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Bank design is serious business, for it signals the seriousness
of the institution. When money was based on gold, grand American
banks such as J.P. Morgan (founded in 1895) and First National City
Bank (founded in 1812) were reminiscent of the temples of Greece or
cathedrals of Rome—solid, safe places to deposit hard-earned cash.
The stately houses of finance were constructed of luxurious
materials like marble, granite, bronze and stained glass whose
inherent value spoke to the institution's solemn commitment to take
itself and your money seriously. These banks reflected an era when
buying on credit was almost unheard of and debit cards hadn't yet
been dreamed up.
When banks were like cathedrals: Home Savings of America Bank
(far left); Williamsburgh Savings Bank (center and right, photo:
Now that money is plastic, banks are made of Formica, Plexiglas
and Sheetrock. (By the looks of them you almost expect them to
collapse.) Once built for the ages, banks are built for today. The
advent of ATMs and online banking has changed our entire concept of
finance and security; most of us are paid via direct deposit and
use debit or credit cards for routine purchases these days. Our
currency has become largely invisible and somehow seems less
Consumer banks built in recent times resemble playgrounds, where
cash is no longer something to be respected and feared but rather
viewed in a carefree manner, as something “fun.” Over the last few
decades, banks have made an effort to create hip, easygoing
environments to appeal to first time customers who may be hesitant
about using their services. Perhaps the thinking is that
intimidating buildings will scare away these customers, and that a
happy environment will attract lots of happy new bank accounts and
Funky murals and pendant lamps at WaMu Hoboken
But who could really put their faith in a place calling itself
WaMu? (Friendly killer whale, anyone?) It isn't nice to single out
Washington Mutual now that it has enjoyed the dubious honor of
being the largest bank failure in American history, but its
locations looked more like Starbucks. And this was deliberate: in
order to bring in lower-income, no-credit-history customers and
lend money to them, they planned their “branch experience” to look
like a traditional retail store with slick plastic surfaces in
primary colors, cheerful collage-y murals, and groovy pendant
lamps, where these people would inherently feel more comfortable.
We all know how that story ended.
Bank of America, the nation's largest consumer bank, seems to
have a branch everywhere you look. Their inescapable bright red
facades and flat-affect typography are more reminiscent of a
Wal-Mart or McDonald's than of a serious place to park your money.
Signature Bank of New York uses a casual brush script and
jewel-toned colors for its logo and signage that would be perfect
for a clothing boutique or a new line of designer chocolates. You'd
never guess the place was a financial institution based on its
visual identity. And what about Wachovia's graceful series of
abstract blue and green waves? What exactly are those waves meant
to evoke? Is your money supposed to gently wash over you, keep you
floating happily along? Does that work if you're heading down the
drain? Commerce Bank has a cheery animated character, Penny, who
lives on the coin-counting machine's video screen and squeaks
step-by-step instructions for you in her nasal little voice. The
machine is meant for children, but adults use it, too, and I don't
need the assistance of a 10-year-old tomboy to count the last of my
savings, thank you very much.
(clockwise from top left): Bank of America's familiar red and
blue facade; Commerce Bank's animated coin-counting machine;
Signature Bank of New York's casual identity; and Wachovia's
Why would banks do this? In a strange, circular way, it comes
back to money—only this time it's the bank's money, not yours. For
a bank to stay competitive, it needs to keep increasing the volume
of new customers or sell more products to its existing account
holders. And several shiny plastic storefront branches can be
opened in very little time for the cost of building one
old-fashioned flagship out of solid expensive materials. Quantity
has trumped quality, and familiarity signals comfort for consumers.
The luxury of multiple branches to choose from and ATMs around
every corner holds far more value for time-strapped consumers than
having a single beautiful bank location to visit.
Wells Fargo's logo and trademark stagecoach.
Not all banks jumped on the weird money-is-fun bandwagon in the
evolution of their graphic identities. J.P. Morgan's consumer
branch is now Chase, and First National City Bank has become
Citibank. Over the course of time these institutions have wisely
avoided the “let's play with money” look that now feels so
inappropriate as the economy falters. These institutions
communicate continued respect and care for your finances by
maintaining a dose of seriousness in their visual
And consider Wells Fargo, founded in the Gold Rush port of San
Francisco in 1852. Its graphics still feature the stagecoach that
safely brought the payroll (the gold-standard payroll, mind you) to
the 49ers. What once might have been viewed as a bit nostalgic or
quaint suddenly seems to make a lot of sense. It's time to restore
a little dignity and gravitas to the visual identity of banks,
because things are starting to feel like the Wild West once again.
I think we need the stagecoach.
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