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The Painstaking, Secretive Process Of Designing New Money

Australia has a new $5 banknote, and it looks expensive.

Put all issues of taste aside, and I see nothing short of cash bought from the future. It’s a psychedelic trip to the bank, layered in metallic foils and a seemingly endless array of color shifting inks that glisten like an oil slick. Bend the note, and a printed bird flaps its wings. The ink has texture. It even has nubs. Part of the bill has been carefully primed like paper, while part has been kept relatively pristine and pure, pushing printing technologies to their limits.

And perhaps most notably, the center of the note isn’t printed at all. It’s a clear window, revealing the note’s greatest coup: This bill wasn’t printed on paper, even though the texture feels that way. It’s a magic trick of plastic.

In a world full of smartphone payments and cryptocurrency, 85% of all transactions are still done in cash. Australia actually sees cash demand rising at a steady 6% to 7% per year with no decline on the horizon.

Yet, as printers and scanners become more sophisticated, the government has moved to ensure that its currency is safe. “What we noticed in recent years, with the availability of technology–particularly around reproduction technology like scanners and printers–counterfeiting in Australia had started to increase. We’re in the fortunate position where it’s still pretty low but it is rising,” says James Holloway, deputy head of note issue at Reserve Bank of Australia. “We thought we just don’t want it to keep rising in a sustained fashion, so the time had come around upgrading security.”

Now the Reserve Bank has released a new design of the $5 note, soon to be followed by a complementing makeover of its entire line of currency. And after speaking with James Holloway about the 10-year process behind the design of their new note, I can assure you, crime doesn’t pay. Counterfeiting just sounds way too hard.

“What you’re trying to do is create a banknote that’s very difficult to forge, either in being costly, or in effort. If someone has to go through a huge amount of effort to reproduce these to pass it, it’s not going to be a cost-effective proposition,” says Holloway. “If we make it just too difficult for them, they’re just not going to be tempted.”

Australia’s $5 note has been in development for a decade. It began with three concept designers reimagining the existing currency with royalty, flora, fauna, and more than 200 proposed security measures. That was only step one. Most of the real work happened when the winning design was taken to the country’s banknote printing industry, and over years, engineers figured out how they could actually produce the most complicated bill they could imagine. Because in a world where our off-the-shelf ink-jet printers can seemingly print anything, currency has to be designed to be as unprintable as possible.

When Australia moved to polymer banknotes 25 years ago, it raised the bar. Have you ever tried to draw on plastic–maybe the back of your credit card–and smeared the ink? Printing on plastic cash is similarly difficult.

Even today, smearing and bleeding are real issues at the industrial scale, and the modern Australian banknote continues to exploit this fact in several ways, pushing printing to its technical limits. They feature microprint–tiny text that’s difficult for machines to handle. Then they squeeze “security features”–those complex printed foils are embedded with holograms, while color-shifting inks seem to spontaneously catch light in a predictable rainbow–very close to one another. “We’re trying to cram a lot of different things in a limited space, and printing to tight tolerances so colors don’t bleed from one part to another,” says Holloway. Any graphic designer would find the results fairly hideous, and yet, they’re very hard to reproduce.

As for the image of the queen, that’s been rendered like an engraving, with long, spindly, and swirly lines. It’s a throwback to an older aesthetic we expect in currency, but this linear graphic approach is also “very difficult for most printers to reproduce,” says Holloway. “Most printers are dot matrix, so if you look under a microscope, they’re just a lot of dots put together. So it’s actually part of the security printing process.” In other words, older print graphics are actually harder to counterfeit.

Printing is just part of the moneymaking process, however. There are 13 different production processes in all, and machines are also set up with specialized tools to further alter that plastic to feel just right. This means foils are stamped onto plastic, sure, but the physical security goes much further than that. After some layers of the banknote are printed, they’re placed under high pressure, pressing the inks further into the plastic. The effect creates micro valleys on the surface called Intaglio, creating that distinctive rough feel you get when you rub your hand across some print.

Along the same lines, the new notes feature a nub at the top and bottom edge. It’s just a bump–what’s the big deal? “The issue is, if you put a tactile feature on a banknote, you need it to be durable. It’s not much use if it wears down on circulation,” says Holloway. Indeed, if the bump were to wear down, it would essentially make real money look like it was counterfeit. The solution was an assembly line tool, which pokes into the note, bending the plastic and embossing the cash.

The Reserve Bank says that it can produce 300,000 bills an hour, and many of these different treatments to the banknote come off the line very quickly. But that stat is a bit misleading, because the entire process is still painfully slow. Each note takes months to produce, mostly because the print needs to be able to dry or cure between all these different steps–again, reinforcing that an investment in counterfeiting would be a big one.

The biggest challenge of them all, however, isn’t about thwarting counterfeiters: It’s thwarting counterfeiters while ensuring your money can work in the real world–seeming properly Australian to patriots, authentic to shop owners, and recognizable to a whole existing infrastructure of ATM machines.

“The issue for us is it needs to be a security document . . . [but] it’s also a cultural document,” says Holloway. “So the design component is quite important.” Beyond the addition of all those new security features, the Reserve Bank opted not to change the core aesthetics of their banknotes dramatically. (In fact, in still images, the new notes don’t look all that different than the old ones.)

However, there were opportunities to improve the banknote’s accessibility to the vision impaired, and in this regard, Holloway believes they’ve created the most accessible currency in the world. The aforementioned nub at the top and bottom of each note will signal denominations through a braille-like effect. Furthermore, that rainbow color palette was fully saturated, amped so that it would be more recognizable at a glance. And you’ll notice that the denominational numeral isn’t just printed in a big font; it’s been placed over a relatively quiet part of the note, creating a legible, high-contrast identifier.

Finally, the bank had to overcome issues in scaling the note’s pièce de résistance–that clear window, which was so hard to print, so hard to duplicate. Think about it–every other part of that note is covered in a base coat of primer, and all these inks. And here is this clear window that lets light right through. The problem was, it was actually too clear. This break in the note was registering to money collection and distribution machines as a bill being fed in two separate pieces.

“[Machines] see it as, the banknote stops,” says Holloway. “So we had to find a way for the machinery to see this clear thing and keep processing it. We’ve done quite a bit of work with the industry to find technical solutions so they read that as one banknote.” How exactly they solved it? Holloway won’t say. Just like he won’t list every way that the banknote has been designed to spot counterfeiting.

Some of that information remains confidential, all so the bills we pass, person to person in broad daylight, remain secure.

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