The Stories Behind the Design of Money |

design money

by Darryl Goh

In a world that’s pivoting to digital payment systems, currency designs are becoming less relevant. Nonetheless, it is crucial for governments to put their best foot forward in designing their banknotes and coins, as they’re essentially representative of a nation for citizens and visitors alike.

The following currency designs have made a mark in their unique ways – some are cause-based, while others are full of lore or simply so aesthetically pleasing that they look like they belong in museums. 


Singapore’s “Bagua” $1 coins

Singapore’s late founding father Lee Kuan Yew was a rumoured to be a firm believer of Feng Shui, and said to have consulted Feng Shui masters before embarking on infrastructure projects such as the building of underground MRT lines. As the drilling would “sever Singapore’s Dragon Veins by penetrating Singapore’s bedrock,” Feng Shui masters recommended that all Singaporean households own a Chinese bagua (Taoist octagonal mirrors) to keep the nation’s economic progress on track. 

Since religious harmony was a hallmark of Singaporean culture, legend has it that the recommendation was implemented covertly, via the design of $1 coins. According to Feng Shui masters, these humble coins contributed to Singapore’s status as a first-world country. If this is true, our $1 coin’s octagonal design is as functional as it is aesthetic – which could be why every iteration of the coin has this design. We’ll never know for sure if the origins of this coin is just a tall tale or a brilliant move by our first Prime Minister. 

Australia’s Donation Dollar

As unique as marketing campaigns go, Australia’s Donation Dollar is the first legal tender currency created to encourage donations. Launched in September 2020 by the Royal Australian Mint, one coin will be minted for every citizen, with the goal of charities collecting more than AUD$300 million worth of them in one year.

The Donation Dollar has an unpretentious design featuring two colours – gold and jade – while the slogan “give to help others” is straight to the point, nudging owners of the coins to drop it in donation boxes. This campaign would likely be successful in getting people to donate their coins; after all, paying with this coin could make for an awkward transaction, especially to cashiers who take note of the design. 


Norway’s 2019 Krone Note Series

One of the most beloved crowdsourced designs, Norway’s 2019 banknotes have shown the world what 21st century banknotes should look like – futuristic yet rooted in tradition. The series, comprising five notes of different denominations, celebrates Norway’s maritime history.

The front side of the notes feature lifelike drawings ranging from lighthouses to fishing boats to the sea itself. Flip the notes over and you’ll see abstract, pixelated renditions of these drawings. It can be interpreted as a nod to the digital revolution, and how more necessities (including currencies) are being converted to ones and zeros.

The pretty notes were also designed to be inclusive. Tactile markings on the note edges allow the visually impaired to distinguish between the notes, while intaglio printing gives the front-side drawings a textural feel.

USA’s Tubman $20 Bill

The law that gave women the right to vote spurred American activists to lobby for a woman to front a $20 bill by its centennial in 2020. American abolitionist Harriet Tubman was the top pick in a poll conducted by activists in 2015, and the Obama administration subsequently announced that she would be on the front of the $20 bill by 2020.

Plans came to a grinding halt when Donald Trump was elected. He dismissed the Tubman bill as “pure political correctness.” The Biden administration has yet to announce any concrete plans to roll out the Tubman bill after announcing that they will look to expedite the process in January.

It’s easy to get lost in the stories of how currency designs came to be. Many of these stories will continue to fascinate and captivate trivia seekers for generations to come.