Paper Money

BEP designer shares details of note design

The March 13 issue of the digital news site, Quartz, offered a rare glimpse of the human element in United States paper currency design. A story by markets and money reporter Natasha Frost featured Brian Thompson, one of the BEP's three present bank note designers, or “journeyman banknote designers,” as they are formally known.

When the new $100 bill was released in 2013, Thompson became the first African-American to design federally issued paper money, a capstone to a 25-year career at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. He started as an apprentice and followed his father’s footsteps — he had worked at the BEP manufacturing the cylinders that pull paper through the presses.

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In a lengthy question and answer session, the designer offered a description of his work and of a typical day. A currency designer’s job, he said, is to create bills that “look balanced, tell a story, and work all over the world.” The latter is an important and unique aspect of U.S. currency, since so much of it is exported to countries where it is accepted as a parallel currency, or is used as a country’s own, such as in Zimbabwe.

Much of a day is spent on research. There are meetings with the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department. Designers hone their skills by designing miscellaneous products or imagery. It is all, he says, part of an effort “to stay sharp and ahead of the effects of new technology.”

He revealed that individual notes are not collaborative efforts, but rather, because it’s so much work, one designer per note, works on each denomination. The new $100 note, for example, took 10 years from start to finish. One reason it took so long was because of two changes in administrations, and after an election, work had to stop for approval by the incoming Treasury secretary. Thompson did not address why, if the $100 took 10 years, the next new Federal Reserve note is slated for release no sooner than 12 years from now.

According to Thompson, the hardest part of the job is learning how to balance the design, and its many different security elements onto a small workspace. He likened it to working on “the most difficult puzzle that you’ve ever put together in your life.”

Thompson worked with the first two African-Americans who did note design work at the BEP, but neither could design a new note, because in those days the designs were static. He acknowledged the first African-American bank note designer in the history of the United States as Ronald C. Sharpe, and the second as Clarence Holbert. They both trained him. At the end of his career, Holbert designed the currency for Eritrea.

When asked what his favorite non-American bank note was, he named the new Rwanda 500- and 1,000-franc notes, citing the animals, the colors and the balance of the design. 

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