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The Designer: Gordon Andrews

A Bold Appointment [1]

The Bank’s decision to accept Gordon Andrews’ vibrant designs for Australia’s new decimal banknotes was bold, and as it turned out, beautiful.

Australia’s currency was firmly in the spotlight from April 1963 (when Treasurer Harold Holt announced that the country would convert to a decimal system) through to September 1963 (when he revealed that the main unit of the new currency would be the Dollar). But although the final solution proved widely popular, arriving at it was something of a bumpy ride.

Following Treasurer Holt’s initial announcement, a competition was organised seeking suggestions to name the new currency. By the time it closed, around 1,000 names – many with a strong Australian flavour – had been proposed, including the Austral, the Oz, the Boomer, the Roo, the Kanga, the Emu, the Digger, the Kwid and even the Ming (which was the nickname of Prime Minster Menzies!).

None of these met with the government’s favour, and on 5 June 1963 the Treasurer announced that the new decimal currency would be called the Royal. The decision had been made, he declared, because none of the names with typically Australian associations would be fully acceptable to the public. Furthermore, none of the suggested names had ‘dignity, ease of pronunciation, brevity and suitability’. Opposition to the Royal was, however, immediate and so widespread that just three months later the Treasurer announced that the new currency would be called the Dollar. In a subsequent statement Mr Holt said that with this decision, the government believed it was giving effect to the preference clearly shown by a substantial majority of Australians.

The Treasurer announced that the new decimal currency would be called the Royal ... opposition was so widespread that just three months later it was changed to the Dollar.

With the name settled, the Reserve Bank began thinking about what the new banknotes would look like. Seven designers were approached and asked to produce samples. Four of the seven took up the challenge and, over the next six months, they each devised eight sides of four banknotes. Their brief included a set of detailed instructions, including that the colour and design of their banknotes should be inherently Australian; and that they should capture in their artwork the country’s history, as well as its contribution to the wider world.

I am indebted to the Bank for its unswerving understanding and lack of interference with the designs in progress…

In April 1959, the Advisory Committee selected the work of designer Gordon Andrews to appear on Australia’s currency banknotes. Their decision, documented in a memo, found that the four sets of banknotes were all of a high standard, but that the set by Gordon Andrews was of outstanding excellence.

The memo notes that, ‘… the designs submitted by Gordon Andrews are outstanding, they are fresh and forward looking; they are Australian in feeling, yet subtly so; they represent a completely new conception in currency note design, and yet – and this is most important – they would be universally acceptable to and comprehensible by the average person’.

Selecting the vibrant designs proposed by Gordon Andrews was just one of a number of progressive initiatives taken by the Bank in the early 1960s. Although parochialism was rife in Australia at that time, under the watchful eye of Governor Coombs the Bank proudly opted for innovative solutions, reflecting the Bank’s (and Dr Coombs’) interest in evolving, international trends.

Breaking with tradition

In designing the new series, Gordon Andrews wanted to avoid the empty clichés of an Australiana catalogue. Rather, he set out to use both interesting and familiar Australian subjects and, in the process, he gave more prominent recognition to aboriginal culture, women, Australia’s unique environment, architecture and the arts, as well as Australia’s contribution to aeronautics. Writing in Currency (in February 1966) he noted that, ‘… it would have been suicide to have left the sheep out – so wool and wheat paired nicely. The Ten represents Greenway and Lawson – roughly suggesting the Arts, and the Twenty, Kingsford Smith and Lawrence Hargrave – flight, inventions and adventure so important in Australia’s history’.

From the beginning Gordon Andrews sought to break away from tradition with his elegant designs by having the patterns on his notes in reverse, with fine white lines of the paper reading between solid lines of ink. In his words, ‘this made it possible to get some strength and character into the colour. Almost everyone, apart from the design consultants, was dead scared of this idea or sceptical about the outcome’.

Achieving the desired effect proved difficult, but not impossible. Disaster nearly struck much later in the process though. ‘Nobody here knew precisely how much ink the (simultan) machine should deliver to the paper for a perfect print. The first run produced a bitterly disappointing, washed out colour’, Andrews wrote in Currency. ‘The strong colours I had fought so hard to preserve during the designing of the backgrounds were insipid. The ink maker said, “run more ink” and the printer said, “the ink film is now maximum”; we struggled to strengthen the denser pigment. The colour simply became ‘‘dirty’’. Finally after exhausting and persistent experimentation the right film of ink was established and the colour brought up to the strength desired’.

By the end of this laborious and sometimes daunting process, Andrews was clearly well-pleased. He wrote in Currency: ‘ I am indebted to the Bank for its unswerving understanding and lack of interference with the designs in progress, to the consulting panel for their frequent constructive criticism, to the engravers who strove with extraordinary patience and skill to translate the black and white drawings into engraved steel plates without distortion of my intention, and to the many craftsmen who converted my designs into banknotes’.

Decades later Gordon Andrews’ designs are still well known and loved. As his friend Alan James noted in 2001, shortly after Andrews’ death, ‘I know of no other currency that captures the rugged vibrancy and spirit of a place the way ours does. To his continuing credit, the new polymer banknotes reflect the spirit of the work he did’.

Gordo (was) a cultural hero who merits a place alongside those depicted in the six Australian decimal banknotes he designed.

Gordon Andrews: A cultural hero

From the moment of their release, Gordon Andrews’ designs on Australia’s decimal currency banknotes became part and parcel of our national identity. And, although they were certainly one of his most famous creations, he was well-known around the world for much more. Not only was he one of Australia’s foremost industrial designers, but he also worked in Britain and Italy, and was the first Australian designer to be elected as a Fellow of the UK Society of Industrial Artists and Designers. The Powerhouse Museum acquired the Gordon Andrews archive in 1989, and held a retrospective exhibition ‘Gordon Andrews: a designer’s life’ in 1993. Luckily the archive was acquired before the designer’s home at Lovett Bay (near Church Point) was destroyed by bushfires in 1994.

Following his death in January 2001, members of the Australian Graphic Design Association shared their thoughts about this extraordinary man in a series of tributes. Alan James, who was also a member of the Association, noted ‘He created highly original, beautiful objects at a time when stuff wasn't that sexy or well considered. He helped to put design on the agenda in Australia, and to put Australian design on the world map…Thanks to him, Australia ceased to be represented at world trade fairs by a pyramid of IXL jam tins and a huddle of moth-eaten, stuffed koalas’.

James also made some surprising references to the banknotes, like this one ‘… he managed to get his initials on just about everything he did. Even the banknotes – every one of them. I told him of the time when, as a little kid, a mate and I focused our magnifying glasses on a note… my older, more knowledgeable friend was pointing out the complex anti-counterfeiting measures designed into the banknotes: the metallic strip, the watermark, the complex interwoven wave bands of colour. And look there – just behind Lawson’s neck – two tiny letters: GA.

‘What does it mean’, I asked my sage friend, fascinated. “Government of Australia”, he assured me. Gordo roared laughing.’

Perhaps the final word should be left to Rita Siow who was the Association’s General Manager at the time of Gordon Andrews’ death. ‘Labelled a dunderhead at school, “Gordo” as he was often affectionately known, went on to become an icon in the design world – a graphic and industrial design pioneer, and a cultural hero who merits a place alongside those depicted in the six Australian decimal banknotes he designed between 1966 and 1973’.


This section is drawn from an article in the Reserve Bank's staff journal, ‘Designs of Note’, Currency, April 2009, pp 6–11. [1]