RBS - The People's Money

When hit US songwriter Sammy Cahn was asked: ‘What comes first, the lyrics or the melody?’, he answered: ‘The phone call. The phone call always comes first…’

When I answered a call from Edinburgh-based service design agency Nile, asking Stuco to join the RBS banknote design team, little did I realise that it would signal the start of both the biggest and the smallest design job we are ever likely to be involved in.

As with any complicated commissioning process, designing the new notes was a multi-agency job, calling on the skills and input of a host of design, technical, planning, and printing professionals. Nile assembled a formidable team: Glasgow’s O Street, Graven Images, Timorous Beasties, and Stuco. Each company brought different expertise, insight, and skills.

We’ve worked with Jeni at Nile before, so she knew what our design process entails, the lengths we will go to source original ideas, content, and inputs. We learnt a lot too. It’s always interesting to see how my contemporaries tackle design challenges, but it was equally enlightening to watch the school kids approach the same challenges during our initial workshops.

Although we’d never worked on a banknote before, the design process was familiar. No brief? No problem. We rarely have a client that knows exactly what they want and how they want it: it’s almost always a discussion. They come to us for an objective viewpoint, and it’s up to us to ask the right questions and find the story. That’s the same for the grand scale of an exhibition, right down to a five-pound note.

Then comes the content generation stage. With the five pound note we were starting with nothing, and had to create a concept from scratch. This is at the heart of what we do, whether we need to facilitate workshops, make sense of a whole heap of documents or, in this case, head out to the fish shop for mackerel.

There was also a strong element of engagement. The team had to approach experts of all kinds to qualify the facts and information we wanted to include on the note. This is an essential part of our work on other projects too: ask an architect about a building and you’ll get one perspective. Ask the janitor and you’ll get a completely different one. That added input gives the final design true integrity.

So how do you make sure that a new note has integrity for the years to come? A nationwide public consultation chose the theme: ‘the Fabric of Nature’. The consultation also produced a lot of guiding materials, so we had plenty of leads, keywords, ideas and clues to sift through. Then it was the design team’s job to decide which specific natural elements should feature on the notes. The team refined the theme in a series of workshops, creating an escalating trail from sea to sky – linking the Scotland’s iconic coast and mountain landscapes, beginning with the fish-themed fiver.

We quickly discarded the cliché of the ‘noble salmon’ – a design motif which has been used and reused to the point of banality – and settled instead on the ‘humble mackerel’, a much better fit for the democratic approach of the project. Not only is the mackerel a beautiful fish visually – all muscle mass, a flash of silver and iridescent blue – the species is also the single most valuable catch for the Scottish fishing fleet. As an added design detail and a nod to Scotland’s most ferocious human predator, Timorous Beasties drew the Culicoides impunctatus – the Scottish midge.

But it couldn’t all be about fish and midges. We also wanted to include human aspects of Scotland’s natural landscape – hence the woad, the plant the ancient Picts used to make blue dye for their woven fabrics and body paint. Sitting in the middle of the fish, the midge and the woad is a final detail: a quote from poet Sorley Maclean (1911-1996), beautifully hand-lettered by calligrapher Susie Leiper. And if you’re not a Gaelic-speaker, shine a UV light on the note and you’ll see the English translation of the quote, as well as the shimmer of the mackerel scales.

The obverse of the note celebrates the life and work of Nan Shepard, a writer who seemed to capture everything we wanted to represent in Scotland. So you’ll see Cairngorm in the background, and excerpt from her book, The Living Mountain, in the foreground – with her striking portrait in the middle. We had the concepts mapped out. Then came the fun part: illustration.

When it came to illustrating the mackerel and the woad, I went back to first principles and my first love: a pot of ink and a dip pen. Luckily for us, even in the heart of Glasgow, sourcing fresh mackerel to study and draw was easy. Regular visits to John Gilmour, owner of the Fish Plaice, guaranteed us a limitless supply of briny and beautiful specimens. But here’s the rub. I suffer from a severe fish allergy, so there was a real risk of anaphylaxis on the job. How ironic to get a commission for the most recognisable work of your career, after trying to avoid the subject matter all your life.

Nevertheless, I drew and redrew. Arranged and rearranged. And then we got it. Within days the work had been dispatched to the banknote printers De La Rue for final amends, layout and sampling.

I’m writing this while sitting in a café. Across from me, two guys are busy scrutinising the new £5 notes, holding them up to the light, looking at the security details, feeling the texture of the polymer, and talking about the images. Two years into the project, I’m still excited by the possibilities, and the shop window, it offers Stuco; still fascinated by the design challenges it poses, and still delighted to be working with such a multi-talented and multi-skilled group of creatives. That’s the kind of job satisfaction money can’t buy.

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