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    Note worthy

    Spencer Levine redesigns New Zealand's banknotes, though the concepts might never see production

    WHEN New Zealand switched from paper to polymer banknotes, it was a step forward against counterfeiters. The new notes were tougher to reproduce, had raised lettering to aid the blind, and would last longer. However, stylistically, they fell short of their predecessors. Culturally, too, there were problems with the notes. Despite their relative novelty, they seemed ripe for a redesign.
       The concerns drove Spencer Levine to redesign the notes for his final student project at the National College of Design & Technology in Wellington. Levine researched the history of banknotes worldwide, including security concerns and the New Zealand design language. Swiss banknotes offered particular inspiration. Late in 1999, Levine’s designs were completed and make their first published appearance here in CAP. Levine also took the opportunity to look at the security of the banknotes and improve on them with the latest techniques.
       The polymer notes currently in circulation had committed typographic faux pas, not least its mixing of Avant Garde and Frutiger. There should have been some consistency in the specifying of type, rather than mixing geometric and humanist categories. While banknotes must be contemporary if they are to have popular acceptance, they must also have an air of dignity. Despite famous New Zealanders and HM Queen Elizabeth II appearing on them, the design problems cheapen the look of the notes.
       The presence of the Queen outraged and delighted: monarchists see the need for New Zealand to remain tied to the Commonwealth; others do not see Her Majesty as being a New Zealander, though constitutionally she is the Queen of New Zealand and acts as head of state.
       Levine confronted these issues head-on and also remedied the current notes’ ignorance of the Maori language.

    Above: This plate shows three of Levine's five designs for the notes. The existing sizes have been kept, while the tukutuku panel acts as a security feature as well as paying respect to New Zealand's indigenous Maori culture.

       New Zealand is known for its environmental consciousness: visually it is one of the most spectacular countries. Says Levine, ‘Our land is host to a wide and diverse range of life—some unique to New Zealand, some introduced from overseas. Regardless of origin, it is this diversity which makes our country ours.
       ‘We share our land with everything that lives on it. Aside from the ever-increasing amount of people choosing New Zealand as home, we co-exist with plants, birds, animals and also the physical land beneath our feet. In under 270,000 km² we host an amazing array of land types—mountains, beaches, forests, glaciers, volcanoes and lakes, as well as bustling cities.’
       Levine played on these ideas as well as the social elements of the country. New Zealand is not generally known for personalities. Though they exist, New Zealanders tended to be prouder of their nation rather than their heroes.
       ‘We are known as an ecoconscious people, and with good reason. We have always welcomed good ecological policy, we are keen recyclers and will usually take a "greener" option if offered.
       ‘Like the land we live on, we are forever growing in many directions, and like the land, share unearthed mystery.’
       A series of banknotes—$5, $10, $20, $50 and $100—was created to replace each of the notes used by New Zealand. Each note is representative of one area, using topographical maps, that area’s birds and plants, and a Maori tukutuku panel carefully researched with consultation with native groups. The stars from the New Zealand flag also appear in stylized form. Importantly, Levine’s notes are bilingual, with English and Maori (the two official languages) present.

    Above: The reverse of Levine's $10 design shows the use of Maori for the amount and country as well as the Maori name for the native bird that appears. Below: A more urban element is introduced into the $50 design.

       Levine’s designs are meant to appear on polymer, not paper, and security features have been built in. They are, to lessen confusion, at the same size as the existing ones, while he has tried to keep consistency with colour, although changing some of the notes for greater differentiation.
       Microprinting reading ‘Reserve Bank of New Zealand’, the official note issuer of the nation, is on the plant image and the topographical map. Microprinting also appears on the coloured strip, which contains foil "sandwiched" inside the note.
       Bar codes have been used, replacing serial numbers. Levine envisages this technique replacing older OCR technology. The bar code is at the same place on each side of the note.
       The tukutuku panel uses colour-shifting ink, allowing it to blend into the paper when viewed from one angle, and inverting the colours when viewed at another.

       Overall, Levine’s notes solve the problems associated with the current series. There are areas where he would like to see developments, not least the development of an indigenous typeface. Since a suitable condensed sans serif did not exist at the time, Levine chose Frutiger Condensed as a monotone typeface that stood up well to the differing patterns on each note.
       The design is well balanced, with an elegance not found in the current New Zealand banknotes. There is a hint of Swiss modernism while remaining firmly grounded in New Zealand culture. Because of Levine’s use of New Zealand elements in this study, they could not be mistaken easily for the currency of any other nation.
       There does not seem to be much chance of the notes being officially adopted at this stage. New Zealand’s polymer banknotes were a recent introduction and a change at this point would be seen to be a waste of taxpayer funds. Security-wise, the current notes are sufficient, although Levine’s developments do in theory take the fight against counterfeiters into the future by many years.
       It could upset the continuity of the current series. Finally, the poor state of the New Zealand economy may prevent the costly introduction of new designs, no matter how great an improvement they may be.
       Levine graduated from the College and is now a successful designer at the Wellington design firm Native Ltd.

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