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Does the US suck at design?

The Difference Between the US and Switzerland


The Difference Between the US and Japan


I'm just asking...
I know the US is full of brilliant designers. So why do we have some of the ugliest bank notes on the planet? When I first got to Switzerland, a shopkeeper had to pry the 10 out of my hand... it was that sexy.

[UPDATE: it seems that people who aren't my regular readers, and don't know me, are mistaking this little BLOG POST for (choose all that apply):

A) An "editorial"

B) An academic "thesis"

C) An "article" in a peer-reviewed journal

This is a blog post. That's it! Spare time. A few random observations in hopes that the real smart people would provide the real value in the comments. Criticize it, yes, of course. Mercilessly. But as a BLOG POST, not an Essay On The State Of International Design. I had hoped that the Barcelona-girls-are-hot line would be a clue that this was not a Really Serious Work, but I am not a good enough writer to have made that clear. Believe me, I'm just as unhappy as you are that this post is getting far more exposure than it wants or deserves. So, you will find NO Academic Rigor here. you've been warned.]

When I travel outside the US (a lot, lately), I keep finding a culture of design. A culture of aesthetics and style that seems natural in that country, but rarer (and often forced) in the US. Here in the US, we have Designers, Artists, Architects, etc.... and then the rest of us.. But in the places I've been visiting, those lines are often blurred. Outside the US, the appreciation for--and ability to create--beauty is not just something "left to the professionals." This design sensitivity/sensibility doesn't touch everything, but it seems far more pervasive than it does here. And I say this having spent most of my adult life in southern California, where you can't swing a cat without hitting a design school grad. It's not our US designers that have gone missing... it's a culture of design we seem to lack.

A few more, small examples:

The restaurant/cafe decor in much of western Europe looks like it was ripped out of a MOMA installation.

In much of western Europe, the graffiti is f'n amazing.
It feels like thousands of urban artists were set free to construct beautiful murals everywhere.

In Barcelona, all the women are gorgeous.
(And I mean that in a I'm-not-gay-but-wow-these-women-are-fabulous kind of way.) They have a sense of style that's casual, natural, and beautiful. The men aren't bad either, but geez... and these are real olive-oil-consuming women here. This isn't about fitting the classic definition of "attractive model type". Even the much older women have that, "I love my body and yes, as a matter of fact I AM hot" look.

The architecture outside the US has so much more history. Real history. There's a joke (kind of) in Steve Martin's LA Story movie where he's showing someone around the city and enters a neighborhood where he proudly claims, "Some of these buildings are more than TWENTY years old!"

And it's not just the visual style that we lack. I swear that New Zealand must have chosen (along with an anthem, bird, and flower) a National Audio Ambience. And it's currently ambient/electronica. In the US, you expect the airport to play elevator/grocery-store music (Barry Manilow covers, anyone?). In Wellington's airport, you get Portishead, Banco de Gaia, Delerium. In restaurants, shops, and train stations. Nearly everywhere you go, you feel like you just stepped into the W, or some ultra-cool lounge.

These things matter.
Aesthetics matter.
Beautiful things WORK better.

We all know it intuitively, and the designers in the US know it explictly. Which brings me back to... money. What's up with ours? It's dull, non-memorable (pop quiz for Americans: who is on the $5 dollar bill? The $10? The $20? What building is on the back?) and as inspiring as a parking ticket.

And US dollars get an F on usability! The distinctions between one note and another are too subtle, and there's no way to use them if you're blind.

What Switzerland bank notes have that US dollars do not:

1) Dramatically different, beautifully saturated colors.
You don't need to read the number... the color is a vibrant, clear cue.

2) Different sizes for the different values.
The size-to-value mapping is perfect--the higher the value, the bigger the size.

3) Rich, visually-stimulating, interesting designs.
US dollars demonstrate a sense of history, but say zip/zero/nothing about our culture. But these Swiss notes (along with money from so many other countries) gives you a sense of what's special about the country that goes beyond its history and leadership.

4) Tactile cues for the vision-impaired
Each denomination of Swiss note carries a distinct tactile symbol--circle, square, triangle, etc.-- that you can feel. With US dollars, if you can't read the printing, you're screwed.

Between the strikingly different color and design, plus meaningful differences in size, these notes are way more user-friendly than US dollars. With US dollars, the information is largely on a single-channel--you have to read the print. But with Swiss (and so many other) notes, you get several chances to "get it" as the info comes in over multiple channels (all that's missing is a unique sound or smell for each denomination ; )

And one more thing about what our bank notes say about our culture... with US bank notes, the emphasis is all on the Big Guys. Founding Fathers. Key (male?) figures from the past. People In Control.
And on the back, you get historical/political buildings that nobody but a history buff gives a crap about.

But take a look at the New Zealand five:

It celebrates two wonderful things about New Zealand. Sir Edmund Hillary is a citizen of the country. A citizen who did something deeply inspiring--the first Everest summit. And on the back side of Hillary, there's a penguin. Seeing penguins play, fight, socialize, and flirt is a once-in-a-lifetime experience (go to Oamaru, trust me), and New Zealand is one of the best places in the world to see wild penguins. [For a look at the other New Zealand dollars, see this wikipedia entry]

There's a lot more about the design of money in this fascinating money design critique by Canadian (and design/creative goddess) Marian Bantjes on Under Consideration's speakup blog. That post has a ton of links to sites about money design, and there was also a good discussion on Cash Usability at Signal vs. Noise last year.

And finally, those manhole covers. That comes from a much earlier post I did on The Difference Between Japan and US.

If you're interested in design and beauty, you can find more external resource links on my earlier Code Like A Girl post.

It's clear that design--and designers--in the US do not suck. I'm guessing that half of you reading this blog are US designers, and damn good ones. So it's not the designers that have gone missing. Why oh why don't we have a culture that recognizes, celebrates, and appreciates design the way so many other countries do? Did we have it and lose it, or was it always like this... Designers out there (I comment on design, but I'm not one), can you help the rest of us learn to place greater value on design and aesthetics?

There's reason for hope, though... younger generations are tuned for design (I've talked on this before... visit a skateboard shop to see some what some of the top graphic designers are doing). Then again, all those MySpace pages could be a real setback... (not that we don't have a soft spot for MySpace, but it's not the page aesthetics that we love about MySpace)

Posted by Kathy on July 13, 2006 | Permalink


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I'm pretty convinced it's because American culture regards anything too "designy" (tasteful,beautiful) as effete and European and foreign and probably gay and darn near un-American. Acceptable objects of beauty in American culture are customized trucks and cars, and other things that can obviously display the wealth of their possessors.

Money is sacred to Americans and will never change its design. EVER. Don't get your hopes up.

Posted by: Cargo | Jul 13, 2006 11:58:38 PM

I agree with cargo that Congress would find it easier to amend the New Testament than to get Americans to change their beloved greenback. I think the general reaction to European style bills is that it looks too much like play money and doesn't carry the gravitas of the USD.

We have fairly nice bills in India, in spite of the fact that the designers had to cram the denomination in 16 languages on one side.

Posted by: Kingsley Joseph | Jul 14, 2006 12:12:08 AM

Kathy, maybe its the picture or maybe it's just me but I find the visual aesthetics of the Swiss notes quite unappealing, though of course their size and tactile nature do grant those notes a definite advantage.

I believe that a country loses a lot of creativity the more bureaucracy it has, so people that would otherwise blend in their designs don’t see it as their jobs to give the product a better look, or don’t feel like filling out the forty minutes worth of paper work to get time on their bosses calendar to see them about making something look better when it’s “their job to just code the thing”.

Posted by: Allan Barger | Jul 14, 2006 12:18:28 AM

I thought it was commonsense to have different value notes of different sizes and with different colours so you could quickly distinguish notes when out shopping. Therefore I always thought US money was strange compared to the rest of the world.

Posted by: Olly | Jul 14, 2006 1:27:50 AM

Australia's notes.

You can tell at a glance how much money you have, plus it's plastic, so it can go through the was in your pocket and live to tell the tale.

I'm pretty sure they get longer as they get more valuable.

Also, we have poems and the national anthem printed in teeny-tiny text around the pictures that you can only read with a magnifying glass or really good eyesight.

I like our money (especially when it's in my pocket ;)).

Posted by: Ian Tyrrell | Jul 14, 2006 2:50:23 AM

I am privileged to live in Italy, which is perhaps the design capital of the world. For some amazing Italian graffiti, see my home page (right now).

See also "Reflections on Travelling in Italy" at the bottom of http://www.beginningwithi.com/italy/travel/index.html

Posted by: Deirdre' Straughan | Jul 14, 2006 2:54:56 AM

Australian notes have been colour- and size-coded for many years... (since we changed to decimal currency in 1966) and they've been a form of plastic since 1988. We celebrate all sorts of people on our notes - poets, scientists, statesman (not necessarily politians), including women. Our coins are pretty neat too! Wikipedia article showing the notes: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_dollar#Polymer_series; and another for the coins: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_coins#Decimal_currency. The coins are different sizes and shapes too - the 50c piece, for example, has many sides.

Every time I've travelled in the US, I have to closely watch the currency as I make a payment as it's too easy to tender a ten instead of a one - at least for those who aren't familiar with it on a day-to-day basis. I've always wondered how the visually impaired got on with the currency, then earlier this year I had a chance to ask someone who is blind. He uses a folding technique and placement technique in his wallet to differentiate the notes. But he has to trust that the shopkeeper etc. has told him the right thing otherwise he could be easily duped.

Posted by: Sandgroper14 | Jul 14, 2006 3:00:31 AM

I remember at some point in the past watching a documentary on bank note design that said that the main reason why US bank notes haven't changed since around 1920 is that, unlike most other currencies, the USD is frequently used in transactions in countries all round the world (Africa, South America) because it is trusted more than the local currency. The argument went that if the design changed then most of the people outside the US would not hear about it, and when they saw the new notes they wouldn't believe they were real. Confusion and economic instability etc would ensue. So I guess my point is that even though I agree that the design is pretty rubbish, there might be other factors in play here...

Posted by: Chris Webb | Jul 14, 2006 3:14:00 AM

I often wondered why the US is so advanced in terms of website accessibility but so retarded in money accessibility. How does the blind person fold the money, as mentioned above? Who does it for them? Why do they have to fold the money? Why does someone not challenge the accessibility of the greenback under the ADA legislation?

Posted by: Peter Warne | Jul 14, 2006 3:26:47 AM


We went to lunch with this person and asked him how he dealt with the notes. I can't recall EXACTLY what he did, but his system went something like this - he folded the 20s so they were a long, narrow rectangle; he folded the 10s in half so they were almost square; he folded another one with the corner down so it was sort of triangular; he put another denomination in front of, say, the rectanglar ones, and yet another behind the square ones.

The point is, is that he had a system that worked for him. We watched him get his money out and pay his share of the bill - he had no problem at all. Interestingly enough, he did a presentation at the conference we were all at on software accessibility issues for the blind and visually impaired!

One other thing - when he got change from a cab or shop, he always asked the person handing out the change what note was what and folded them on the spot as per his system. As I said before, he had to trust he was told the right thing... and equally had to trust that a person receiving his notes wouldn't say that he'd been underpaid and therefore rip him off. He said he'd never been ripped off like this to his knowledge, which restores my faith in humanity!

Posted by: Sandgroper14 | Jul 14, 2006 3:55:00 AM

don't agree with that switzeland money, they're horrible ,confussing and clowny..

They follow a coder-color scheme ,that flavour obtained when some talented programmer attempts to create a CSS style or combines colors... ;)

not my cup of tea.

Posted by: JaK | Jul 14, 2006 4:18:46 AM

I never noticed this before, but this lack of differentiators (size, color) may be the reason americans often call the bills by the name of the presidents on them. Face recognition is a very very very accurately trained feature of the mind, so I suppose people actively prefer to recognize the bills by the 'face', rather than by the numbers.

i hope this insight is worth a george :)

Posted by: eugen erhan | Jul 14, 2006 5:42:46 AM

at least americans tend to suck in clothing taste..

Posted by: helge | Jul 14, 2006 5:59:06 AM

i still think that the new u.s. twenty dollar bill was partially designed with microsoft word art. on the right side where it says "twenty usa" under the seal, it looks like some high up executive saw the design, said it needed something, and then pulled up powerpoint and said, "add something wavy that looks like this."

it's only a theory. but the rest of the bill has a historical design feel, except for that "word art" looking thing.

Posted by: paul p | Jul 14, 2006 6:16:46 AM

I'm sure that much of the success of the iPod is due to the fact that, besides being technologically very efficient, it is beautifully designed.

Posted by: T Scott | Jul 14, 2006 6:40:28 AM

Nobody mentionned the Canadian banknotes, but I think they're really nice. They've been all redesigned in 2001 and include notes with people playing hockey, images depicting peace and remembrance and even images for human rights. The good thing about color-coding the notes is that the redesign in 2001 was really easy on the people because we where all ready used to checking the color and that stayed the same. I think our notes say a lot about the canadian culture and are easily recognised , but still retain a seriousness that ensures it doesn't look like play money.

Posted by: Marie-Michèle | Jul 14, 2006 6:48:35 AM

And one more thing about what our bank notes say about our culture... with US bank notes, the emphasis is all on the Big Guys. Founding Fathers. Key (male?) figures from the past. People In Control.

And on the back, you get historical/political buildings that nobody but a history buff gives a crap about.

I'm not sure I follow this. On the one hand (earlier in your post), you commented about architecture outside the US having so much more "history." And yet here you seem to be implying that we shouldn't acknowledge our history on our currency.

Also, when you think about the usability factors (which is what many of your points are), remember usability for shopkeepers. I know that other countries have obviously solved this, but when you want to talk about suddenly changing the size of the bills to denote value, you're talking about asking every store in the US to get new cash drawers. Every change machine, every ATM, every vending machine, every self-checkout kiosk would have to be re-engineered to handle different currency.

IIRC, that's one of the main reasons why the dollar coin hasn't caught on: Stores don't want to redesign the cash drawer to accommodate another coin.

I'm not arguing that we shouldn't redisign our currency; I'm just saying it's not quite the no-brainer you seem to be implying.

Posted by: Roy Jacobsen | Jul 14, 2006 6:59:03 AM

I have to wonder if we are starting to see the effect of the slash-and-burn policy for arts education that has been going on for the last decade or so. Married to a former art teacher, I'm by no means unbiased on this subject, but I certainly think about the bookstore you went to and compare it to the hordes of Da Vinci Code readers here...and it just seems sad. And I can't see how to reverse the trend--can you imagine going to a city council and saying "I know you need to cut the budget, but could we have new manhole covers so they look prettier?"

Incidentally, Roy, I don't think Kathy's objection to the Important White Men was about not having our history--but about the fact that it's only a very, very narrow sliver of our history, of specifically government leaders. How about a $10 with Rosa Parks on it? Or a $20 with Sam Shepard? Robert Johnson on a $1 bill...now wouldn't that be something. With the chords and lyrics to "Crossroads" on the back...

Posted by: Gray Miller | Jul 14, 2006 7:08:59 AM

Long-time listener, first-time caller, love the show.

The US and UK have a rather different appreciation of the term "art" than the rest of Europe. For the US and UK, government policy, Protestantism, and artistic history has ended up with a culture of artisanship, where "art" is something created by a small professional class and looked at for "improving reasons" by those who are "trained" to appreciate it.

There's not a culture in either of our countries of art as a participatory form.

Now, contrast that with somewhere like Sweden, where design and art are pretty much national obsessions, and there's a whole ton of government money to support artistic endeavours whether by professionals or amateurs, and you see where the difference between the countries arises.

Posted by: Hugh "Nomad" Hancock | Jul 14, 2006 7:15:04 AM

Design is at best an afterthought in the institutions of everyday American life. And traveling abroad does force you to notice.

But we seem to love functional aesthetics given the opportunity. Even hardcore PC users like myself will readily admit Macs are very, very pretty. And *everyone* loves "Trading Spaces"...

There must be other values we hold higher which force separation between engineering and design as a general rule.

Posted by: Joel | Jul 14, 2006 7:30:52 AM

As an American living in Switzerland, I have a couple of thoughts on the subject of Swiss money and the Swiss attitude to design in general. When I first got there I had a hard time getting used to how colorful it was. I had the same initial reaction to the bank notes that a couple of the commenters here had - "omg it's like play money", etc. As I got used to it though, I came to appreciate the beauty and utility of the designs. Printing these notes is a very complex process, and the Swiss take great pride in their printing technology. So, besides the designs themselves representing something special, the actual process of making the notes is a reflection of a part of Swiss national pride.

I think the major difference between the U.S. and Switzerland is the conservative attitude, or lack of, towards institutional and public design projects. Commercial design in the U.S. can be quite avant-garde...like the W hotels, or the Apple stores, or privately funded museums. But try to get a publicly supported design project to use any sort of modern or different design...you're usually doomed, whether it's bank notes or a building. In Switzerland, people are much more open to modern design, and so don't raise huge objections or bring up 'tradition bla bla' about it - even, or especially, government officials. (And in case people think that a few government officials can dictate design to the masses...that simply can't happen, since the Swiss can and do have direct referendum votes on everything.) Anyway, for a modern design junkie like me, Switzerland is a pretty wonderful place to live.

Posted by: maki | Jul 14, 2006 7:38:51 AM

Cargo, I agree with you. In a previous job I was told by someone who knew about these things that if you wanted to sell to the American market whatever you made had to look American or it wouldn't sell. Money rules.

No-one's mentioned British banknotes yet.
We have coloured shapes for partially sighted people to distinguish them, as well as different colours and sizes.

Posted by: Paul Morriss | Jul 14, 2006 7:47:13 AM

I have one gripe about your article, in that you're using old US bills: The new $20 is, by comparison to the old one, garish: There's peach all over the darn thing. I can't remember if the $10 is next, or if the $10 is already out there, and the $5 is next. I don't use that much cash as a telecommuter, and "yuppie food stamps" (double sawbucks) are typically what I've got in my wallet.

I'm sure fewer people overall are using cash: between credit cards, debit cards, PayPal, Google Checkout... why bother redesigning it?

The other thing about the US bills is a very high standard for durability (did you know the original ones were a hemp paper? now it's a high cotton percentage): holograms and tactile features won't stand up to the "crush test", washing machines, etc.

Posted by: joelfinkle | Jul 14, 2006 7:52:35 AM

We're stepping closer to more colorful money. Has anyone seen the new $10? It's kind of an orange red. Image at wikipedia. According to wikipedia it went into circulation on march 10th this year (2006).

I work at a local grocery in the southeast, of the 11 or so comments ive heard about the $10 from customers, about 7 don't like them, 4 thought they were interesting.

Posted by: Jared Teems | Jul 14, 2006 8:03:06 AM

I wonder if the lack of design aesthetic in the US is historically rooted in the Puritans that landed on it's shores so many years ago?

Though the USA likes to style itself as a very advanced country, and is in many ways, there is an undercurrent of conservatism and puritanism that exists to this day.

Posted by: Andrzej Taramina | Jul 14, 2006 8:07:53 AM

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