How banknotes and coins make canvases for designs: artistic licence to print pretty money

It may be the root of all evil, but money has an artistic side, too. From Fiji’s celebratory seven dollar note to Switzerland’s 50 franc note to Australia’s Possum Magic coin collection, we look at the most attractive legal tender

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 November, 2017, 7:17pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 November, 2017, 7:17pm

Australia’s new Possum Magic coin set bucks convention. Playing on a picture book by fantasy author Mem Fox, the set’s two-dollar coins feature colours including turquoise, gold and orange.

The vibrant tones underline currency’s talent to be more than just cold cash but a platform for creative design. In particular, banknotes make natural canvases.

Just look at Hong Kong’s red, iridescent HK$100 note and its fiery orange HK$1,000 counterpart, Their engraved lions – the HSBC emblems Stephen and Stitt – ooze presence mirrored by their lucky stone cousins that proudly guard the Hong Kong head office and London’s Canary Wharf. “When HSBC’s new global headquarters were opened in Canary Wharf, London, it was only fitting that Stephen and Stitt were included in the design too,” the bank states, adding that eight lucky coins are buried in the base as tradition dictates.

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Hong Kong’s banknotes support the notion that currency can amount to much more than a bunch of IOUs. “Conceived by talented artists and skilful printers, banknotes can be considered an elegant expression of creative artistry,” says Swiss security firm that deals with banknotes, SICPA.

Switzerland’s 50 franc note is the current bank note of the year title holder. “The bright green vertical banknote depicts dandelion seeds, a paraglider aloft in the mountains and a strikingly playful human hand”, says the International Bank Note Society.

Candidates for the 2017 prize include India’s 200 rupee note, Australia’s A$10 note, Switzerland’s 20 franc note, Canada’s C$10 note, and Mexico’s 100 peso note.

Fiji’s seven dollar offering stands out because of its timeliness – it documents Fiji’s gold-medal rugby sevens win at the 2016 Rio Olympics, complementing its 17 Hong Kong Sevens triumphs.

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Fiji is featuring its national bird, the collared lory parrot on its first titanium coloured coin which proves that coins can be freed from their drab small-change image.

According to, the hardest part of the design was to capture and bring to life the texture of lory feathers.

The lory coin’s reverse features the Fijian coat of arms: a heraldic shield featuring the cross of St George, warriors, a canoe, and – like Hong Kong banknotes, a lion. Because titanium reacts differently with every strike, each coloured lory coin is technically unique, varying in hue.

Such comely coins and notes raise the question of whether physical money should be allowed to die out. Plastic cards and cryptocurrencies lack aesthetic appeal.

Canada’s founder Sir John Macdonald, appears on his country’s C$10 note, for now at least. He is set to be bumped up to a higher denomination, ousted by social justice icon Viola Desmond, who challenged racial segregation at a cinema in Nova Scotia in 1946. According to Viola’s sister Wanda, the activist was elegant with perfect manners, which fits because Viola ran a beauty school. The beautician will be the first Canadian woman to be featured on the front of a bank note.