Design You Can Bank on

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: senatorpeter6).

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 powerful.

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 loans.

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 ocean-inspired logo.

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 representations.

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.