The incredibly secretive process of designing the next US banknote

Literally making bank.
Literally making bank.
Image: Reuters/Tyrone Siu
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In a world of cryptocurrencies and contactless payment systems, it’s easy to dismiss cash as boringly retrograde—illustrated scraps of cotton-linen “paper”, to be crammed into pockets or slapped onto bars. But there’s a lot more to US banknotes than initially meets the eye. Greenbacks hide a host of high-tech security features that most people will never notice, despite handling them every day.

Take the $100 bill. Redesigned in 2013 after a spate of high-tech counterfeiting based out of North Korea, the new note features some of the most advanced security design in the world. It cannot be photocopied, reveals some of its secrets only under the infrared and ultraviolet lights of banks and vending machines, and includes a security ribbon allegedly “impossible for even North Korean counterfeiters to replicate.” Or, at least, very, very difficult.

Behind this note is Brian Thompson, one of the US’s three current journeyman banknote designers, as they’re officially known. In 2013, he became the first African-American person to design an American banknote, nearly 25 years after he first arrived at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing as an apprentice. His father had previously worked for the bureau, manufacturing the cylinders that pull the “paper” through the presses and turn it into money.

Designer Brian Thompson poses with his banknote.
Designer Brian Thompson poses with his banknote.
Image: Courtesy Brian Thompson

Thompson and his colleagues spend their day grappling with unique and usually confidential challenges to produce bills that look balanced, tell a story, and work all over the world. That’s because only about 25% of the nearly 40 billion US bank notes remain inside the country, while the remainder go overseas to be used in countries throughout Asia, Latin America, and Africa. In some places, the dollar is an accepted alternative, operating alongside the official currency. In around a dozen others, including Ecuador and Zimbabwe, it is simply adopted as the country’s own currency, in a process known as “dollarization.”

Though billions of people have seen, held and used Thompson’s artwork, most of them have no idea which invisible hand is behind the subtleties of orange and green on this 6.14 by 2.61 inch canvas. All banknotes are signed, but not by their artists. In an interview with Quartz, Thompson explains how he got to where he is and what makes his chosen canvas so challenging.

Quartz: How did you become a banknote designer?

I graduated out of high school in ‘88 and started a seven-year apprenticeship as a banknote designer in ‘89. At that particular time, there were two apprentices, including me, and six full-fledged journeyman banknote designers when I first started. There were only eight of us then—so it’s always been a small number of us. I’m now one of the three banknote designers of the United States.

What does a typical day look like?

A typical day is a lot of research towards the subject matter that we’re thinking about designing, even if there isn’t a specific assignment. We’re designing to stay ahead of the calendar. Our days are always full of meetings with the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department. We’re getting feedback and information from all of them. Otherwise, we keep our skills sharp by designing miscellaneous products or imagery. We’ll draw new subject matter, though I can’t give detail on that. Sometimes this is work that no one will ever get to see because it’s work that’s building toward a final product, or final drawings. We try to do it to just to stay sharp and ahead of the effects of new technology.

Do you collaborate with the other designers? I know you worked on the $100 bill—was that a team effort? Why did it take so long?

It’s really been one designer per note, on each denomination, because it’s so much work.

The hundred—it took us 10 years to get that out the door, because we had two administrative changes, where the president changed. When there’s an election, you have to pause for a minute, you have to wait for the new person to agree to or sanction what we’re currently working on.

What’s the hardest part of the designing process? It must be hard fitting all those elements on such a tiny piece of paper.

That’s why it’s a seven-year apprenticeship! You really learn how to exhaust the canvas as much as possible. Within the seven-year apprenticeship, you have to learn how to balance the design, how to balance all of those different things within that small window, that small canvas. It’s challenging at first, but you get used to it. It’ll be 30 years working here for me on May 15, so I know that canvas very well, I know what fits.

Working on a banknote is literally like working on a puzzle, the most difficult puzzle that you’ve ever put together in your life—that is putting a banknote together. Imagine a thousand-piece puzzle of the Eiffel Tower: you’re looking for the bottom, for the top. There are so many moving parts and, as an artist and a designer, you have to balance all those things, while designing it. I personally reverse-engineer everything. I actually go to the last part of the process, working all the way back up to my office.

When you tell people what you do, what normally surprises them the most?

That someone is even designing currency. They are just shocked to learn that there are actually currency designer. People assume that money doesn’t change, but it changes all the time.

I guess people don’t think about it, but you’re responsible for forming a significant part of the United States’ financial or official aesthetic. It’s a piece of design that more people probably handle than any other.

When we’re designing, we’re designing an artwork that has to go around the world, and it has to work. It has to work in all the banking systems. It’s pretty tough, it’s a lot of pressure, but we get it done.

What sorts of things might make it not work?

Honestly, I don’t know—everything we’ve ever done has pretty much worked, because it’s been so extensively tested before the note is ever released. Whether it worked in ATMs, machines of that nature. It works in all those things because it’s thoroughly tested before it’s released to the public. The other countries can put their currency out within a month or two, because it stays within the countries. But ours goes all over the world, which is what makes it special. It has to function throughout the world.

With the $100 bill, you were the first African-American person to design a banknote. Could you tell me a little about that?

I was the the first African-American to design American currency. A reason why that was special was because I worked with the first two African-Americans who did banknote design before they retired and passed. The first African-American banknote designer in the history of the United States was Ronald C. Sharpe, and the second African-American banknote designer was Clarence Holbert. They both trained me. But neither one of them had the opportunity to design American currency because at that time, they weren’t making any changes [to US banknotes]. Holbert on the other hand, spent the latter part of his career designing the currency for the country of Eritrea.

What should people look out for on the $100 bill or on the other bank notes in their wallet?

I don’t think people pay attention to the security features, and there are a lot of them. If you get a magnifying glass, there are so many things that people don’t see—line structures, texture, lettering. If you see all of the different elements that we actually put in in banknote design, people have a lot more respect for what we do. Look at the background pattern, look at the intaglio, look at every piece of it from the front and the back, and you’ll be astounded to see how much goes into it, how much art.

So if I had a $100 bill in front of me, what should I look for that I might miss?

There’s so much on there. Look at the background color, you’ll notice that there are lines there, there’s microtext there. If you hold it up and you move it, you’ll see the 3D security ribbon. The bell that’s inside of the inkwell actually color-shifts. If you look under a magnifying glass, you’ll see so many interesting things, you’ll be really blown away, people say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know it was in there.’ It’s security design, and that’s what we specialize in—so the banknotes can’t be reduplicated or counterfeited.

And just to finish up: which is your favorite non-US bank note?

I would say the Rwanda note. They do different animals and colors, it’s really an amazing looking banknote. I really like the way it looks—the balance of the design, the different animals on the different denominations. It’s just a really beautiful note, it’s gorgeous.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.