New MG series Banknotes Indian Currency
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Critical analysis of the new Indian currency design from the perspective of the visually impaired

Do the tactile marks on the new Indian currency aid the blind in identifying the denominations correctly?

QUICK OVERVIEW
At present, India has approximately 4.8 million people with visual impairments (PVI). This paper presents the study done in two phases. In part one, the design of the new currency was critically analysed and compared with the recommendations of DNB. The second part of the study reveals the findings of the investigation done on the various difficulties faced by the PVI in identifying and transacting with the new banknotes. The situation became complex when the mix of new and old banknotes started coexisting.
KEYWORDS
Currency design, Inclusive Design, Design for visually impaired

Abstract

India is a cash-rich economy where 90% of day-to-day transactions are conducted in cash (Chowdhury and Hosain 2018). In 2016, following a demonetization drive, the Government of India launched a set of 7 new banknotes, eliminating INR 500 and 1000 from the system to introduce two new denominations of INR 200 and INR 2000. This resulted in a mix of new and old banknotes in circulation for the same denominations.

At present, India has approximately 4.8 million people with visual impairments (PVI). This paper presents the study done in two phases. In part one, the design of the new currency was critically analysed and compared with the recommendations of DNB. The second part of the study reveals the findings of the investigation done on the various difficulties faced by the PVI in identifying and transacting with the new banknotes. The situation became complex when the mix of new and old banknotes started coexisting.

Phase-2 presents the learning from the tasks of identifying the banknotes by PVI participants. Findings were drawn from the observations and semi-structured interviews with participants.

Surprisingly no participant could identify the new currency denominations even after two years of being in circulation. All the denominations below INR 100 have no tactile marks. Therefore the variation in the size remains the only identifying feature for the PVI. The size differences of the banknotes were found insufficient to make them distinguishable.

The findings indicate that the design of new currency introduces evident visual changes with vibrant colours, facilitating quick identification for people with vision. However, the unrecognizable change in dimensions and unimproved tactile cues raises issues about the concerns towards inclusiveness in the design of currency for the PVI population.

Introduction

In November 2016, the Indian government banned INR1000 and INR500 banknotes. Following this, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) launched Mahatma Gandhi (MG) new series of banknotes in seven denominations of Indian Rupee (INR) 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, 500, and 2000, gradually over 2 years. However, the old banknotes in five denominations of INR 5, 10, 20, 50, 100 continued to exist in circulation. This created a unique mix of 12 types of banknotes in circulation (figure-1).

Defining PVI and scope of the study

After India changed its four-decade-old definition of blindness in 2017 from 6/60 (vision) to WHO criteria of 3/60 in the better eye, the blind population in the country reduced to 4.8 million (2019) from 12 million (2006-07) (N. C. Sharma 2019). De Heij (2009) categorised the PVI into three sub-groups, colour blind, partially sighted and the blind. Our study was limited to identifying the denomination of new and old banknotes with partially sighted and blind. The design of the coins is not covered in this study.

New banknotes and the PVI population

The design of new banknotes was well received by people with normal vision but was found unsatisfactory by the PVI population. Multiple articles in media voiced this issue. In response, National Association of Blind (NAB) filed a petition in Bombay high court stating that the new currency is difficult to identify and distinguish for the PVI (The Wire 2019).

Structure of enquiry

The concern regarding dissatisfaction among the PVI populations led this study into two parts. The first part focuses on the critical analysis of the design of new MG banknotes by comparing it to the recommendations by De Heij (2009) for ‘Banknote design for the PVI’. The second section of the paper describes study conducted with the PVI participants regarding the accessibility features of the new and the old banknotes through semi-structured interviews and observations drawn during the identification task.
Figure-1: Left- 7 denominations of the MG banknotes; Right- old banknotes in circulation

Critical analysis of the MG banknotes

This section analyses the design of new MG series banknotes with respect to available international guidelines.

Accessibility features for the partially sighted and the blind

Sight plays a significant role in conducting day-to-day activities with ease. Transacting money without sight can become stressful. Well-designed accessibility features in a currency can ease the identification of denomination for the visually impaired population.

However, the visually impaired is not a homogenous population. It includes people who are born blind, has lost sight due to various reasons at a later age or turned blind in childhood, has limited visual acuity or acquired visual problems with growing age. In India, untreated cataract is a significant cause for blindness in the ageing population. Some people can read Braille, but most cannot. Therefore, designing the currency for a country is a challenging task and requires a universal design approach (De Heij 2016)

The designing of any currency is striking a delicate balance of art, science, and economics (Williams and Anderson 2007). Accessibility features must compensate for the absence of sight or poor vision. The recommendations to facilitate blinds in identifying denominations include; variation in note length as per denomination, tactile patterns of dots or lines on the short or long edges, and symbols with intaglio printing. For the partially sighted, a considerable numeral denomination height at the same location across denominations, numerals on the front and reverse with clear contrasts are recommended (De Heij 2009).

“Since the USA is the only country in the world that has 50% of its currency circulated outside its own country, it prioritized the security of the banknotes over tactile based accessibility features”.
– 
USA and Canada are the only two countries for which the banknotes do not differ in size by denomination. USA banknotes do not provide any tactile pattern, or use of colour to differentiate the denominations. This makes it very difficult for the blind to identify the US banknotes without assistance. Although The BEP 1983 and the NRC 1995 reports on the study of US currency acknowledges that change in size as per denomination is the most valuable feature for the visually impaired (De Heij 2009). However, since the USA is the only country in the world that has 50% of its currency circulated outside its own country, it prioritized the security of the banknotes over tactile based accessibility features. Machine-readable features compensate for the absence of tactile features, and the visually impaired are provided with handheld electronic currency readers for free. These readers signal the denomination to the partially impaired and blind via voice, tone, or vibration (Williams and Anderson 2007). Canada also provides free electronic readers in addition to a tactile denomination scheme in its polymer banknotes. Canadian banknotes feature a pattern of six raised dots that vary by position and number as per denomination (Williams and Anderson 2007).

Design of new MG series banknotes

RBI promotes the new currency through its interactive posters (RBI n.d.) on its website. The essential features incorporated in the MG banknotes include variation in colour and note size across denominations, tactile patterns on both the short edges and symbols with intaglio printing for all notes of denominations above INR 100 (figure-2).
Figure-2: The new MG banknote INR 500 with features for PVI (RBI n.d.)
1. MG Portrait in intaglio printing.
2. Ashoka pillar emblem- intaglio printing.
3. Tactile pattern on both short edges and tactile identification symbol

Analysis of currency design for the partially sighted

The denomination on MG banknotes is mentioned in words and numerals. Numerals are mentioned in English (oriented horizontally) and in Devanagari script (oriented vertically) on the obverse and the reverse of the banknote. All numerals are placed at the same location for all denominations (figure-1). They are repeated thrice or more on each side. The height of the largest denomination numeral (LDN) on the MG banknote is 8.34 mm (figure-3). However, it is much smaller in comparison to the recommended height of minimum 15mm or preferred height of 22mm for the partially sighted (De Heij 2009).
Figure 3 Scaling the largest denomination numeral for INR 2000 (8.34mm height) to the recommended size of 22 mm without the rupee symbol
Figure-3: Scaling the LDN for INR 2000 (8.34mm height) to the recommended size of 22mm without rupee symbol

Use of Rupee symbol as prefix with the LDN

MG banknotes use the rupee symbol as prefix with all DN. Other countries studied (USA, European Union, Japan, Australia, Sweden, Singapore, Hong Kong, Switzerland) do not use currency symbols as prefixes, especially with the LDN except for the British pound. Authors suggest that MG notes should drop the use of rupee symbol prefixing the LDN across all banknotes and increase the height of the LDN to more than 15mm. This will ease the identification of the LDN for the partially blind. The smaller size numerals repeated on other locations could continue using rupee symbol.

Position and colour contrast of LDN

The numeral location is consistent in its position across all denominations. The plain background behind LDN results in acceptable contrast (figure-1). The position and colour contrast for the LDN meet the recommendations in the MG banknotes.

Analysis of currency design for blind

Variation in banknote length

In the absence of visual clues, the variation in the banknote length is the most valuable feature for the blind. De Heij (2009) recommends an incremental increase in the length of the banknote with the increasing denomination keeping height constant. The MG banknotes are not consistent with this recommendation. INR 10 and 20 of MG banknotes differ in height as compared to other denominations. INR 50, 100, 200, 500, and 2000 have the same height, but the difference in length is not incremental. The marginal difference of 4mm in the denominations of INR 100 (142mm), 200 (146mm), and 500 (150mm), is insufficient for identification. The mixture of the new MG notes sizes with the old note sizes adds to the confusion. 1mm difference in length of MG INR 200 and old INR 20 note and 2 mm difference in old 10 with MG 50 is almost impossible for a blind to differentiate (figure-4). The old series INR 100 is significantly larger than the MG INR 500 note. (figure-5).
Figure-4: Top image: New 200 1mm shorter in length and 3mm taller as compared to old 20
Bottom image: New 50 2mm shorter and 3mm taller as compared to old 10
Figure-5: Old 100 157mm long and 73mm tall is larger than new 500 of 150mm x 66mm
The National Research Council (NRC 1995) has prescribed the minimum value of Weber fraction for banknotes as 0.03. However, De Heij’s (2009) study finds it to be ineffective and recommends 0.06 value. In an ideal scenario, the Weber fraction throughout the banknote series across consecutive denominations should remain constant (De Heij 2009).

In the MG banknotes, with rounding-off, the Weber fraction is 0.05 for the denominations up to 100 (table-1). However, the fraction suddenly drops to 0.03 for INR 200 and 500, making it difficult to distinguish between INR 100, 200 and 500 banknotes.
Table-1: Weber fraction for new MG and old banknotes

Use of tactile patterns and high raised intaglio printing

In MG Banknotes the tactile patterns and intaglio printed symbols on the front of the banknotes on short edges. However, denominations below INR100 do not have tactile patterns or embossments. De Heij (2009) suggests midpoint on the edge as the most active area for the tactile pattern. In the older banknotes, the tactile marks are placed slightly below the midline and for MG, slightly above the midline.

The tactile patterns and codification

The tactile patterns are a combination of angular bleed lines. For INR200, it is a combination of lines and circles (figure-6). A simpler and visually consistent logic for codification could have been devised, as seen in Canadian banknotes. They use raised dots as a tactile feature with simple codification (Figure-6) (Bank of Canada 2012). Interestingly this is not in braille as their research with the blind or partially sighted people in Canada indicated that all users cannot read braille (Bank of Canada 2012).
Figure-6: Tactile markers on the new MG Banknotes along the short edges with intaglio printed symbols of various shapes (top). Raised dots as tactile markers on the Canadian polymer banknotes (bottom-left). A simple codification method (bottom-right)

Limitations of the analysis

We could not analyze certain features of the banknotes, such as the reason for the choice of font, frequency of denomination numerals, space between the tactile patterns, height of the tactile pattern, choice and shape of symbols for intaglio printing. RBI has not published any document stating the rationale for the design decisions of the new MG notes.

Study with the PVI users to identify banknotes

The second phase of the study explores how PVI manage transactions with a mix of old and new banknotes and identify the challenges faced. Participants were presented with banknotes and asked to identify the denomination. The task was followed by the interview to understand the various methods they use and the scope for errors.

Methodology

Observational research and semi-structured interviews were used to collect data. Participation was voluntary with prior consent and no monetary compensation was offered. The interview responses were voice-recorded and transcribed. Participants were provided with new and old banknotes and requested to identify its denominations. Some tasks were video recorded with prior approval to facilitate re-looking.

Participants

Eleven participants, 3 female and 8 male in the age-group of 35 - 60 years were interviewed for the study. Two of them (one male and one female) were partially blind with 5% vision and nine were completely blind. Four participants work in banks, 2 in government offices, 2 street vendors, one runs an NGO for blinds, one is a music teacher, and 1 is a housewife. 8 participants out of the 9 were blind from birth, and one of them turned blind at the age of 25.

Identifications task

Participants were handed over the banknotes one after the other and later in a bunch and asked to identify the denominations.

Various ways to identify the denomination of a banknote

The accessibility features in the MG banknotes for the partially blind and the blind include tactile patterns, intaglio printed embossments, and variation in the colour and length of the banknotes (table-2). However, their implementation is inadequate in two columns, the size and tactile markers, which are crucial for the blind.
Table-2: Currency design features for visually impaired defined by (Williams and Anderson 2007)

Identification techniques

Methods used by the participants when the tactile feature fails

Figure 7: Estimation technique to identify single note denomination
Since the tactile features are not adequately perceived, the difference in length of the banknote is the only reliable feature for the blind. When a single banknote was presented for identification, the participants tried to estimate the length by measuring it with their hands by aligning it with the base of palm or finger tips (figure-7 top) or by measuring from the center and travel to edges (figure-7 bottom). This estimation is verified against their stored memory of the prior experience.

The folding technique to identify single banknote denomination

Figure-8: Estimation technique with folded note
The participant folds the banknote into half and aligns it from the base of the fingers and measures with respect to the fingers (figure-8).

Comparison technique to identify denomination

Figure 9: Comparison technique to identify denomination
When the participants were handed two banknotes they try to compare the difference in length by touch (figure-9). If the difference is not discernable, then it is difficult to identify the denomination. In MG banknotes, the lengths difference of 4mm for INR 100, 200 and 500, is too subtle for identification by the sense of touch. Whereas, the difference of 10mm across all denominations in old notes makes them easier to identify.

Problems in identification due to mix of old and new

When participants were given a mix of the new MG and old notes, they were unable to identify the denominations using the length of the long edge. One group of banknotes given for identification included old INR 100 (157mm length), new MG banknotes of 100 (142 mm) and 500 (150mm). Participants were familiar with old INR 100, but since the new INR 500 was smaller in size, it confused. The participants also failed to differentiate the MG note of INR 200 (146 mm) and old INR 20 (147 mm); MG note of INR 50 (135mm) and old INR 10 (137mm) as the differences were subtle.

Other ways to identify banknotes

All participants knew about signature guides, which help the blind to identify denominations. A signature guide Notex made by the National Association of Blind (NAB) was used by 60% of the participants. It is a small plastic strip with indentations, where they fold the banknote and match the indentation to identify its denomination. The new notes cannot be identified with the device because of changes in lengths. To compensate for the failure of tactile markers, RBI launched MANI (Mobile Aided Note Identifier), a free mobile app for Android and Apple in January 2020. It works without an active Internet connection. It announces the denomination when the note is held in front of the camera, in Hindi and English.

Digital payments and hassles of transactions with new and old currency

All participants had a mobile phone and made digital payments using the talkback feature within apps. However, at certain occasions digital payments were not possible and one has to transact with cash. The common scenarios they quoted were shopping for vegetables from a street vendor, hiring an auto-rickshaw, or receiving money from an ATM. Participants reported that they have got accustomed to the old currency, but the mix of old and new makes transacting difficult. Participants reported being short-changed while paying off for a taxi ride as there is less time to check the returned money. The overall feedback summarized that the new currency is difficult to decipher with touch and the feeling of being dependent on others to identify a denomination is frustrating. The use of a mobile app is possible, but it is time-consuming.

Conclusion

In summary, the new MG banknotes incorporate the recommendations mentioned by DNB (De Heij 2009) for the PVI population but inadequately. The tactile markers and embossments appear on higher denominations and not on the frequently used lower denominations. The next reliable feature of identifying a banknote was to compare the length of the banknote within denominations. It was hampered by a mix of various lengths of the old and new banknotes in circulation. As a result, the day-to-day transactions became stressful for the PVI.

Blinds have resorted to their ways of guessing the denominations by measuring the banknotes against their palm and fingers. Very few manage to guess it correctly and often fail. This method is time-consuming. Signature guides and mobile apps launched by RBI are other ways of identification and were used by participants. Nevertheless, all participants desired accessibility features, as they are more convenient and accessible than to be device-dependent.

The change in the length and colour of the banknotes with the increasing denomination is a valuable feature, as it benefits everyone, the normal sighted as well as the PVI. The MG banknotes can be improved if the difference in length is increased and made more apparent to the blind by touch. For the PVI, sense of touch is their way of seeing the world. Treating PVI as a special group and providing alternative ways for them to access currency, does not pronounce equitable access and well-being. The ease with which a sighted person performs his daily transactions, the PVI should also be able to transact with such ease using touch and feel. Currency is to be understood by designers as a product of frequent and mass use; errors in decision-making are long-lasting and difficult to repair. Therefore, the design of currency must exercise a rationale and an inclusive approach.

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YEAR OF CREATION: 2019
AUthors
Mandar Rane
Prof. Mandar Rane
Communication Designer 
Faculty, IDC, IIT Bombay
Prof. Purba Joshi
Product Designer
Faculty, IDC, IIT Bombay
Prem Sonar
Prem Sonar 
UX Designer, IBM
Alumnus, IDC, IIT Bombay
ILLUSTRATIONS 
Illustrations:
Prem Sonar
COVER PHOTO
RESEARCH METHODS USED
Semi-structured interviews
Observational Research - Participant observation
PUBLISHED
Proceedings of the 6th International Conference on Design4Health, Amsterdam, NL, 1 July 2020. Editors: Kirsty Christer, Claire Craig & Paul Chamberlain ISBN: 978-1-8381117-0-0

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Sharma, Neetu Chandra. Estimates of blindness reduced by 47% in 12 years: Govt survey. 11 October 2019. https://www.livemint.com/news/india/estimates-of-blindness-reduced-by-47-in-12-years-govt-survey-11570733865393.html (accessed March 03, 2020).

The Wire. Changing Features of Currency Notes, Coins Often Affects Blind: Bombay HC. 23 August 2019. https://thewire.in/law/changing-features-of-currency-often-not-proper-bombay-hc (accessed March 03, 2020).

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Bank of Canada. Canada’s new polymer notes. BANK NOTE FACT SHEETS, Bank of Canada, Bank of Canada, 2012.
Williams, Marcela M., and Richard G. Anderson. Currency Design in the United States and Abroad: Counterfeit Deterrence and Visual Accessibility. Review, FEDERAL RESERVE BANK OF ST. LOUIS, St. Louis: FEDERAL RESERVE BANK OF ST. LOUIS, 2007, 371-414.

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