Making money: behind the design of NZ's new currency

While the news has been filled with reactions to the flag, our newly designed bank notes seem to have taken a back seat. They aren’t cheap either, at a 'mere' $80 million, and if we are looking at shedding the shackles of the monarchy in the form of the Union Jack, should the Queen be departing our bank notes too? And what about core design principles. Do our notes stack up to the aesthetics of those from other nations? We talk to designer Brian Slade, creative director for Insight Creative for a commentary on another facet of New Zealand’s branding, our currency.

While the news has been filled with reactions to the flag, our newly designed bank notes seem to have taken a back seat. They aren’t cheap either, at a 'mere' $80 million, and if we are looking at shedding the shackles of the monarchy in the form of the Union Jack, should the Queen be departing our bank notes too? And what about core design principles. Do our notes stack up to the aesthetics of those from other nations? We talk to designer Brian Slade, creative director for Insight Creative for a commentary on another facet of New Zealand’s branding, our currency.

New Zealand’s new $5 and $10 notes begun circulating this month and the $20, $50 and $100 notes will be in circulation from April 2016.


The new notes are brighter, with the notes' value shown in larger print. There’s also a greater colour contrast between notes. But they are the same size and are made of the same material, according to the Reserve Bank’s website.

The themes are also the same, with the same respected New Zealanders and the Queen, but additional te reo Māori has been added.

More security features have also been added. A larger window has been included with metallic detailing and the native bird icon changes colour as the note is tilted and a small ‘puzzle number’ lines up when the note is held to the light. An interactive website gives a good idea of the notes’ appearance and how the holographics function.

The Reserve Bank makes initial decisions about the colour, wording and sizes of each denomination based on public surveys and expert advice, the Reserve Bankwebsite says.

Designers then draw up concepts to incorporate the various features of the note and then the designs are assessed by a range of people including security experts, bank note equipment manufacturers and design, history and cultural experts, to ensure they enhance security, are aesthetically pleasing and reflect New Zealand’s culture and history.

Quite a different process from the flag consideration project.

We like them! What do you think?

Posted by The Breeze NZ on Monday, August 31, 2015

So, how do they deliver from a design perspective?

“Yes they are brighter, yes they are different sizes which makes it easy for those who are impaired by vision to discern which note they are holding in their hand which is a great thing. But you are quickly struck by the addition of the security elements which have been put into the notes … But first impressions you look and go 'Well yes they’ve changed but the content on them is [only] slightly different'. They are richer in terms of their colouration but they aren’t substantially different,” Slade says.

He says there were focus groups to discuss the content and it was decided the existing icons, including the Queen would stay on the note. However, he says if the general populace had decided what would be on the note, it could be a very different story. “I think it would have been interesting. With the focus groups that were conducted, it’s probably a lot easier to kind of go ‘Oh no we’ll go with the status quo’ depending on the questions being asked. I don’t personally have a problem with the individuals on there but I think it would be an interesting test if it had gone to the general public.”

Would Lorde have been a contender? I wonder.

“What I aesthetically struggle with is probably the mix of elements that you have got on the face of the notes with the inclusion of the birds,” he says. “You’ve got similar content. If you compare the [current] $5 bill you’ve got a great rep of Sir Edmund Hillary, you’ve got Mt Everest, you’ve got pronounced visibility of the number five. The Reserve Bank of New Zealand and inclusion of the Māori is a great move. [That] te reo has been represented is part of cultural representation being done well and you’ve got the use of the Tukutuku patterns. But the birds on the baring face just didn’t really work for me, it becomes too many elements, just a bit busy.”

He says he doesn’t personally think it was time to change the note. “So, aesthetically do I think it was worthwhile, probably not. But from a security perspective, possibly. [Though] the existing bills are currently polymer and so we have already moved into enhanced elements with transparency and those sorts of things. But there’s a number of issues that impact on that decision, the accuracy, the security, the cultural. I think it was dubious as to whether or not it was essential. Because I don’t think the gains that we have got from a design perspective warrant necessarily the change.”

“They’ve done a pretty good job,” he says. “When you think about what the function of the bill is, it is to clearly determine how much you can redeem it for. I believe you can clearly see it’s $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100.”

He says the debate for new notes could have been minimised by the fact that New Zealand has one of the highest uptakes of electronic transactions for money, but he says it still has a function. “It’s a business card for business out there in the global community. It tells a wider cultural story, I’m not sure they do the best but they do a good job and I’m sure that anyone receiving a $5 bill would enhance their knowledge of NZ,” he says.

He says the Europeans in particular are doing a good job when it comes to bank note design and Australia’s notes are also pleasing designs on the global stage, but he wouldn’t comment on whether he thought theirs [Australia’s] were better than ours.

Norway’s new notes have been getting a lot of attention online. They were finalised at the end of 2014 with a theme of the meeting of land and sea and sought strong design principles, according to Currency Fair. Norway’s Norges Bank invited eight design teams to submit proposals for a series of sea-themed note designs, with Snøhetta Design’s standout concept being chosen to appear on the backs of its krone bills, using pixels to depict coastal settings. Snøhetta’s proposal for black-and-white photos of Norwegian coast on the front were rejected, however for a different slightly more traditional approach by design studio Metric System.

In 2013 the Kazakhstan 1000 tenge banknote was named the best in the world by the International Bank Note Society which runs an annual Bank Note of the Year. It also won for its 5,000 tenge note in 2012 and in 2011 for its 10,000 tenge note.

Last year the competition was won by Trinidad & Tobago for the 50 dollar note.


See here for the winners of the competition over the years, and here for our sister publication The Register’s look at the evolution of the New Zealand bank note.

This article originally appeared on Stoppress.