Tobias Frere-Jones on Banknote Typefaces and Forgery-Resistant Fonts -


Tobias Frere-Jones on Banknote Typefaces and Forgery-Resistant Fonts

Friday April 15th, 2016 by Extensis

Being in the business of font management, we are huge fans of the people behind some of the world’s most popular fonts. On the occasion of Tax Day, we spoke to Tobias Frere-Jones of Frere-Jones Type about his interest in banknote design, how letterforms have been used to thwart forgery, and a money-related font of his own design.

Over the past 25 years, Tobias Frere-Jones has FrereJones_1505×2257established himself as one of the world’s leading typeface designers. He has created some of the most widely used typefaces, including Interstate, Poynter Oldstyle, Whitney, Gotham, Surveyor, Tungsten and Retina. His work is in the permanent collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

In 2006, The Royal Academy of Visual Arts in The Hague (KABK) awarded him the Gerrit Noordzij Prijs for his contributions to typographic design, writing, and education. In 2014, he gave a presentation at AIGA NY during which he analyzed the banknotes from his research, and discovered new ways in which certain banknotes managed to evade forgery. That really piqued our interest, so we asked Tobias if he’d be willing to share more on the topic.


How did you become interested, originally, in banknote design and forgery-resistant typography?

I’ve collected banknotes for a really long time, and I always enjoyed the lettering on there. Type plays this covert, secondary role: not only to declare how much this piece of paper is worth, but also fight on this other front of making it difficult to reproduce this illicitly.


How letterforms have historically been used to thwart forgery over the years?

There are a couple of different ways. One is more technological, in that it uses the process of type founding or type selling to create barriers for the forger. This would be much harder to pull off now, in the digital era. But for many years the ability to manufacture a typeface was quite difficult. Apart from the human skill involved, the mechanical setup that you would need was not something you could just go down to the corner and get.

One technique, which Benjamin Franklin used, was to print with type that no one else had, and would have been very difficult to find. It was a kind of exclusivity approach. For a number of the banknotes he printed for the state of Pennsylvania, he used a very little-known typeface from England which, even in England, was barely known or used.

It was a pretty safe bet that no one in the States would have had access to this. So he used that as a kind of obstacle.

There’s another strategy that you could describe as a sort of camouflage. Here, the process of reproducing the type, and making some emulation of what is there, has traps hidden inside of it. The typesetting is made to look simple when it’s actually very complicated, so that the forger will make mistakes without realizing it.

The Green family, who printed the money for the state of Maryland, often used this strategy of “secret marks,” where they would place deliberate flaws put into the typesetting of the bill. Some were pretty obvious; some were really, really subtle.

One of the simpler examples is turning an ’S’ upside-down on the bed of the press. If you look past it quickly, it’s just an ’S,’ and everything reads fine. But if you pause for a moment and look closer, you’ll see that the proportions aren’t quite right. Turn the bill upside-down, and you’ll see that this ’S’ was actually rotated.

It’s the sort of thing that you’ll spot right away if you know what you’re looking for. But if you don’t know that the trap is there, you’ll just think, “I just need to spell this word, and it happens to have an ’S.’” You’ll do it correctly, and in this particular case, that would be what gives you away.


How did paper money typefaces or banknotes design change when the US started printing Federal money, and the states stopped printing their own paper money?

That question is surprisingly complicated, because there were several kinds of notes that could be described as money, and some were always issued at the federal level. I don’t think it would oversimplify too much to say that the process began with the National Banking Act of 1863, and was completed with the Federal Reserve Act of 1913. But it’s a long and intricate history.

For example, in the mid 19th Century we had the “Free Banking” Era, when basically anyone who got permission from the state legislature could open a bank and start printing money.

Which sounds like a great idea, right? Really, what could go wrong? All you had to do was promise that all this paper money was backed up by actual gold and actual silver. Of course, very few people were honest when they said that. So banks would print their own money, industrial manufacturers would print their own money, and these would all fail, left and right.

Eventually the Treasury established the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and started to take over the role of producing and distributing money. At the time, there was a fantastic variety of design in American money—not just in a series of bills, from the one dollar bill to the five and the ten, but from one kind of money to the next.

There were dollars backed by gold, dollars backed by silver, promissory notes from the Treasury—and these all had different designs. Plus, every ten years or so, there’d be a new and different design for each series.

It was the kind of design refresh that just about every other country in the world does on a regular basis. Just the other day, Switzerland announced: the new design that they’ll use for their money. A couple of years ago Norway put out their new design. Here in the US, it’s just inconceivable that the design of money would ever change. But actually, American money used to change all the time.

There was a series of notes in 1896 that was just a spectacular combination of design and illustration. One of these notes happened to include a bit of partial nudity, and people went completely bonkers about this. Each note had allegorical figures doing terrifically noble things—and on one bill, there was one of these semi-Greco-Roman figures as the embodiment of electrical power, showing off all of the amazing, tremendous things that she can do.

And in that sort of arbitrary, Neoclassical style, part of her top is falling off. No especially good reason for any of this, because it’s hardly part of the story. But the upper levels of society were just scandalized by this, and could not believe that the American treasury was producing something so vulgar and improper.


Source: Wikimedia Commons


The Treasury was actually working on a fix, a revision of the illustration that would fix the wardrobe malfunction, so to speak, and release “version 1.1” of this five-dollar bill. But they were too slow in getting this together, and the Treasury department was getting increasingly worried about the damage from the scandal, so they decided to scrap this entire series, including bills that they hadn’t even printed yet.

They replaced this remarkable work with the dullest thing that they could think of: a mishmash of vignettes and numbers, and some kind of cartouche, and an eagle, and a flag, and a couple of presidents. By the early 1920s it became the very familiar recipe of an oval shape in the middle of the bill, with a picture of a president, and this very ornate border.

But it was all ultimately in reaction to a scandal that happened over a century ago. In the space of three years, between 1896 and 1899, American money went from amazingly inventive and energetic to—deliberately—the dullest, most inoffensive thing that you could imagine.


You have some experience designing typefaces for money-related purposes, yourself. Can you tell us about that?

In about 2000, the Wall Street Journal asked for a new typeface to set their stock pages. The pages were getting smaller, and they were listing more data about each stock, and they also wanted to improve the legibility of what was there, because their readership was getting older.

Anyone who’s an active stockbroker is getting their stocks online, so this was more about historical record, and most of the people who would get the stock prices out of the paper were retired brokers with eyesight that may not be as good as it used to be.

So I had to consider every aspect of this, from the material to the space available to even the content itself—which isn’t even verbal language. Stock listings are all acronyms and abbreviations and so on. So there’s very little chance for our experience as a reader to step in and resolve some ambiguity.

If it’s a string of consonants that’s meant to be the name of some mutual fund, and one of them is not clear, you’re going to have a very hard time figuring it out.

Back while I was still a student at RISD, as part of my final project there I made a group of experimental typefaces that tried to address one aspect or another of how reading works: what, exactly, our eyes take in; what our brain does with that; how we extract meaning from it. Reading is a very intricate and, in some ways, not fully understood process. This question has been bugging me for years: when we are taught to read, what is it exactly that we learn there?

It can’t be something very specific, because I could draw an ‘A’ that no one’s seen before, but if I’m able to put it in front of you and you can recognize it as an ‘A,’ then what we’ve all learned was more flexible than just one, single image. And if we can recognize a thousand different shapes as having the same meaning, then we’re working with some pretty sophisticated criteria. What exactly those criteria are is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time.

So I looked back to these experiments about what exactly our eyes need, and what our brain tells us from what we see, to come up with a strategy that was unlike anything I’d done before. To establish the identity of each letter as clearly as possible, and foreclose as much as I could any confusion with other numbers and letters, and give the shape of each word the most distinct shape that I could manage.

The result is called Retina. It solved several distinct problems: anticipating what ink and paper will do when they’re moving at a very high speed; what the format of the page will do after the page has shrunk; what the reader will do in order to be able to navigate this very dense field; and, on top of that, meeting the stylistic brief: to stay within this vocabulary of newspaper typography—which, above everything else, we expect to look credible.

I would say it was just a really satisfying sequence of experimentation applied to a real world problem, and producing an effective solution.

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A huge thanks to Tobis for such a great interview! Be sure to connect with Tobias on Twitter or check out his work over at