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John Isaacs: The Brit who designed the BerkShares local currency

Isaacs created a design for the currency, BerkShares, that was inspired by the Euro, one that was elegant, contemporary, and “looked as good as global, but had a local feel.”

Claverack, N.Y. — John Isaacs has never been afraid to try his hand at new things. At 17, the Brit hopped aboard a Norwegian merchant ship, swabbing the decks as a ship boy. As a philosophy student in the mid-’60s he found a summer job with an advertising agency in Cardiff, Wales, acquiring a fascination with typography and his first graphic design experience.

Later, he threw himself into filmmaking, then became the executive director of a publishing company in New York. Now he runs his own small firm in Claverack, John Isaacs Design.

Naturally, he jumped at the opportunity to design the bills for our local currency. “It was a thrilling project, BerkShares. I had never designed money before.” He felt that his expertise in art books and catalogues stood him in good stead. “Like designing an art book, designing BerkShares was essentially an exercise in building resonance and elegance from furnished images and text, typography and color.”

BerkShares Inc. did provide the portraits of local heroes and the artwork that graces each bill – “marvelous choices” – but Isaacs essentially had carte blanche as he approached the job. His first decision was to reject the highly decorative style of the U.S. dollar, “among the most conservative and least imaginative in the world,” he notes. Instead, he created a currency inspired by the Euro, one that was elegant, contemporary, and “looked as good as global, but had a local feel.”

That meant, first and foremost, clear, modern typography. Gotham is the striking sans-serif font used throughout the BerkShares bills. Isaacs says the font has “an affability” that appealed to him and that its “distinctively American form seemed most appropriate for this application.”

Of course, security was a main concern for the design of the currency. Isaacs’ solution was to make the design “sufficiently complex, so you couldn’t just run it through a laser printer.” So he built “a considerable amount of intricacy and complexity of shading” into the otherwise clean and simple design. In addition, Isaacs brought a heavyweight partner to the process: Excelsior Printing, with whom he already had a close relationship. Excelsior is a high-end printing company in North Adams that specializes in high-quality, high-security printing jobs. This connection proved invaluable for the creation of a durable, secure, and beautiful final product.

You might ask how a Brit who spent much of his career in New York City could design a currency for the Berkshire region and “get it right.” But perhaps this slightly foreign perspective, combined with an adoptive love for this place, was actually the special sauce. “I love living here,” says Isaacs. “There’s more mobility in this society than in England, less class consciousness. But at the same time, Columbia and Berkshire counties remind me very much of where I grew up, in the countryside of Wales.”

The task of imagining a currency that could reflect the Berkshire Region without looking “hoaky-local” also played on one of Isaacs’ favorite themes: the interaction between the universal and the local. “I’ve always been interested in universal ideas, and in my fairly long life it’s been thrilling to see the world undergo globalization. At the same time, I’ve always been fascinated with the local. I am convinced the local can coexist with the global, and very successfully.”

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