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The Visual Design of Modern Currencies as Social Action

Currency Is Communication

Photo by Kanchanara on Unsplash

One could argue that the foundation of a civilization is economics. For a group of individuals to band together in order to survive, thrive and evolve into a civilization requires them to work together in order to share resources and produce energy. As they do, the individuals must bind together along common interests and shared social values, subordinate individual self-interest, elevate the needs of others, and form communities. These communities are bound together by the same shared interests to form a cohesive identity.

When communities are able to identify those values which they have adopted for their mutual success and communicate them to new members, then we could also argue that the mechanisms of a civilization and society are formed. These people may now self-identify with a social label: “Incas,” “Igbo,” “Germans,” or “Americans,” for example. These labels are shorthand for the shared values and common identity brought about by the need to band together through sharing resources and energy production — which is economics expressed in social terms. The labels identify who the community is, and just as importantly, who the community is not. They also indicate what the community values and what it considers critical to its success.

The Sharing of Resources and Energy Production

Humans are very vulnerable creatures that must form social groups for survival. Of all mammals, we are born in the weakest physical state and must mature over the course of around two decades in order to become contributing adults and therefore require the support of others for our survival in a way that other mammals do not.

This means that humans are by nature extremely social and are not really true individuals apart from our social groups. Even in a highly “individualistic” society such as America, the reality is that the individual human does not exist apart from the whole no matter how much individualism as a value is expressed. It is just not possible for humans to survive long, never mind thrive, as individuals. It is such a strong bond we have with each other that we actually share consciousness — a sort of “hive mind.”

Our bodies are physically unable to survive the natural environment for long without the active management and production of energy. Food which we ingest is transformed into calories which our bodies burn for energy. Shelter and clothing conserves and manages energy, also in the form of calories. We must manipulate our environments to supply heat or cool it, to provide for water and produce reliable sources of food. We must also continually create new community members to keep up with the death-rate and depletion of local resources. Therefore we need to provide not only for ourselves but employ future generations in the effort. Looking at it in this way, we can see that almost all human activity is devoted to energy production and/or conservation and the gathering of resources which help us do that.

Supplying for our energy needs relies on the use of external resources. Food, shelter and clothing are essential needs for the basic security of any group of people. All human needs, whether it is the most basic need for safety, need for love and belonging or the highest need for self-actualization is rooted in our need for energy and ability to acquire the resources to supply it.

Currency and Money

Because none of us possesses all of what we truly need for long-term survival, we must band together and share those resources through some form of exchange. This form of exchange is what we define as “currency” and/or “money”: currency defined as the actual medium of exchange and money as an asset/resource that stores value. Sometimes the currency in use is money, sometimes it is not.

Currency therefore represents trust among community members. We must trust that this currency will be convertible into the resources we need in the communities we rely on for supplying our needs. Our use of a common currency allows us to acquire resources and also assets within our communities. Assets allow us to protect our resources and open new avenues to additional resources, and also allow us to limit exposure to threats to our resources which are known as liabilities.

Money is an asset that stores value. This is why most money historically has taken the form of a physical resource such as gold, silver, animals or land. It also represents power because of the protective nature of what an asset is. The monetary resource needs to be a scarce one which supports its value, and the person or group of people who control it are the ones which have the most power in a society. What is considered to be money in a society therefore reflects what that society deems valuable and scarce.

Currency may or may not convert into money, but money is what truly consolidates power in the competition for resources. Currency, on the other hand, is what expresses trust in the society and what it values as a culture. Currency is therefore a type of communication and used as a day-to-day expression of trust within a community as it shares resources and produces energy. But since currency may also be convertible into money, the control of the currency and access to it is what grants access to more power in the community as well.

Currency Is Communication

Therefore, we can understand currency as a form of communication and access to it is the leverage-point to access power within a community. The signs and symbols employed into the design of the currency is not accidental nor unimportant — the ones who have the power in the community dictate what is communicated via the currency with the goal of steering the social values of the group in ways that ensure the acquisition and protection of needed resources. What is therefore designed into the physical currency itself is an important expression of that community’s values.

The community expresses trust in its daily sharing of resources by using the currency as the preferred medium of exchange, bearing those signs and symbols as tokens of that trust. If the community members lose trust in those signs and symbols printed on the currency, or they lose trust in the community’s ability to back up the value represented by them, then the currency collapses and/or is redesigned to better reflect what the community decides is trustworthy.

Furthermore, since the powerful class in a community dictate what is communicated via the currency, then the signs and symbols used are important elements that direct the social values desired by the empowered classes. The physical design of the currency is therefore an artifact of social action; a calculated effort to steer community values toward greater success as the empowered classes define it.

Diverse (Crypto)Currencies in Diverse Communities

As I have been reflecting on this topic, I have noticed that issues surrounding our current American dollar and its future are gaining a great deal of attention in various communities and in the media. This is also true for other international governmental currencies. More and more people are beginning attach themselves to diverse currency options as they begin to question the values represented in their traditional communities by the powerful members and look to realign within new shifting social structures.

A good example of this is can be seen in the rise of cryptocurrencies. Early on, the movement gained traction through Bitcoin and Ethereum as technological answers to the problems exposed by a devalued dollar, collapse of traditional asset markets in real estate, and loss of trust in established governmental and banking institutions after the 2008 financial crisis. As cryptocurrency has grown in the popular imagination in the past few years since the 2020 pandemic, it is fueled by a similar breakdown of trust in traditional institutions. Different groups of people have attached themselves to alternative cryptocurrencies based on a variety of diverse values as they choose to realign themselves to new identities forced upon them by a more unstable world.

An example of this would be the popularity of Dogecoin ($DOGE), which was created as a joke and then became empowered by a meme — which then became a true fungible currency. To own Dogecoin is as much a cynical social statement as much as it might be a financial decision to invest in a new currency. Coins like Pirate Chain ($ARRR) focus on the desire of privacy and freedom from governmental control. Other tokens bring communities together along lines of affinity, like $AART, which is a token created to streamline the exchange of digital art.

Digital art in the form of Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) have become a significant asset-class with its own store of value. NFT artworks are therefore true forms of money, and the design of them not only enhances their desirability by diverse communities, but also communicates core values through sign and symbol. The successful ones are rare by design, and not as simple to acquire. Therefore the more popular NFTs, like those of the Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC), are also used to gain access to exclusive community benefits, such as inclusion in invite-only events where owners of the NFTs can hob-knob with wealthy and powerful people like celebrities.

My own experiments with cryptocurrency has been really interesting. Over the past year I have created my own NFT collection, called the RatRodz Race Club (RRDZ), on the Solana ($SOL) cryptocurrency and created an exchangeable token, the $RATTIE (found at https://ratrodz.club). The project is a hot-rod themed collection of art inspired by 1970s hot-rod artwork created by artists like Ed Roth. It has attracted a small community of people around the world from Hong Kong to El Salvador and Florida, that share a love of this kind of art and feel akin to the values that “hod-rods” represent — freedom, rebelliousness, anarchy and self-deprecating humor. Ownership of the tokens grants access to an online community which members participate and enjoy online social connection. Where this project is going is really evolving, but it has been very exciting to watch. The project hasn’t profited a lot of money in terms of dollars (it has made some, about $1,500 so far), but has been life-enriching in other ways in terms of human connection, albeit virtual for now.

The Visual Design of Currency as a Topic for Further Exploration

In upcoming articles, I aim to explore the visual design of currencies, the signs and symbols used, and how they have evolved historically. I will also attempt to show they may continue to evolve as a communications medium in order to drive social action. This study will culminate in exploring the visual design of modern alternative currencies such as the Goldback in local parallel economies and cryptocurrencies in the emerging crypto-culture. My overall goal for this project is to provide some unique insights into one area where design is impacting the formation of new global communities linked together via common values and trust in our digitally connected world.