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The world of banknote graphics and the universe of vision are composed of images, texts and colours, seeking interest conviction or visual impacts. However, we must not forget the aesthetic context, what the eye sees is very much associated with how we perceive the images. Everything that refers to the visual messages is within a syntactic and aesthetic context and is interpreted differently from written text as images are images through which the eye absorbs with pleasure. When observing images we are recognising shapes, colours, textures, there is a coincidence of our experiences in the empirical world of a visible reality which Aristotle called, “universalia”, known today as semiotics, the iconic scheme that exists in the mind.

The mental schemes in which we use to understand it could be the habitual and everyday images we see: people, flowers, animals, mountains, etc. In its more complex graphic expression, we find these symbolic elements embodied in banknote designs. Other common elements found in banknotes design are geometric figures (circle, squares, triangles, etc.) that repeat in symmetry perceiving a somewhat abstract expression and forming what we could call geometrical vision.

Juan Costa, states, the pleasure that the eye experiences with the images resides in a process that is integrated by two main components, which can appear simultaneously.

  • Iconic perception, radically different from textual perception;
  • Recognition of forms:
    • Wave freedom of visual travel on a surface,
    • Aesthetic enjoyment (what the mind deciphers),
    • The speech and visual rhetoric (symbolism and meaning through the visual story).
Banknote portrait of a Yellow-eyed penguin and Ross lily flowers, released by the Reserve Bank of New Zealand in 2015.

Fragment of 5 dollars banknote, New Zealand
Banknote portraits of St. Cyril and St. Methodius, released by The National Bank of Slovakia in 1993.
Fragment of 50 Korun banknote, Slovakia

Art and Symbolism

A banknote belongs to the language of visual communication and brings to us at first level art, iconography, text, history and messages. These two levels operate in two different spectrums (visual and linguistic) and complement each other to create harmony and a clear message in the two-channel environment.

In practice, the combination of image and text, which has been defined as “two-channel” language, is subject to a discipline that is current for banknotes and has a long tradition in art, design and visual communication. The predominance of images over signs or visual representation over written text directly appeals to the perception and recognition of the shapes and design elements that make up the banknotes, which generally implies pleasure and visual fascination.

It is clear that banknote design derives from the spirit of art, from the hand-drawn and more recently graphic language. All the key components of a banknote, such as aesthetics, symmetry, colour, balance and visual harmony, are integrated into the technological processes for the industrial manufacturing of banknotes.

Banknote design is a production and not of science, where the design process is conceptual, design must draw on other structured dimensions, such as art and instrumental theories that address experience; design methodologies that organise processes; ideologies that are social and cultural inputs; design theories that include objective knowledge; and finally scientific disciplines that address developments and technologies whose main root is security, durability and functionality.

One of the qualities valued in banknote design is originality, however, from a general and aesthetic context, what can be original for one person, is not for another. As a banknote designer, I am convinced that originality lies in doing things for oneself in a creative, objective, and innovative context. That for me is the essence of design.

The art and symbolism of banknotes is an exciting visual synergy that must respect and honour the architectural challenges of banknote design. It must be appreciated for its artistic and aesthetic value, and also for its function as a collective need, which is oriented towards an economy and society that uses it as a means of payment, but above all, the banknote must be created with a message and the cultural identity value it has.

20 Mil Colones banknote, Costa Rica