Singapore is in the midst of transitioning to plastic notes. At the moment, there seem to be an equal number of paper and plastic notes in circulation.

When compared side by side, there are a number of obvious differences between the paper note (left) and the plastic note (right).

And yet, up to the moment when I actually thought to compare the two notes side by side, I was unaware of these differences. Rather, like most other people, I simply "assumed" that both notes are the same and equally trustworthy.

Why? Because both notes "look" real? But how would I know for sure that these notes are indeed absolutely real? Even if I had grown up handling these notes, I probably wouldn't be able to tell you exactly what is printed on them or remember all of the security features.

There must be a universally understood visual language for designing bank notes. How often do we stop and look at every bank note in great detail? Even if it is a foreign note?

When Australia switched to plastic notes about a decade ago, the most interesting observation I remembered from that period of change was this: when encountering an Australian plastic note for the first time, hotel managers and money changers in foreign countries had most difficulty with the plastic substrate of the new notes, and less so the designs.

It is worth noting that the designs on the plastic Australian notes are radically different from the paper notes they eventually replaced. So when the hotel manager or money changer compared the design on the new notes with the old ones in their manuals, the designs were clearly different. And yet they seemed to quickly decide that the designs were “ok”. They were just more bothered by the plastic substrate.

Interesting, no?

Of course, trust is a multifaceted issue beyond simply the design on the notes. Singapore, like Australia and many other countries, have built very trustworthy financial systems. Such that it is generally ok to simply accept a “real looking” note as the real thing.

Having said this, bank notes still need to fit within the accepted visual language. A radically recognisable departure from this language will sow distrust.

The other aspect of sticking to the visual language is that photocopiers and software like Photoshop are equipped to recognise when a user is attempting to reproduce bank notes. I think they do so by recognising patterns embedded within the design on the notes.

Indeed, when I scanned the notes to make the image attached above, Photoshop threw up the following warning dialogue:

The use of the bank notes here is compliant with the guidelines set out by the Central Bank Counterfeit Deterrence Group.