Bloodbath's Workshop
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When I was almost six, my family moved to Germany. This was back in the days of the Deutsche Mark, so imagine going from the (then) monochrome and boring US banknotes to these bright, colorful German banknotes with different people on them, unique designs, and, as I later found out, a celebration of German artists and scientists. And about a year later, we took our first trip to Italy, with yet two more different currencies (Austrian Schillings and Italian lire), which was even more fascinating. So, ever since then, I've been a banknote collector, but more interestingly (to me) is that I like to design my own banknotes for fictional currencies.

So, what goes on a banknote? Banknotes, in a way, are a country's calling card: by looking at them, you can learn something about a country's culture, what and who the country finds important, and the like. And almost anyone visiting a different country will likely encounter a different currency, so the currency should (to me) make a good impression.

There are two aspects of the design: what and how.
  • What should go on the banknote? (e.g. which people, animals, plants, scenery...)
  • How should everything be arranged, and how can security features be integrated to make a safe product?
In this article, I want to talk a little more about the what.

Picking Your Motifs

Let's first start with a real-life example of a banknote.
This is the old French 500 franc note (~€76). When you look at it, apart from the color scheme, there are two people who are quite prominent: these are the Curies (Marie and Pierre), pioneers in radiation research. You can see some assorted radioactivity-related motifs on the front as well.
Now let's have a look at the back:
The back is a science laboratory, in particular (probably) the Curies' laboratory. It's related to the front (though this always isn't the case), but all of the French banknotes have some sort of theme between the front and back to tie them together. (This is also the approach of the Deutsche Mark notes, the 8th series Swiss notes, some of the Korean won banknotes, and the like.) Other countries have a bit of a disjoint, where there's not really a relation between front and back, but the two sides are both culturally-relevant (e.g. Polish złoty, Swedish krona, Japanese yen...).

Picking people for banknotes can be controversial, however. Argentina recently removed all the people from their notes in favor of animals and there's been ongoing controversy in the US over changing the designs of the dollar notes. That said, it's said that using people is a bit "safer", since the public is more acutely aware if something's wrong with a face that they know than with a generic building, animal, or scene. (Also possibly why China went from using 'unknown' people on their notes to Mao Zedong on all the renminbi notes since around 2000.) Often, if there's one person on all notes, it'll be a founder, liberator, or important person to that country (e.g. Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India all use a single person for each of their notes; Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and Mahatma Gandhi, respectively) or a monarch (e.g. Queen Elizabeth II on all Bank of England notes). Living people are rare unless they're a monarch or have an otherwise inflated ego.

Ilian Dénar: History and Landscapes

One of the most recently-completed banknote series I've done is for the Ilian dénar. Ilia's a country with a bit of an unusual history, and the recent history is very turbulent. Therefore, the main motifs are less-controversial kings and rulers from the past who united the country or otherwise ruled with minimal controversy and bloodshed.

Here are the obverses of the Ilian banknotes:
As you can see, there are two separate people on the fronts: these are two of the first Ilian kings. (Originally, they all featured the same person on the front.) These were chosen to be largely noncontroversial (the first Ilian kings are largely noncontroversial, especially compared to recent history), much like how Polish banknotes use old Polish kings on their obverses to commemorate Polish pre-Partition history.

Because my actual drawing skills are quite lacking, I repurpose photos from my trips, from gracious donations, and the public domain into depicting scenery/places/people relevant to the concountry. Fortunately, Ilia has enough diverse scenery/landscapes where I can kinda justify choices.

Let's delve a bit more into one of the banknotes, namely the ten thousand (because OMG MONEY):
The obverse (at top) features an image of Pocóg, the first king of a united Ilia who is considered the "founder" of the single united Ilian nation, while the reverse shows a view of a mountainside lake not far from the Telemor-Ilian border. Each Ilian banknote features a different scene on the reverse, either architectural or natural, the idea being to showcase Ilian beauty. At the same time, complex images, like scenes such as that, are difficult to counterfeit well, especially if it's something that's recognizable readily.

A recurring motif in all the notes, though, is from the Ilian coat of arms and the five stars (arranged in a diagonal). Having the coat of arms of the issuing country (or seal... or emblem otherwise) is standard practice in many countries and helps with identification. The French example doesn't have one (but, then again, France does not have an official coat of arms), but many notes do (ex. Euro notes and the European flag, English notes and the Bank of England seal...).

Pretty Colors and Sizes

When designing notes, color is another important thing: what colors do I want to feature? Think about literacy (if your conpeople are less literate, then having similarly-colored baknotes may not be a good thing, like a tale in Pakistan about people confusing 20-rupee notes for 5000 notes, or in Korea between the 5000 and the 50000 won notes), about whether or not banknotes are the same (or close to the same) physical size...

Notes can be multicolored, and often are (to improve, again, security), but normally there's a single overarching color scheme for a given banknote and colors are somewhat complementary to each other. Remember that, especially if illiteracy is an issue, that there should also be an easy way to distinguish between different values.

Physical size is also key, and it's one of the easiest ways to distinguish denominations from each other. Countries can often fall under four categories:
  • All/most banknotes are the same size. (Main examples are the Hungarian forint, Canadian dollar, and US dollar notes, while Russian ruble notes use "slabs" of certain denominations: the 10 through 500 ruble notes are the same size, while the 1000 ruble and up notes are the same, larger size.)
  • There's one dimension, usually width, that's constant, while the other dimension (length) varies by a fixed amount between denominations. (Danish krone, Swiss Franc, Korean won, Dutch guilder, French franc, and Japanese yen banknotes are examples.)
  • Banknotes will vary by a fixed difference in length and width between denominations. (ex. German mark, Pound sterling, Euro, and New Zealand dollar notes)
  • A constant aspect ratio between length and width is maintained. (This is not as common, but a good example is the second-to-last series of Austrian Schilling notes.)
A typical width of a banknote is 6 to 8 cm, with normal length-to-width ratios falling something between 1.6 to 2.2 or so. Remember that the note should fold easily and be easy to store within a common wallet, so large and unwieldy notes (like the old pound sterling notes!) can be a liability. About 80-85 mm is the largest width you'll find.

Picking your Motifs

This can be challenging to do. Here's what I recommend:
1.) Do I want people, places, or things? What would my conpeople/conculture value? What are good symbols or representatives of the concountry? (Do they value arts, science, culture... or are they more proud about their glorious history?)
2.) Would having a given person or motif on a banknote be controversial to them? Some choices of people have caused debates, especially given some of the history behind them (eg. Birgit Nilsson on the most recent Swedish 500-kronor note). At the same time, however, people can be one of the "safest" things to include, because it's easier to notice if something's off about a person as opposed to, for example, a flower or an animal (and thus is an extra layer of protection).
3.) What are some national symbols? Having coats of arms, silhouettes of maps, and the like can be good design elements, especially to reinforce the banknote being from a given location/nation.
4.) What goes well with the color scheme you've picked? If you're including plants that are exceptionally multicolored, can you capture the coloration well (if you want to)?

Another good technique is, if you use people, to have everything related to the subject: for example, let's take the German 100 mark note:
The pianist on the front is Clara Schumann, but the other motifs are related to her (somehow): the lyre represents that she was an accomplished musician, and the buildings in the background are from Leipzig, where she grew up. Having things linked provides more of a theme and tells a story about the person, which can be quite catching (and informative/instructive).

When in doubt, simpler is better. I recommend not cluttering the front or reverse with too much: the numbers and values should be clear and distinctive, and having too much clutter makes it harder to distinguish the features (and being able to identify by eye is a way to check for counterfeits!). Having one main motif on each side, potentially with a detailed and intricate background, works best, though sometimes not having a main motif on the reverse can be effective (see: 8th series Swiss franc and the last series of Dutch guilder banknotes)

Finally, make room for security features. Watermarks often incorporate the main motif, as do (sometimes) holographic features. If you're using a polymer banknote template, similarly, the transparent windows and holographic/foil features with the windows will incorporate or relate to the main motif. In my case for Ilian banknotes, the watermark incorporates the portrait of the given person (along with the value).
bloodbath, Ph.D. 7 months ago
More general boredom and stuff means more reworking of things. And stuff. Like redesigning the Telemor residence permit card:
bloodbath, Ph.D. 8 months ago
Fiddling with some stuff while procrastinating on writing my thesis, this time an Ilian driver's license. Happy with how it turned out.
bloodbath, Ph.D. a year ago
In continuing my revisiting of old projects, I decided to re-do the design for the Telemor entry visa.

And, because reasons, how about a pic of it in action, along with some stamps:
bloodbath, Ph.D. 2 years ago
Due to a confluence of various things, I decided to start revisiting some old art projects. And by art, well, I mean banknotes. Hence, here's some preliminary output for redesigning Telemor banknotes:


The big change here is I decided to have all the notes be polymer. Having a mix of paper and polymer is a bit strange, and I only know of Singapore, México, and the UK where this is the case. Plus, polymer tends to be more durable and counterfeit-resistant overall, so it seemed like a good choice (and logical one the Telemor government would take).

This also gives me practice with playing with polymer notes, and I'm more than happy to experiment and see what works in that regard. (Because reasons.)
bloodbath, Ph.D. 2 years ago
Decided to resize and redo one of the visas I designed. Hence, voilà:

bloodbath, Ph.D. 3 years ago
I like money. I also was bored and decided to work on some new-ish stuff. So here's a commemorative coin to celebrate Ilia and Telemor being friends for 20 years (after several decades of very... "special" relationships). Not meant for general circulation, but it still would be exceptionally shiny were it to exist in physical form.
bloodbath, Ph.D. 3 years ago
In recent semi-artistic output as a part of my process of continuously revamping and reworking things and stuff:
bloodbath, Ph.D. 3 years ago
Was bored, so made a new banknote. (First in a while... I really should get back into the swing of making these.)

Approximate value is US$2.00/€1.80/GB£1.60. Introduced to try to fill the gap between the 25 and 100-dénar notes (especially to pull some pressure off of the 25's) and in commemoration of 20 years of friendship between Telèmor and Ilia.

bloodbath, Ph.D. 4 years ago
Making banknotes may be a logical next step for some of you who are thinking about your conworld, especially a more modern conworld or one perhaps set from the 19th century onwards. And, apparently since I can make somewhat passable notes, I thought I could do a tutorial of sorts.

The issue is that, when I design notes, I work perhaps in a bit of a haphazard way: I don’t always work linearly. So I’ll try to make this a bit more linear and, rather than a how-to guide that’s a “you must do it like this”, more of showing what your options are and how to do what. First, I’ll start by marking out some of the prepwork you should do before getting started with making the notes, then how I go about design followed up by common features of notes that are sometimes good to do.

This tutorial is also perhaps more relevant for more modern notes. Older-style notes, like the pre-1950’s British notes, are not my main interest, but some of the techniques and features here might be of use.

Preliminary Work

First of all, if you’re doing this on the computer, you need a graphics program, preferably one able to work in layers. (Granted, when I was a teenager, I used colored pencils and paper, but that’s less easy to work with in some respects.) Being able to make layers will make your life a LOT easier, especially since it’s easier to edit just one layer rather than having to go through the whole design. This means I emphatically advise against using MSPaint.

Photoshop and/or Adobe Illustrator probably are the best programs, but they are (a) expensive and (b) from my limited experience with them, a bit unwieldy for first-time users.

The program I use is called paint.NET; it’s a raster graphics program that works a lot like MSPaint, but with layers and a lot of customizability (lots of plug-ins and extra features). Inkscape is a free vector graphics program that also can do the job, and it’s a bit easier to edit some things and rescale designs to larger sizes, but I find Inkscape to also be a bit odd to work with in some respects. Ultimately, you should choose whatever makes you comfortable and you feel comfortable working in.

Once you’ve identified your program, the next step requires a bit of planning: you should have in mind the issuing authority of the banknotes (often a central bank or treasury, but not always; see Macao, Hong Kong, and Scotland), the name of the currency, and the denominations. A lot of notes also indicate some sort of promise to pay statement, so preparing a lot of the texts, especially if in a conlang, can be beneficial.

The denomination structure is also important. A rule of thumb I’ve heard is that an efficient currency structure has its lowest banknote denomination at no less than around 5% of the average daily wage of a worker (and the highest coin at 2% of the average daily wage). Also, think about how much people will be using cash and what typical amounts are: banknotes are generally less durable than coins, so they’ll need replacement faster if they make up lower denominations (like in India, the US, Serbia, and Romania). If you’re working on an Asian-inspired country, keep in mind that most denominations start with 1 and 5 (ex. 10, 50, 100, 500…); in European and European-inspired countries, more use of 2- and 25-based denominations is made.

Color is also a good thing to think about. While some countries use the same color for all the banknotes (ex. the US, before around 2004), this isn’t particularly effective. I’ve found the best systems are where the colors are bold and contrasting between denominations: for example, the euro banknotes were designed to alternate between “warm” and “cool” colors; a similar principle can be found in the most recent series of South Korean notes. Whatever you choose, having strongly contrasting colors between adjacent denominations is a good thing, especially if your notes are all the same size.

Speaking of sizes, practically all notes are rectangular. In older times, notes were very large in both length and width; nowadays, though, they’re considerably more compact, with aspect ratios of length to width ranging from 1.6 to 2.25 to 1. It seems like around either 1.7 or 2 are very popular. Where banknote sizes differ between denominations, each country takes a slightly different approach: some preserve the aspect ratio, while others may increase both dimensions by a fixed amount and others still just change one dimension (length, usually). It’s quite unusual for normally-used notes, at least in common use nowadays, to exceed 8 cm in width.

So, once you’ve settled on colors, sizes, and denominations…


In most cases, banknotes say something about the country they represent whether it be its history, its people, its culture, or something else. The use of famous or otherwise important people is quite common; if a monarch rules your country, he/she would be a fairly logical choice, at least for the front. Monuments and landmarks are very common for reverse sides, as are landscapes, flowers, and sometimes handicrafts and paintings.

Motifs should be fairly distinct for each note; if a person is featured, tying the motif into that person helps create a unified concept. For example, on the old German mark notes, the fronts would feature a famous artist, writer, or scientist and the reverse would feature a motif related to their work (ex. the 100-mark note, with pianist Clara Schumann on the front, had a piano on the reverse).

Paper or Plastic?

Ever since Australia introduced their first polymer note in the late 80's, polymer banknotes have become increasingly popular, with seven countries having completely switched their notes to polymer (Australia, New Zealand, Romania, Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, Brunei, and Canada) and several others having converted some part of their note structure to plastic, in particular a lot of the smaller denominations (ex. Singapore, Mexico, and Malaysia, with the smaller denominations in polymer). Polymer notes are more expensive to manufacture, but they tend to last longer and are a bit more durable; additionally, they're quite a bit harder to counterfeit, but the security features that can be incorporated into polymer notes are different compared to those that paper notes can have.

In mentioning the security features, I'll mention the ones that go well with only polymer notes versus the ones that only paper notes can have.

Security Features

Making security features is important with any banknote. Granted, a lot of times, in the actual design prototypes, the features/elements aren't defined and are provided at a later stage; however, since it is unlikely that my banknotes will ever be printed (however much I may want them to be), I like to incorporate elements into the designs I make.

Within the design

Latent Text/Image: This is a kind of feature where there is writing or some other feature that isn't obvious when looking directly at the note, but becomes more visible when you look at the note from an angle. This appears in a lot of other applications such as visas, passports, and the like, so this technique is for more than just money.
How to make it: For latent images, I normally use four steps.
(a) Lay down the first layer, which should be the base pattern. I normally use continuous stripes in one direction: they should be fairly close together without being too sparse. (For those using Paint.NET, I normally use either the "narrow stripes" or the "dark stripes" feature.)
(b) On top of the first layer, write/draw/paint (in solid colored) what you want to have as the latent image. Oftentimes, it's a phrase or number; it can also be an image. (I'll call this layer B.)
(c) Beneath this top layer, lay a second layer with the stripes running in a different direction (I'll call this layer C).
(d) Erase the bits of layer C that aren't covered by layer B, then delete layer B. This should give you a nice, contrasting image. (See below for an example of this at work.)

Perfect registration device: Two halves of an image that, when the banknote is held up to the light, come together to form a single, coherent image.
How to make it: This is a fairly easy thing to do: take an object and divide it into half (making sure they line up!). One half will go on the back while the other goes on front.

Microprint: Super-tiny text, normally in places where you wouldn’t expect text to be. Often incorporated into designs as lines so that, when viewed with the naked eye, it appears as a line, but, when seen up close, it’s actually text. Use as small a font as possible while having it still be readable; depending on the program, you can have the text also follow a path.

Guilloché/Spirograph: Intricate, woven designs with many loops and iterations. Often used in security printing; any changes in the background are easily detected.
How to make it: I actually use an online applet to design guilloché patterns. Make sure to set the background to either black or white, depending on how you’ll be using the patten; from there, with a white background, I normally set the layer containing the pattern to a multiplying or darkening layer and go with that.

Moiré/Bent Moiré Pattern: A Moiré pattern consists of two otherwise identical layers of repeating parallel vertical lines, one of which being tilted at a small angle (anywhere from 2-20º, in my experience, gives the best results). If your program permits such, you can then angle the upper layer to create more of a circular or bowed pattern. Great for backgrounds and underprint.
How to make:

Omron Rings/EURion Constellation: An anti-copying device consisting of five rings in a specific pattern. Also covered in detail on the magical Wikipedia.

On top of the design

(I call these "on top of the design" because these are normally incorporated into your upper layers in a layer-based graphics program, on top of other elements.)
Hologram/Holograph: A shiny, reflective device with an image that changes based on viewing angle. First appearing on the Austrian 5000-Schilling note in the late 80's, the presence of holographs has been diminishing, but it's a ubiquitous feature on many currencies' notes. Can take the form of patches, stripes, and sometimes interesting shapes. Does not often appear on polymer notes (though this has been changing as of late: see the Canadian dollar notes from 2011 onwards.
(to be continued)

Color-changing ink/OVI: As the name implies. If you tilt the note one way, the ink looks one color; tilt the note another way and it looks a different, often complementary color. Very common on most notes: Euro notes of €50 and up all have a pink-to-green OVI on the reverse, and US notes of $5 and up also all have an OVI on the front.
How to make it: To symbolize an OVI device, I normally have a large block of color with some noise. Since the extra colors aren't visible except at an angle, there is no need to incorporate the second color (except when, for example, showing the note at an angle in a poster).

Iridescent/Mother-of-Pearl Ink: An ink that’s exceptionally shiny; not normally visible except by tilting the banknote. Normally appear in blues, yellows, pinks, and sometimes greens.

Security thread (generally paper notes only): A woven metal thread that runs through the banknote; normally visible under transmitted light. These can be windowed, which means that they appear as regularly-distributed broken bits through the paper, or as a single dark stripe.

Putting Everything into Place

(to be continued)
bloodbath, Ph.D. 4 years ago

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