented under the concept of “ages and styles of Europe,” and 17 under “abstract-modern.”
Once approved by the technical commitees, the projects were then submitted to the jury whose task consisted in reducing, by different votations, the number of projects of both communicational concepts to 5 in each category. The jury consisted of 15 persons from different countries of the European Union and were experts in the history of art, marketing, design and communication. Later, these 2×5 projects were subjected to a public poll in different capital cities of Europe.
According to Mr. Duisenberg, the then president of the EMI, three projects obtained the same degree of acceptance on the part of that public, though he did not reveal which ones. “So we,” he said, in other words he and his colleagues, ”chose this project [the one now in use] because we like the symbolism…” Ah, but is there a symbolism in these banknotes we use in everday life…? Apparently there is, but unfortunately no one of those who use these banknotes is aware of it…
Now, there exist on the market an endless number of groups of products which can be classified as pertaining to one or other “product language” or established “visual language”. There a groups of products which, even though individual products pertaining to one of such group are different one from another in their visual aspect, they neverteless share common visual features. Examples of such “languages” are, for example, wine labels; perfume packagings; pharmaceutical products which are sold only with a medical presciption, or, precisely, the visual language of banknotes. In a publication in Spanish one can appreciate this “visual language” especially well. In it the banknotes corresponding to 37 countries from all over the world are shown. All, with the exception of three countries, have portraits on the front side. One of these exceptions is South Africa which shows animal “portraits”, and the banknotes of Holland and Hongkong, show only signs of different kinds. The portraits shown may be of a king, a queen, a chief of state, a discoverer, a poet or any other person who is not only important to the country which portrays him, but is also known internationally. This bestows prestige to the country. For example in Spain, on the different pesetas banknotes there was, on one, the portrait of the king Don Juan Carlos, on another, Christopher Columbus, the discoverer of America, on yet another, Pizarro and other important figures of the country and also known in the rest of the world. On the reverse side of the notes there was always some illustration which represented some specific or unique aspect of the country.
Practically all the partipants who had cosen the “Ages and styles of Europe” concept, understood this aspect in this same sense, inasmuch as they had chosen the portrait as the main visual feature, as could be seen in the exhibition which later on was organized to show all the projects to the public.
In this respect it is of interest to mention that at the time when the invited designers were working on their projects, the National Bank of Switzerland emitted the series of the new banknotes. On the front side there are portraits of well known cultural personalities who through their oeuvre have not only achieved personal fame but also for their country: Le Corbusier, architect; Giacometti, artist; Honegger, musician; Ramuz, writer; Sophie Täuber Arp, painter; Burckardt, historian. On the reverse side one can see in each case one or other oeuvre of the person. These banknotes transmit an excellent image of Switzerland as a country of culture. To anyone who might have one of these banknotes in his hands, we would recommend him to make a visual “excursion” on any one of them with a thread counter, in order to discover what the eye alone cannot see and one will be utterly astonished. (In its day, a representative of the Bank of Spain qualified them as the Rolls Royce of banknotes, practically impossible to falsify.)
These banknotes, as well as those mentioned before of the different countries, are characterized by the fact that they are graphic self-representations which are self-explanatory. One does not need to make complicated symbolic-mental operations for their understanding; all the visual elements contained in them are clear and comprehensible for the users. The only thing one has to do is to look at them.
These foregoing lines serve as a background for some commentaries about the Euro- banknotes used all over Europe. It doesen’t happen often in a designer’s lifetime, that a graphic design “product” such as the Euro, is being used by hundreds of millions people in the whole of the European continent, and this awakens the interest to know how the citizens see these banknotes and what they think of them.
I was interested to find out what the people’s opinion was, and since the introduction of the Euro in 2002, I made my personal inquiry. Though I have not counted them, I estimate that I must have asked the same question to, roughly, between 100 and 150 persons. These were taxi drivers; Bank employees; professional design colleagues; employees of grocery shops; friends, etc. The question asked was simple: “Could you tell me what image is on the front side of the Euro banknotes and which on the reverse side?” To my stupefaction, not one, I repeat, not one! of the persons was able to answer my question because they had never looked at the banknotes!! The answer in all cases was, “No, I don’t know;” they then took one or other banknote out of their wallet and looked at it. First they looked at the front side and said, “well… a door or a portal…” and turning the note around, “… a bridge… It is a bridge, right?” This question was asked by many of the interrogated people and led me to the conclusion that the bridges on the backside of the 10.-, 20.- and 10.- Euro banknotes are badly drawn. Looking at them it seems that the intention of the designer was to represent the reflection of the upper part of these bridges on the water flowing below them with horizontal lines. But when a bridge is reflected on the water which flows below it, the reflected part is not the same as the superior one, it is blurred due to the movement of the flowing water, but in those mentioned banknotes the symmetry between above and below is such that, curiously, what visually predominates is an empty round shape between the supposed bridge and its supposed reflection which, consequently, confuses the reading of that which pretends to be a bridge.
I still continue to this day with my inquiry and, recently, I asked the same question I had asked all the other people, to three barcelonese friends, and they answered without hesitating a second, “the portrait of our king, Don Juan Carlos!” When I asked them to take out one or other Euro banknote, they were stupefied that there were no portraits on the bills nor the one of the king of Spain…!
Now, in this personal inquiry the most significant point was, that no one asked himself about the why and wherefore of doors, portals or bridges on all the banknotes. As I was told at the Central Bank of Spain, in the poll which was undertaken in different capital cities of Europe in order to find out which was the project most liked, the majority of the people questioned didn’t have any idea of what to think about the presence of these doors, portals or bridges, and they only understood their meaning when the pollsters themselves explained it to them, in other words: open doors or portals? This means that you can go freely through them from one side to the other, therefore = free access from one country to another. Bridges? A bridge unites one shore with another shore, ergo, the bridges pretend to symbolize the union of the different countries. Then, the fact that not one of the people I asked these questions had even looked at the banknotes, has in my view only one possible explanation: its design is of unsurpassed mediocrity. As mentioned, it merits a “Summa cum laude” to one of the greatest mediocrities which have been produced in the area of graphic design.
I don’t pretend that my personal inquiry has a universal validity, but I do suspect that it is quite probable that very many other persons have not understood these symbolisms either. This result shows beyond any shadow of doubt, that it was the designer’s intent to make a symbolic communication on the subject of “Ages and styles of Europe” on both sides of the banknotes, and that this intention was neither looked at nor understood. Therefore, the communication intention did not have its intended effect, the message has not been understood. This means that the intent to make a symbolic communication on banknotes is, from the point of view of the “visual language”, an error, a grave error, not to say a stupidity. Another grave error was the fact that the decision about which would be the most adequate project was decided by the mentioned Mr. Duisenberg, a banker, of whom one may not expect a great knowledge of semiology, of signs and how they are understood, or not understood. And, finally, the idea of the politicians to anonymize the portraits which could figure on the banknotes “in order not to foment nationalisms,” is another absurd aspect, like many other such decisions by these personages. Nationalisms exist and will exist independently of the fact that there are portraits of a historic personage of one country and not of others. On the contrary, Europe has given birth to great figures in art, music, literature, science, etc., who have contributed to build the foundations of European culture, which, furthermore, has become western civilization; therefore, the portraits of some of these figures really merited figuring on this European symbol which the euro banknotes are, and in this way to remind everybody who uses them, of what a great and marvellous cultural inheritance we, Europeans, share.
Europe, the cradle of culture, the continent which gave birth to grandiose works of the human spirit, merited a better self-representation than this vulgar mediocrity that we, the Europeans, are condemned to carry in our wallets thanks to the incompetence of politicians.