Beyond Economics: Visible and Visual Significance of Currency Design

This paper analyzes the paradox of the visible and the visual in currency design, which highlights the complexity of money as a medium of sociocultural communication in the process of money dematerialization, showing that money always has not only economic but also ideological significance. As Simmel states in his Philosophy of Money, money might be considered first as an abstract idea, meaning that money is a mechanism of economic relations. And second, it is a material form, meaning that, embodied in certain substance, or designed in a specific way as a currency, it signifies the idea of money, tending to gain more and more symbolic features throughout the centuries once economic relations become more complicated. In this vein, currency design allows to find a more detailed approach to the investigation of money dematerialization as it is important to see money as a form in two different aspects: visible (or material) and visual (or representational).

The visible aspect of money is precisely what Simmel mentioned in his opus magnum: be it a golden coin or a bank note made of paper or plastic, its material form is intended to embody the idea of money in substance so that it could be possible to perceive the reality in which certain types of economic value and economic relations exist. The more developed the society becomes, the more symbolic features currency design gains, which means that at each stage of money development, the way people use and understand it becomes more intellectual. Indeed, while in ancient times it was important to establish a monetary system with corresponding denominations and weights of coins, in the digital era users can easily operate money as an abstract quantity in virtual systems of noncontact payments. What is interesting, in the world of dematerialized money, material forms of money gain a new non-economic value. While coins could be used as a part of jewelry design from antiquity to modern times because they were made of valuable materials and themselves were considered as valuable, sometimes they gain specific value due to the visual representations that were used in their design, like national or commemorative symbols, important for national historical memory and constituting such immaterial values as liberty, justice, civic duty, etc., which is relevant for example to the 1000 (Thousand) business center in Kaunas (Lithuania), built in 2014 and designed as a 1000 litas banknote of 1924 issue. Moreover, depictions used in currency design also represent the power of authorities that issue certain currencies, and surprisingly, the more developed the society becomes, the less visible the traces of power are. So, while ancient or medieval rulers depicted their own portraits on coins, contemporary paper money tends to represent cultural contexts, obscuring ideological implications of currency design, not to mention digital money that have only minimalistic visual logos.

Thus, paradoxically, while the visible material form of money is intended to help perceive the idea of money circulating in a material world, the visual representations of currency design promote ideologized images of reality, substituting the material reality itself. And once money becomes completely invisible, losing both its material form and visual content, the ways money might control its users in the digital era are more and more elusive unless the institute of money stops to exist.

Kseniya Shtalenkova

European Humanities University, Vilnius, Lithuania

MA in sociology, PhD candidate in philosophy, assistant lecturer at European Humanities University (EHU), Vilnius, Lithuania. She studies philosophy at the joint doctoral program of EHU, Vytautas Magnus University and the Lithuanian Culture Research Institute, where she investigates the effects of devisualization of money on the practices of symbolic exchange in the digital era. Before that, in 2017, she earned her MA in Sociology degree from EHU, and her debut scholarly book Money and Ideology: Hundred Year’s [R]evolution of Belarusian-ness, based on her master’s thesis on the design of Belarusian paper money, was published in 2018 (in Russian, with a summary in English).  

currency design
visual representation