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Design students develop new local currency

Ann-Marie Woods | Friday, October 30, 2009

A new form of currency is coming to the Michiana Area, and Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s students are contributing to the design of the community money, which intends to place value on local goods and services while revitalizing the downtown areas in South Bend and the surrounding towns.

“Residents of the South Bend area are working to enrich community life in our region by developing a ‘community currency’ to serve this region,” according to the Michiana Community Currency Web site.  “Community currencies can give our cities more control over our choices of jobs and the quality of life in our communities.”

Students in Professor Crispin Prebys’ Graphic Design III class were asked to submit designs for a local currency that could be used in circulation, taking into account counterfeit measures, size and weight while representing the Michiana community.

“We all wanted to produce a simplistic yet beautiful set of bills that would look real and promote the local economy,” Saint Mary’s senior Theresa Tonyan said. “We were really inspired by the community, the people, agriculture and local history.”

Professor Jackie Smith of the Kroc Institute for Peace Studies heads up the Michiana Community Currency organization and worked with the students to create a viable currency for the area with the intention of rebuilding the local economy.

“What this program can do is put money into our local economy and keep it in our local economy,” Smith said. 

The idea for a community currency in the Michiana area originated after a lecture Smith gave about the effects of globalization on communities and the solutions cities similar to South Bend have come up with to combat local economic problems.

“The community currency creates a multiplier effect,” Smith said. “For every U.S. dollar spent at a chain store, just 15 cents gets reinvested in the community. With money spent at locally-owned businesses, more than half of that value comes back to the community. With community currency, all of that money has to be reinvested in the community.”

Notre Dame product and graphic design student Vu Nguyen worked with Smith to submit designs for the Michiana Area Currency (MAC).

“A few months ago, a handful of classmates and I attended a meeting with Professor Smith,” Nguyen said. “We discussed the idea of a local currency, gathered information about existing sets and spoke about what could make this currency unique.”

The Michiana community currency is modeled after a successful local currency in Ithaca, New York, called Ithaca Hours, which encourages residents to shop at community-based, owner-operated businesses that keep the money in the community.

“I researched currencies from around the world and decided to focus on two in particular, the Ithaca Hours, arguably the most famous and longest lasting local currency in America, and the U.S. Dollar, to learn some of their strengths and weaknesses,” Nguyen said. 

When creating an original currency, the graphic design students had to deal with choosing an appropriate, usable size for the bills, design counterfeit-proof elements to give the bills authority in the local market and craft a unique model that is representative of the community. 

“To design a bill that has authority and is difficult to counterfeit is quite a task,” Nguyen explained.  “My bills reflect a combination of modern and traditional elements — the former to make it visually pleasing and the latter to lend some authority.”

The students utilized barcodes and serial numbers, as well as intricate designs to prevent counterfeits. 

“We worked a lot with blending colors, adding intricate lines, hidden details and a barcode and serial number,” Tonyan said. 

In addition, each student incorporated distinctive characteristics using pictures, words and symbols in their submissions to embody the nature and spirit of the Michiana area.

“A friend and I brainstormed for a long while and decided that ‘trust, unite and build’ would be the three main purposes and results of the MAC,” Nguyen said.  “These three words are displayed prominently on both sides of the bill.”

Nguyen also created a symbol of the MAC as a lowercase “m” with a line over it, intended to be used like the USD symbol “$.”

The Michiana Community Currency committee and community members have reviewed the student submissions and will vote to choose the MAC design.

“A small group of volunteers met with the students and reviewed the designs, and they were very excited by them,” Smith said.  “All of them were very professionally done and made it look like a serious project.  They did a good job of capturing local flavor and making designs that look professional.”

The student submissions will be reviewed again on Nov. 4. 

“The design we pick will help celebrate and support what we think are the best aspects of our region,” according to the Michiana Community Currency organization.