Design That Fits the Bill

In the U.S., at least, Jack Ruther may be the most ubiquitous designer you've never heard of. Ruther, 61, works at the Bureau of Engraving & Printing in Washington, D.C., where he oversees the design of all of the bills in your wallet. His latest creation: The new $10 note, which was unveiled on Sept. 28 and will hit the streets in early 2006.

The new $10 incorporates several visual elements: A new icon symbolizing freedom -- the torch carried by the Statue of Liberty -- and the oval borders and lines surrounding Hamilton's face have been removed.

But the job is about more than aesthetics -- it's part of an ongoing effort to stay ahead of counterfeiters. So new $10 also includes security features such as color-shifting ink that changes color when you tilt it and an orange "security thread" embedded in the paper. Microprinting adds another layer of security: Grab a magnifying glass, and you'll see the letters "U.S.A." and the numeral "10" printed beneath the large torch.

BusinessWeek Personal Business Editor Lauren Young recently spoke to Ruther about the design process. Following are edited excerpts from their conversation:

The redesign of the $10 is part of a larger redesign effort, isn't it?

I started working on the new currency design series in 1996. That's when we added the big heads with the ovals and introduced a clearer, more contemporary design as well as a paper watermark. That series was a departure from our old currency, which had been in existence since 1929. There are quite a few steps from beginning of design concept to issuance on the street -- the whole process averages around two years from start to finish.

What are the biggest hurdles?

Our biggest challenge is to change a currency and still make it look American. My old boss once said if you took a currency note from every country in world and put it on a big table, somebody should be able to point to a U.S. note. People are used to seeing currency a certain way. I've found that Americans really don't like change too much.

What have people objected to?

With the first changes in 1996, they complained that they missed the old architecture of the design -- mainly the scrolls and the big borders. When we added color in 2003 with what we call the next generation currencies -- the $20 bills feature green, blue, and peach accents, while the $50 bills have red, blue, and peach -- I got some negative feedback, again. Though at same time, some people said: "I thought we were adding color." You can't please everybody.

Any other challenges in the design process?

Creating the icons of freedom. What do you put that's recognizable as a U.S. icon? The $50 has a flag, while the $20 features an eagle. We found if the eagle was too small, it started looking like a seagull or a chicken. For the $10, we looked at the Stature of Liberty. With the limited real estate of the note, if we'd used the whole Statue of Liberty, it would have looked very small. The torch is something most people would recognize.

How has technology changed the design process?

What used to take me two weeks now only takes two hours. But technology also makes our job harder. The reprographics out there continue to get better, and the technology is changing constantly. Innovations in this business have always have been driven by counterfeiting.

How did you become a currency designer?

I went to the Corcoran School of Art in Washington from 1964 to 1968 where I studied commercial design. After I graduated, I started a seven-year apprenticeship at the Bureau of Engraving to learn the security aspects of currency design. That's a skill they don't teach outside -- unless you count Lou's Garage in Bayonne. (Laughs.)

Are you jealous of other countries with pretty colorful currencies?

They don't look American -- though I admire the Swiss and Canadian currencies. Down the pike we will be going to more of an international look for a number of reasons. In the future you will see our U.S. currency become brighter and more colorful and less antique-ish. We will be changing our currency every 7 to 10 years. The $100 bill is next.

In 50 years, will we still have bills?

There will always be some kind of currency you can carry in your pocket. I know every so often there's legislation proposing the $1 coin, but Americans don't like change -- they'd rather carry 10 $1 bills than 10 $1 coins. It's easier to counterfeit paper currency than coin, but paper is much more practical.

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