This is the story of how Scandanavian design firm Snøhetta created a currency design that became a viral phenomenon.
This past spring, Norway's National Bank announced a design contest to rebrand the country's currency with a modern, updated aesthetic. On Tuesday, the bank announced that renowned Scandanavian design firms The Metric System and Snøhetta would split the victory, cementing their work on the front and the back, respectively, of the future Norwegian Krone. While The Metric System's designs are traditional, dignified, reflecting Nordic history, it was Snøhetta's beautiful, futuristic pixel art renditions which set the web abuzz, earning their mock-ups the title of "The World's Best Money" from Citylab, and a veritable fjord-load of internet points on Reddit.
Known as "The Beauty of Boundaries," the design's core visual motif surrounds the pixel, which Snøhetta describes as "our time's visual language". It's a rational, cubical pattern arranged to represent the Norwegian Bank's chosen motif, "The Sea," going so far as to even incorporate the historic seafaring science of the Beaufort Wind Scale into the visual mix. Writes Snøhetta, "On the 50 NOK note the wind is gentle, represented by short, cubical shapes and long, tame waves in the organic pattern. On the 1000 NOK note the wind is strong, expressed through sharp long shapes on the cubes and short waves." Described as "both a traditional and a modern expression," the dualistic nature of the design won the Bank of Norway's favor, according an official press release.
"This graphic design project is the most social project that we’ve ever worked on. I can’t think of any other applications that shift hands more than money,” Snøhetta managing director of brand design Martin Gran told The Creators Project. With their concepts for the Krone's new clothes in mind, Snøhetta pulled out all of its creative stops. “Both graphic designers and architects worked together to build this as a national project, but also as an international one," "We thought of this not only as Norway’s national banknote, but as a window out to the world."
Named for the highest mountain peak in Norway, Snøhetta has a 25-year history of excellence in architecture, spearheading projects like the Library of Alexandrina, the ongoing Times Square landscape reconstruction, and the National September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion. In the time that Gran has been part of the firm, they've won commissions from large companies such as Norway tourism giant Telemark, the (now defunct) Oslo 2022 Olympic Games, and The Norwegian Bank.
The Creators Project also spoke to Snøhetta senior brand designer Mattias Frodlund about the concepts and processes that went into creating their new dollars, as well as on the future of currency, and the internet's reaction to their forward-thinking banknotes:
The Creators Project: Can you tell me about your choice to use a pixel art-based design for paper money?
Mattias Frodlund: At Snøhetta, we always build our design on a strong concept. Our concept, "The Beauty of Boundaries," celebrates differences and their relations. We found a way of expressing the concept with mosaic – the art of creating images with an assemblage of small pieces. We liked the fact that the earliest known examples of mosaics were found at a temple building in Abra, Mesopotamia, and are dated to the second half of 3rd millennium BC and the other fact that most pictures that we are exposed to today are made up of tiny digital pixels. We found this juxtaposition to be very suitable for the design – and a strong expression of our concept. And you could say it’s a manifestation of the past and the present.
In this way, do you see pixels as the "letters" in the alphabet of modernism? Do you see your design as modern or something even newer?
Not really, the pixels are just the most accurate and versatile way to express the concept of “The Beauty of Boundaries”. A pixel is a perfect boundary, and together they can both form abstract and concrete images. Sorry to say, but in this specific design it was just the right instrument to use, that produced the most harmonic image and design. So more a methodology than an alphabet.
We try to not put any labels on the design we produce. I think for us it’s just good or bad, nothing in-between. “Modern” is just such a label, we seek to create design that at its best is honest, long-lasting, understandable and thorough down to the last detail.
Do you see economic similarities between today and the Interwar years? How did this influence your design process?
Well, you can if you want to. But given that the world is a completely different place today (thank god) than it was 80 years ago, I wouldn’t get too deep into that. But yes economic constraints has proven to affect the quality of creativity, design and craftsmanship throughout history. When there is a limited budget you need to think a little longer, try a little harder and make more accurate and clever decisions.
Did the modern pixel art movement have an influence on the new Krone's layout?
To be honest I don’t really know of any pixel artists of today, but we’ve looked very much into the works by Paul Klee, David Salle and Johannes Rian. But I guess you also can call a photographer a pixel artist in a way. And then the contemporary works of Sølve Sundsbø, Fredrik Lieberath, Annie Leibovitz and Terry Richardson would be inspiring to name a few.
What was the biggest challenge in presenting the theme of "The Beauty of Boundaries" using pixel-like forms?
It wasn’t really a challenge. When you have a concept or a big idea, it makes perfect sense from the very beginning to the very end. And I personally think people like it and appreciate it because it’s unexpected to see this type of design on a banknote. And without being too high-stomached, it could maybe be compered to the influence of the modernists in Europe during the Interwar years. When the urge for something new is very strong, it’s easier to accept something that stands out of the crowd.
As a designer, how did you respond to the limitations of creating for currency, such as color choices, allowance for security features, and the size of your canvas?
As a designer it is always important to know your canvas from the very beginning. Then you take a few steps away from it and observe it from a distance. It is this way of working that makes all the difference and when you then consider the rules, they will in most cases help you to refine, reduce and fine tune the design into perfection. In Snøhetta’s world, reduction and simplicity is key, so a good set of rules might not always be a problem – actually quite the opposite.
What's an aspect of the new redesign that people might not immediately understand?
Maybe the initial thought we had, that this might be the last money to be produced in Norway, and this could be the last statement of the paper money. Giving the digital world a little sneer – look we can be like you, digital and pixelated, just much more beautiful.
The images of your design got tons of traffic on Reddit, and CityLab called it "The World's Best Money." Why do you think that the internet has gone so crazy over your design?
The Internet is like a huge, constantly moving Jabba the Hut. You’ll never know if he/she will favor it or totally discard it. But.. one thing that might be, is that the design is somehow unexpected on this very type of media – it’s somehow refreshing when someone well intentionally breaks the rules. It’s punk-money and avant garde in a way, and that will always be appreciated by the masses.
What happens when currency goes digital? From a design standpoint, what future do you see for post-paper money infrastructure?
I see it as a bright future, as long as there are human beings and not robots making the decisions and using the tools we’re designing, good design will always matter, both in the digital and the physical world. And as a designer you are always thrilled over what the next step will be, what are the requirements and what terms and conditions that will render.
Note: The majority of the images are availbable only in a bank-mandated low resolution, so as to prevent attempts at counterfeitting.