John Isaacs, Designer

Remarks at BerkShares Benefit Event,
September 20, 2006
by John Isaacs of John Isaacs Design

"Thank you everybody at BerkShares, Inc. and the Schumacher Society for inviting me to participate in this wonderful project, especially since I’d never designed money before. Basically I design art books and catalogues for a living, which is one of the most interesting and rewarding niches in the graphics profession. However, I think my experience in that field stood me in good stead for this particular project, because, like designing an art book, it was essentially an exercise in building resonance and elegance from furnished images and text, typography and color.

First off, I think BerkShares did a marvelous job of choosing images. Each one is beautiful. The selection was sufficiently variegated to ensure a distinct look for each denomination, and yet had a consistency of tone and character that provided the opportunity for design continuity throughout the series.

Besides the images supplied, BerkShares specified a number of design parameters in a very clear and simple brief:

•            That the bills be slightly different in size from federal currency.

•            That they be resistant to counterfeiting.

•            That they be printed on a special, limited availability security paper stock provided by a local paper company through our good friends and collaborators at Excelsior Printing.

•            And that they have the feel of real currency yet at the same time be fun and appealing to use.            

In approaching the design task, the first thing I eliminated was any attempt to emulate the design of federal currency, which, in my view anyway, is among the most conservative and least imaginative in the world, however hard the Federal Reserve tries to tweak it into modernity.

So my initial research focused on foreign currency, particularly the Euro, which is a beautifully designed series that panders to neither tradition nor fashion, and that I’m sure took millions of francs, guilders, marks, and schillings, and quite a few years to develop. I, on the other hand, had about three weeks from the outset to get final files to the printer. So I wasn’t about to try to match the design intricacy of the Euro, but it did serve as a basic inspiration for the series—and that meant, first and foremost, clear, modern typography.

Having eliminated the idea of replicating the antique typefaces in federal currency, I also wanted to avoid widely used European typefaces like Helvetica, Univers and Frutiger. I finally settled on the Gotham family of fonts from the prestigious and meticulous New York studio of Hoefler Frere-Jones. Gotham is a sans serif based on vernacular architectural lettering, originally designed for GQ magazine, and has an affability usually missing from geometric typefaces. Its distinctively American form seemed most appropriate for this application.

While I was determined to avoid the aesthetics of federal currency, I didn’t want to make BerkShares feel too foreign either. So the BerkShares concept does to a considerable extent bring together many of the basic elements found on dollar bills. I first laid these out in the “five BerkShares” denomination: on the front, blocks of graded color behind the portrait and around the background image, simple diagonal hatching with complex color shades, a mix of reversed and colored type, and a variety of emblems and messages; and on the reverse a broad landscape, on which I superimposed a feint inverse of the front portrait. Finally, I embellished the design with lines of miniature motifs that resonated with each portrait, in this case an antique graphic of a beehive, which I felt was relevant to DuBois’s social achievements.

The “single” was a bit more of a challenge. Because the portrait wasn’t a photographic reproduction like the other denominations, it’s the only one of the series printed in color. Everyone seems to agree that the reverse has great atmosphere and works particularly well. In this case, the little motif is a phoenix rising—not quite sure why, but it felt vaguely appropriate.

The “ten” was a no-brainer: Robyn van En, turnips, and a wheatsheaf motif. For all the various colors in the series, I went to the back of the Pantone swatch their latest issues they call “Muted Tones”, which have a richness and quirkiness that is actually enhanced when the ink hits the special, slightly cream-colored security paper.

The “twenty” is my particular favorite. To me, Melville’s the perfect subject, and the image on the reverse has excellent graphic dynamics. Here, the motif is a well...of knowledge, we assume.

Finally, the “fifty”, with our old friend from Stockbridge, who, by the way, did a series of paintings to promote war bonds for the U.S. Treasury during World War II. Inspired by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous 1941 speech, Norman Rockwell painted his “Four Freedoms” series based on Roosevelt’s four principles for universal rights: Freedom from Want, Freedom of Speech, Freedom to Worship, and Freedom from Fear. I’d like to think these currently neglected principles are supplemented and updated by the four BerkShares ideals of Community, Economy, Ecology, and Sustainability, and—not to get too serious—I also thought that, given Rockwell’s visage in this image, the little peacock motifs were not entirely inapt.

So that’s the series. The team at Excelsior Press have done a fantastic job of printing the bills. Jen, Chris, Susan and everyone else involved in the project have been a delight to work with. And I naturally wish the project the greatest success."