Getting Crypto-Chic

The Playful Design Futures of Cryptocurrencies

Design in finance isn’t trendy. It rarely embraces risk, fads, or even asymmetry. Design that has anything to do with money or the economy is the design of integrity. Whether it’s for a bank logo or the dollar bills in our pocket, the goal of this design is to articulate trust – something that becomes even more important as money itself becomes a concept rather than a tangible thing with more static value.

In 2011, the popular radio show This American Life released an episode called “The Invention of Money.” Their description for it is telling: “Five reporters stumbled on what seems like a basic question: What is money? The unsettling answer they found: Money is fiction.” When it comes to money, design is therefore the creation of literal props: artifacts that give physicality to a system we can’t touch and that makes little sense beyond the value we give it. With our current system, design is the glue binding our collective trust in our modern economy. When our bank accounts are displayed online on a website that looks “corporate” and the cash we hand over to the barista at a coffee shop appears “timeless,” things seems right. Heck, they can be trusted.

But money is entering a new era; with cryptocurrency and the blockchain technology behind it, trust is designed into the system itself. Trust is decentralized to a series of computers powered by rigorous code that maintains the rules of the system. It exists as a network – it goes beyond any one corporation, law, nationalistic policy, or personal promise. Having trust built into the system removes the need to manufacture it using design; in other words, the design of financial things can embrace an array of aesthetic sensibilities it never has before. Finance can be playful and glamorous, clairvoyant and camp. When an understanding around the trust that comes baked into the code of the blockchain becomes more widespread, our economy will no longer need design to be its face.

The Playful Design Game Begins

This shift is already taking form. A recent example is a new offering from Robinhood, an app that made headlines for being a simply designed stock-trading service that didn’t charge a commission. Recently, they introduced the ability to invest in cryptocurrencies, also commission free. The service, called Robinhood Crypto, has its own website complete with screenshots of the app – and both look as if they were inspired by the aesthetics of Disney’s film Tron. Block, sci-fi, 1980s typography leads the graphic direction, paired with bright violet neon grids. It’s a design that almost mocks itself; it highlights (and even flaunts) the new, emergent nature of cryptocurrencies while also echoing the “underground” aspects of this technology. Robinhood’s regular trading app is more pared down: its features include clean lines, modern typography, lots of whitespace, and green – to represent money – as the dominant color. Robinhood Crypto throws that all away for a much more playful and bizarre aesthetic. When trust is built into the system, the design is free to play up other attributes.

As design in finance is given room to grow beyond engendering trust, how could the design of money itself change? There are endless possibilities. For example, one day, the type of money you have could symbolize your wealth, social status, or other characteristics. There could even be a type of cryptocurrency used by creative types and despised by Wall Street folks. This isn’t a wild idea; plastic money is already being given added qualities, whether tangible or intangible.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve card is an extremely popular credit card because of its perks, which include 100,000 points on signing, three times the points on travel and dining, access to airport lounges, and more. The card costs $450. What’s most interesting is that the card has what’s known as the “plunk factor,” a design characteristic taken from one of Chase’s other premium cards. To achieve this effect, a metal core is placed between the plastic to give the card a thunk as the owner places it on the table or counter. This card design costs five to ten times more to produce. It’s a smart yet simple design play. Plastic money is a removed symbol, a mere simulacra for real money, but here, in a wicked design trick, Chase gives back the sensation of wealth through the weight of the card. Placing the card on a table harks back to the heft of a suitcase full of dollar bills.

Democratizing the Future of Finance

Once it is free to do more than just build trust, the question of design’s best use in finance will come to the forefront. Being fun and fanciful might be useful for early adoption, yet it will easily become noise later on. What happens when today’s emergent digital currencies and processes move beyond the fringe and into the mainstream? How could design be best used to support this growth?

Right now, financial markets are illegible. Art theorist Sven Lütticken describes an entrepreneur and novelist, Ernst-Wilhelm Händler, who “diagnosed the Occupy protests as a ‘revolt against abstraction’” in the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit. Today’s systems of finance are opaque and tricky to grasp. They’re often refracted through multiple institutions and obscured through layers of intangibility. In the same article, Lütticken later quotes Zachary Formwalt’s book, Reading the Economist: “The invisibility of the instruments of exchange was measure of their efficiency; the less visible, the more efficient they were in the circulation of capital.”

Future design in finance needs to mimic the technological breakthroughs that will make the next economy possible: It needs to finally make finance legible. Just like the blockchain creates a shared ledger that anyone can access and read, yet no one entity owns, the next era of design in finance needs to be focused on making our next economy tangible and accessible for everyone; it must be something we can all interpret and utilize for our wellbeing.

Instead of creating trust as a mere label, design can use a broader toolkit of visual meanings to make finance’s future something we can all partake in. Adding play into financial design might be the next step – this may be the best way to build a system with rules we can all understand. Now that would be chic.

the author

Yehezkel Lipinsky

Yehezkel Lipinsky is a former senior foresight and innovation analyst at Idea Couture. He is currently a designer and strategist based in New York.