How I make money: by Tom Badley, Artist

Published on October 18, 2013 in Blog, Finance
Today we have a very welcome guest post from Tom Badley who is a currency designer at Sustainable Currencies. This is a pretty rare bread of individual with an intriguing insight into the design of money. Enjoy!


Tom: I’ve always loved to make money. I started in primary school, where I made a series of credit cards (out of actual card) and accompanying vouchers, enclosed them in letters, and mailed them out to parents of friends.


Then I made a series of banknotes and released them, one by one, into the playground – some were still in circulation a year after I left for secondary school. These first endeavors were crude black and white photocopies, individually hand-colored in pencil. When I found out that real banknote designs were produced first in large format, I started taking my early attempts to a local printer to have them scaled down. This was long before I had any access to Photoshop.


Little did I know that the process of ‘making money out of thin air’ is exactly how ‘real’ money is made – a mechanism which is leading us into a tenuous and critical point in economic history, and is leaving many looking for alternatives.


So, two decades after the ‘playground currencies’, I’ve initiated the Sustainable Currency Project, specifically to work with communities who wish to implement their own affirmative solution to the global economic crisis.


The scope for the project is worldwide, and every community has a different reason for initiating a local currency. For some, it focuses around a particular function within the community, for others it’s an environmental imperative.


In my collaborations, I find it interesting to note that even without an economic crisis, there’s an insistent feeling amongst people in the EU and US that they presently have a money system that has been insensitively imposed upon them.




The Euro is a failed attempt to do by consent what others tried to do by conquest. A united Europe is an impossible dream, like trying to fit a cylinder into a square hole; the Euro has stripped each country of its identity, expressed in its money.


In the US, the constitution explicitly states that the currency of the country should be gold and silver, and the ‘founding fathers’ were very vocal about the dangers of a central bank – a central bank that gained power over the US money supply in 1913.


The narrative in Britain is a little different. The biggest change to UK money was the shift to Decimalization in 1971 and the removal of silver coinage from circulation in 1947. But any ideas about restoring these dusty memories seem ludicrous today.


With that said, Britain has a rich history of local currencies. While working at Spink & Son, I helped catalogue part of the David Kirch Collection of English Provincial Banknotes – the largest collection of privately issued, locally circulating paper money to see an auction room. With over 4,000 notes from every corner of the country, the amount of local currencies that were once circulating in Britain is staggering.
An essential part of the British industrial revolution, local currency is now being restored as the antidote to the industrial revolution’s grandchild: globalization.


Everyone comes to local currency at a different stage in the journey. Some are at the very beginning, with a final artwork a long way off into the future. Some groups have an urgency borne out of necessity, having grown impatient with the red tape of local government.




Some already have a pilot circulating currency, and after securing funding and local support, wish to re-launch their new local money – with a brand new design.


Whatever the stage, I begin with the same brief: alternative currencies may be local, provisional or temporary, but there’s no reason why they should look so; they should communicate the aspirations of the community, and have a design quality that conveys trust and permanence.


With enthusiasm for alternative paper currencies exploding, the urgency and complexity of the projects can sometimes make the artwork an after-thought. Communities may approach a local graphic designer, who will usually deliver designs constructed from off-the-shelf graphics and re-worked Internet images – not really consistent with the radical gesture of launching a new currency.


On the other end of the scale, groups have been known to seek the talents of specialist artists and designers with a history of designing national currencies. Not surprisingly, these services carry a heavy price tag, which is unattractive for grassroots movements.


Keep in mind that currency design is a political activity: money is a product of a central bank, for which it has a monopolistic control, and seeks to retain that control. A central bank’s product – its money – is sacrosanct to its operation. Consequently, currency designers who took part in the creation of these products often shy away from creating local currencies because they would potentially put the confidence of a central bank’s product into question. I bridge the gap. Having no hand in national currency design I’m free from any political implications.




The banknote is the ultimate artwork. It epitomes bespoke design, yet it’s printed in the order of millions; it has to be of the highest quality, yet its a very personal object, being handled, smelt, kept close to the body; it has to be familiar and easily recognizable, even for the visually impaired, yet with an enough detail to discourage forgery; a banknote is ubiquitous, yet sought-after. And all in the space of a small rectangle.


Currency design is extremely specialist, so the scope for radical and interesting design is wide open. Sometimes groups have very specific ideas about what should go where. More experimentally minded groups will let the artist roam free.


Even so, I feel I haven’t even scratched the surface in terms of what money could look like. And what money could look like is limited only by the imagination of the group involved: a banknote could just be a piece of paper that solves a practical purpose, or it could be the expression of an aspiration to transcend our narrow cultural crisis, into a whole new realm of being…
What i think makes the Sustainable Currency project attractive is that the design is the focus, rather than simply part of the a package. However radical a client’s idea might be, its quality is assured by a dedicated artist. Another thing that communities may not realise when starting the process is that marketing costs can quickly escalate; a good design sells itself, helping to save time, money and effort on selling the idea to sponsors, potential angel investors, as well as the public.




Regarding the future of paper currencies, a question often comes up about paper’s viability. In the age of contactless payments and RFID, hasn’t paper money had its day? There are many things to say about this.


There is no question that technology has changed our perception of value and how value can be exchanged. Goods and services can be paid with smart phones. Crypto-currencies such as BitCoin have blended commodity and electronic currency with a mathematically defined scarcity (I see no reason why the same idea can’t be applied to paper money…I look forward to that project!).


But paper is privacy – a rare commodity today. As a society, we’re facing a fork in the road as to what level of privacy we’re prepared to give away. If every phone conversation is recorded, cameras can biometrically identify you from your face, linked to Facebook; and phones are built with fingerprint identification that feeds huge databases, then a totally electronic monetary system could be the link that completes the circuit to a global technological control grid. Many of us will have to decide which side of line we stand on, and central to that discussion is the medium of money.




I don’t believe there’s an ultimate solution to any problem. If it were so, you rule out any possibility of innovation. Alternative currencies could merely be the stepping-stone to a completely new paradigm of money.


There’s talk of a new ‘global currency’. But to me, a consolidated world currency not only sounds boring, but unworkable. A centrally planned, centrally issued currency has more to do with control and idealism, than it does with encouraging human spontaneity and innovation.


A better idea: what if a ‘global currency’ was as fragmented as the amount of local currencies in existence? Just like the flourishing exchanges for crypto-currencies, community paper currencies could be globally exchanged – and their relative value would be dependant on the confidence in stewardship of each community. Exciting stuff!


I like to be surprised. Like returning to school and finding my pieces of paper being passed around, one experiment today could find an unexpected application tomorrow.




Tom Badley is an artist and writer currently living in London.
Credits: All images courtesy of Tom Badley

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  1. John Rogers says:

    Tom, first the positives. It’s wonderful to hear your personal story that led you from playground experiments to your inspiration to serve communities struggling to survive in the Age of Austerity and draconian centralised financial politics. All power to your efforts!

    Now the criticism. Launching paper money into a community, however clever, fancy and inspiring its design, *in itself* achieves nothing. So you’ve got a local currency – SO WHAT?

    The multitude of historical local currencies that you celebrate in the article hide a mixed story. Yes, people in local regions had access to a medium of exchange when government-issued notes were scarce, particularly in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. It enabled businesses to get started and local economies to experience growth. And there were many abuses. Many of these local bank notes were over-issued and there were many bank crashes in which people lost their savings. Many industrialists issued currency that their workers could only spend in the notorious company ‘truck store’, where goods were only available at inflated prices. All of these abuses led to the 1844 Banking Act, which sought to stamp them out by making the national currency the only acceptable ‘legal tender’ currency.

    As to modern experiments, the Transition currencies in Totnes, Lewes, Brixton and Bristol have been impressive in gaining worldwide media attention and they have proved much more attractive to local businesses than many previous attempts with local exchange systems. Mainly because you can exchange them back into sterling. But they do not create any new money, they just pin down the old stuff for a bit longer and get it to circulate a bit more before it disappears out of the local economy again.

    ‘Currency design’ is MUCH MUCH MORE than designing currency notes. It is a ideally a whole community process in which individuals, businesses, voluntary groups and local government come together to identify their underused assets and unmet needs (ie matching supply and demand, the core of any real economy not based on financial speculation ) and then design a currency mechanism around these. This could potentially take many forms, including or excluding printed notes.

    For more on all of this, check out my two books:
    “Local Money – What Difference Does It Make?”, Triarchy Press 2013:

    and “People Money – the Promise of Regional Currencies”, coauthored with Margrit Kennedy and Bernard Lietaer, Triarchy Press 2012:

    Once again, all the best with your efforts.

    • Tom says:

      Hi John, thanks for your comments.

      I’m aware of paper money history (including the history of provincial notes), and the different models of community currencies – the ones tried and tested, the experimental models, the failed attempts, and a couple of currency options that have yet to be explored. And of course, I’m aware that new currencies involve more than visuals (art is just my part to play). I think I was also clear that I feel local paper currencies are far from being a panacea.

      I know all about the process of debt-money creation, and I’m well aware that exchangeable local currencies do not ‘create money’. I would go as far to say we actually have no real ‘money’ in circulation today; we have contracts of debt that we accept as payment. ‘Money creation’ is semantically erroneous: if something ‘new’ is ‘created’, it shouldn’t be owed back to the thing that created it, with interest attached… but that’s for another article perhaps.

    • Admin (Shane Hughes) says:

      Hi John, i’m not sure whether you’re saying that the artwork alone “achieves nothing” – to that i’d have to agree – or if you’re also saying that local currencies that don’t create new money achieve nothing? thanks, Shane

      • John Rogers says:

        Hi Shane, I’m just saying that there can be a ‘trendy’ element to launching paper currency surrounded by a lot of hype. In itself, it is meaningless. It needs to be backed by a thorough design process in the community, by which I do not mean design of the notes but design of the currency mechanism, which the notes represent. This needs to be carefully thought through and based on real economic and social needs, not just a passing fashion of how cool it is to have some Bristol Pounds to show your friends.

        In fact the evidence from the interviews I did for the People Money book with people from BerkShares, Lewes and Brixton Pounds shows that the artwork IS very important. Well designed notes can capture local feelings of pride about their history, geography and character and help to build local loyalty towards the currency. Bristol reports the same thing: a proud history of independence is reflected by the notes. That goes way beyond trendy towards reinforcing local community development. And it doesn’t have to be heavy and isolationist either, it can be done with great humour like the David Bowie notes in Brixton.

        In terms of overall currency design my favourite system is in Austria. The Talente Tauschkreis Vorarlberg started in 1996 as a mutual credit exchange ring which continues to this day with several thousand participants. After 10 years of operation they decided to bolt on a Euro-backed currency with printed circulating notes onto the existing system. So you can buy local village currency with Euros and then trade them in to the central system for point in the mutual credit system and so have access to both systems. This hybrid system is probably the maturest local currency system in Europe (apart from WIR Bank in Switzerland, which is in a whole different league).