The Currency of Design

First published in a slightly modified form ‘The Currency of Design’ in Business Standard, 19 November, in Deep Design, a fortnightly column by Itu Chaudhuri.

“I refuse to add to the chorus,” said DOPE, as the the Designer Of Practically Everything was known to his colleagues, “dissing the Rs 2000 note’s design. Instead, let’s treat it as an occasion to ask explore what design means.”

I looked sadly at the new Rs 2000 note my newspaper had sent for the interview. We sat in a bare, brightly daylit room, whose walls were covered with a jungle of cardboard shapes, and unrecognisable sketches made with fat markers.

There are as many definitions of design as there are animals, he insisted, and it’s continually evolving. And as with natural evolution, all definitions of design co-exist, said the DOPE, watching a linear drawing of something come to life on his laptop screen. Just as bacteria, fish and humans coexist, and even feed off each other. None is superior: all thrive.

There are as many definitions of design as there are animals, and it’s continually evolving. And as with natural evolution, all definitions of design co-exist.

Let’s use this Rs 2000 note, he said, much to my relief, to illustrate how design has evolved. He held it up to the table lamp and peered at it through a small lens.

For many people, design is decoration. This was its dominant 19th century meaning, produced by artists, artisans and ‘makers’ of all kinds in two or three dimensions. This note has several kinds of ornamentation, as though different artists were at play; older notes show a more grace and coherence.

Design is persuasion. The market and media explosions of the 20th century created design as persuasion, to sell goods, lifestyles and even ideas (join the war effort, for example).

Design is product. Industrial design extended desire to appliances and automobiles. It also made us conscious of progress, of how things work, and introduced new materials into our lives. A currency note, said, DOPE, must be durable and easy to handle, especially by ATMs (and not need lakhs of them to be re-calibrated, unless there’s a devious design there). It must be difficult to manufacture, on budget, and include an array of visible and hidden security features.

Design is discourse. As Art began to respond more consciously to the changed world of the 20th century, and ideology became the bridge between the arts and design. Constructivism, futurism and and other intellectual movements left their impress on design, unleashing a series of assertions on what design ought to be, for the first time.

International modernism, a mid 20th century bloom, called for a universal, rational approach to form. A doctrinaire modernist might give primacy to the universality of the banking function, with a clear, highly legible (in all light conditions) design, equally at home in India, or Germany. Even the Rs 2000 note could have done with numerals positioned and sized consistently with older notes, or provided a better way for the future.

Post-modernists might see a kind of imperialism in this ‘narrative’ of universal functionality. They might also argue that Gandhi’s image is a fraud perpetrated by power, advertising morality in the face of a corruption: off with his portrait.

Design is brand. In this age of commercial symbolism, this Rs 2000 note design under-represents the national brand; and second, offers an out-of-touch, backward projection of India. The Mangalyaan may have replaced dams and kisans, but the note’s design hardly projects capability or confidence. It suffers from all the gaudy, verbose clutter that we have come to expect, so what’s new?

In this age of commercial symbolism, this Rs 2000 note design under-represents the national brand; and second, offers an out-of-touch, backward projection of India.

These perspectives, said DOPE, sneaking a quick look at a dancing line on his laptop, are overlapping and simultaneous. They are not exhaustive: we can see design as culture, for example. But note that each of these is concerned with form, physical or visual.

Two relatively recent perspectives promise to transform that.

Design is experience. Experience designers (like UX designers) seek to map money’s journey from bank branch to wallet to exit, from the user’s point of view. But beyond this, she may muse on the experience of payment, physically or electronically, making it smoother. She might even ponder the ATM, and collaborate with a product designer to re-work it. Demonetisation as an experience? Sure, though her compulsion to prototype solutions with real users might be the deal breaker! DOPE chuckled for a minute at this.

Finally, design is thinking. Attracting interest lately is the designer’s ability to deal with incomplete information, and tackle complex situations by creative experimentation, and learning from failures. It aims to think beyond products, about systems, creating a pure problem solving process.

If such a designer thought about a cashless future, she might muse that electronic payments might not reach remote areas for some years. In the interim, imagine local-area cash, valid only in a specific off-network area and bankable in designated machines.

Perhaps the sheer mobility of cash makes it king. Networks fail unpredictably; a small bribe needs to be paid to a cop; a pushcart vegetable seller might have lost his card terminal. Maybe ATMs could dispense ‘temporary’ cash with 3-day validity, introducing friction as a solution to discourage cash.

Could this friction could be physical, giving cash a less convenient form? Maybe notes should occupy space proportional to their value. Imagine a 10,000 rupee note as thick as a sandwich, or as big as a tabloid page.

Psychological issues may obstruct a perfectly electronic world. Cash is a natural, visual means of relating to money; dashboards are not. Alternative visualisations of money may be needed to counter cognitive blindness.

Psychological issues may obstruct a perfectly electronic world. Cash is a natural, visual means of relating to money; dashboards are not.

Such apparently whacky alternatives frame the problem in productive ways, break the rut of the past, and eventually lead to previously unimaginable, working solutions that move us from an existing situation to a preferred one.


  • Avatar


    November 28, 2016

    Shades of magenta are juxtaposed to create an innocuous looking note, supposedly the new 2000/-. As an old lady of an indiscriminate age buying vegetables along with me at the vendor said” gandhi will soon be replaced by modi” ! so we can well imagine what might happen if a toilet were to be an image on a note.
    The design of the note shows us that although we live in a country which now boasts of many design schools, a veritable talent of young minds, the government seeks out the poorest in design. Ironic and distressing for many of us who imbibe and educate young minds about design being “aesthetic” ” visually appealing” functional and cohesive.
    Yes, we are in this new age world looking to go ” cashless” and so on,but being a sensitive citizen, I also know that a large part of the population is deprived of fundamentals like electricity , education and water… so in the hills of Uttarakand, they would rather queue up for water; than a bunch of notes or struggle to work an ATM .

    So, ” design” as we interpret it, can most certainly become the problem solver, provided we are able to actually identify the need. It is an eternal paradox , one that can make or break the variable experiences we constantly strive to improve.

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    Sumit Roy

    November 28, 2016

    Excellent thoughts on design.

    Unfortunately, I can’t react subjectively as I have not needed to use the Rs. 2000 note as yet, though it’s been 12 days since that new note has been issued.

    Didn’t have much money that needed exchanging in the first place. I guess I do almost all my cash transactions paperless.

    The different size of the note is either a masterstroke or a complete design failure. Only time will tell.

    Right now the transaction value of converting black to white seems to be 20%.

    If you have the time to line up and earn Rs. 500 for the day for converting black to white you can do so by merging with the millions of people who need more than the daily and weekly withdrawal / exchange limits.

    At any rate, India’s banks are now flush with newly found deposits.

    So is that by design? Or has India’s jugaad mentality defeated the best laid plans to eradicate black money?

    I guess the fact that the demonetization idea will get at least 20% of the black economy into the white economy is no mean achievement.

    It’s one way to re-distribute 20% of the wealth that was lying around as idle cash.

    • Itu Chaudhuri

      Itu Chaudhuri

      November 28, 2016

      You can add to that the money that won’t come back at all, destroyed by owners, turned mouldy, etc. It will be accounted as black money reduced.

      I can’t tell whether the move, while politically powerful, will have the claimed benefits or the disbenefits
      also claimed by opponents. Or ratios thereof.

      No doubt that it gives pleasure by way of Schadenfreude to many, at the cost of pain to the bigger little fish. The few big ones are surely unaffected. Thats by design.

  • Avatar

    Rahul Kunwar

    December 6, 2016

    The demonetization is used as a method of publicity rather than a social reform movement. The ill planning and devastating management is not only hurting the people who consist the 70% population of the nation but also the employment aspect of the nation big time. I think it could have been done in a better way. Somewhere in the world it was meant to hurt the big black earners instead the pockets of the poor who are already being crushed under the powerless money are being diluted further in the political apocalyptic approach of the newly formed governance.
    Going with the design of the newly circulated currency notes, being a designer I’m feeling discomfort the moment I look up to the currency of the past and down to the future, by no means it is pleasing. I understand the need of cashless nation but for that you need a cash-full nation first not the bad design of the currency. It is more relating to the fact that this government is trying to impose their marks on the country more than trying to cope up with the problems. Fascinating!
    On the other hand currency is the biggest representative of the nation, of any nation. Britishers ruled on us for more than 200 years and when you take their 1 pound coin in your hands you can instantly feel the power of that nation. This is what currency means. Now 2000 rs note has multiple things to look at which are only distraction when you hold it in your hand. It is not the design. aesthetics do play major role, which is missing, I thought it could have been better if this design had emphasis on the design than on the Swatchh Bharat logo and flipped Gandhi ji, which is also a bit distorted. Ashamed by the fact that Indian currency is not showing any intent of representing our nation. I don’t know how may of us were affected by the black money but surely people like me are having issues with the fancy currency.

  • Avatar


    December 6, 2016

    Post on my thread by Chander Shekhar

    Chander Shekhar For everyone’s information, all the aspects of misalignment and different sizes of fonts are actually the greatest plus points that go in FAVOUR of an absolutely IMPOSSIBLE TO FAKE design. For the information of the novice critique, the bank note security design and printing require the most specialised skills and technique. Without divulging more, the entire artwork HAS to be made BY HAND. If it were made by traditional medhods any joker would be able to trace. This design CANNOT be traced, has no dpi or resolution nor will have nodes. It is a VECTOR par excellence.
    Now the pink colour. Security printing of the highest order allows the colour to scuff. Check dollar. Then magenta is the most expensive colour. Pinks created from magenta are brilliant with the largest variety and are the hardest to dulpicate accurately. So anyone attempting to duplicate will have to consider the high expenses and risks. The designs and motifs people are making fun of, have unusual qualities of giving moire effect when photographed of xeroxed. So guys LETS SHOW SOME RESPECT FOR THE FINEST MOST RESPECTED BANK NOTE OF THE WORLD.


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