The secrecy of Brian Thompson's day job is best illustrated by his nondescript -- but very secure -- office. "Our room is pretty much like a moat," Thompson, a bank note designer for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, told ValuePenguin. With several layers of security just to get to his desk, the U.S. Department of the Treasury let Thompson (and historian Dr. Frank Noll, whose answers are aligned right and italicized below) out long enough to huddle around a conference room speakerphone and spill some facts that won't help counterfeiters. In the process, we learned a little bit about what it's like to be a banknote designer in the nation's capital. For example, that's the only place in the country that the job exists.
This interview was condensed for clarity. To contribute to ValuePenguin’s coverage on careers, follow us on Twitter @VP_Careers. You can follow our guest's employer @USTreasury.
How did you get started?
It was actually a seven-year apprenticeship coming out of high school. Graduated in 1988, started working at the Bureau in 1989. It was just a job opportunity that came up, other than going to college. I was in a school of visual and performing arts prior to that, which was my high school, Suitland Visual and Performing Arts in Maryland.
What made the job opportunity an attractive one?
Honestly, it was an art job. It was an art job opportunity, and I just put in for it, and was fortunate enough to get selected.
Over those first seven years, what was your training like?
Rigorous. Very rigorous. Those first three years were just lettering, all done by hand.
When I first started, with no computers, everything was literally hand-drawn. And then, as my career continued here, it was the introduction of computers, and just learning the foundation of design and incorporating computers as well as hand. So it was the combination of a lot of stuff.
At any point in those seven years did you question whether you wanted to do this long-term?
No. There was no question. I knew I wanted to do it. Once you go through an apprenticeship, you start learning the different nuances, the ins and outs of bank note design, and pushing your artistic abilities to the limit. Once you go to that capacity, you don’t turn back.
That’s the point of the apprenticeship: you learn every nuance of that job, and you have about seven years to figure out whether you want to stick to this or not, and pretty much everyone does. When you get to that 7th year and you’re still doing it, why would you walk away from it?
So, these days, when relative strangers asks about what you do for a living, what do you usually say?
There are only four of us in the entire country, so I don’t say a word. I just say, “I’m a designer.” I don’t even put it out there, honestly. I’m very, very humble and laid-back about it, honestly. I don’t go around bragging about it.
When someone prods enough to find out, what is the typical reaction?
It’s usually not me going there; it’s usually my wife. She kind of puts it out there, then I have no choice but to say, “Yeah, that’s what I do.” I still try to downplay it as much as possible. Not that I’m not proud of the job; it’s just a very rare job, you just don’t know what people’s reactions may be, positive or negative. So I try to be careful.
On the positive end, I will talk to students -- children as well as high schoolers and middle schoolers, people at my church -- about maintaining their stamina in whatever goals they try to set. I give them examples of what I had to deal with when I was in my apprenticeship. I don't go into details, but just some of the different things, making sure I had stamina and longevity, just pushed through to become a journeyman.
That's what you become after you complete your apprenticeship: You become a journeyman, which is a master craftsman, a master banknote designer.
Dr. Noll, can you tell us about the history of the position of the banknote designer?
At the beginning of the Bureau, most of the stuff was contracted out via an ad, or artistic ideas, and sketches, and design; and basically the Bureau would pick what they liked. Or sometimes the Bureau would go out looking for particular artists to design something. Sometimes they were actually employed by the Bureau as an employee, or sometimes it was on a contract basis. When the actual position of designer came about, I’m not really sure. Maybe the mid- or early 20th century, would be my guess.
Brian, do you work closely with your three peers?
Yes, we all work together, interacting with a lot of departments and individual people that do different stages of how we produce our currency. So we have to touch, or speak with, a lot of people. We even, with Frank Noll, we have to get advice from him a lot, and historical research from him often before we start designing things. It’s almost like we’re an octopus, to a certain degree. Our hands are pretty much everywhere, and we have to gather all that information and come up with a product.
And what would be an example of your work with Dr. Noll?
If we’re working on something that’s historical, such as a building or a president or someone that could be on the notes now, we want to dig out more information and try to come up with new imagery; we’ll go to him for that information. I know Frank can speak to that, but we’ll ask for specific details, and he’ll give us a lot of information, for us to go out and look for pictures, for things that will stand out, to give us a really good design.
Dr. Noll, has Brian ever stumped you with a question?
Not so far.
Back to you, Brian: Let's use the $100 bill as an example. What did you go to Dr. Noll for help with?
A lot of those images were already there, but I did have a lot of questions on the Declaration of Independence, things underneath the highlight, just symbolism, or to make sure that the symbols were strong enough for the American public to get it at first glance.
Who else did you team up with when working on the 100?
I was actually the sole designer on that particular project. There technically were only two designers at that particular time. Another designer named Bill Krawczewicz and I were working on the notes simultaneously. Shortly after the 100 was released, there were two new employees hired that became the other two banknote designers.
When I first got here back in 1989, there was a staff of eight designers. And, I guess, as guys retired, and they saw a need that we had to fill, they picked up new designers. I’ve been here for 26 years; I have 12 years to go before I can retire. I guess they want to make sure that the future is in good hands. So they hired two new people; they’re outstanding artists and designers themselves, so the future looks pretty good.
What was a normal day in your work life like when designing the 100?
Our normal day, literally, is kind of sitting down, processing information. We’re taking things that are literally written out and trying to turn them into imagery. So I’m working on a lot of thumbnail designs and things of that nature first. And then we’ll prepare designs for meetings. We have a lot of meetings, for the different entities to take a look at different things, to see what direction we’re going in, to make sure it’s the correct direction before we continue to process. That’s an every-day process. We’re never just sitting around. So it’s constantly sketching and designing and thinking and processing, on a daily basis.
Would that be the Advanced Counterfeit Deterrence steering committee that you’re meeting with most often?
Not just them. It’s all the stakeholders, honestly. We are in direct contact with all stakeholders, and we just want to make sure that they are happy and when those particular pieces of currency do go out, that everything is what they want. So that’s why it’s a lot of thinking.
I’ll give you an example of what kind of thought process I’m speaking of. Have you ever bought a puzzle that was 1,000 pieces? And you throw it down on the floor? You have to sit there and figure out which way you’re going to start, and start putting those pieces together. It may take you awhile, but at the end you have that puzzle completed. That’s how banknote design is in certain aspects. There are a lot of pieces, and we have to weave them together to make a unified picture.
Do you have an order of operations, as a designer, a way that you like to piece together that puzzle?
No, because it really starts with the stakeholders. We’ll take a lot of things they say into consideration first, and then with my training, we’re able to weave all those things into an artistic piece that’s pretty cohesive. It usually works out.
What are you working on these days?
I never discuss current projects. The only time you’ll hear us say anything about a project is when it’s been released, honestly. And that’s just for the safety of our jobs and to make sure we’re not tipping counterfeiters off with information. Like I said, everything changes on a daily basis, so what I may be designing today may change tomorrow.
Editor's note: Design is just one aspect of the money-making process.
More generally, would you be working on multiple projects at a time?
It’s never one project. There are current designs; there’s miscellaneous products; there’s all kinds of projects that we do work on that the American public doesn’t know we do.
Could you describe any of those completed miscellaneous products?
That’s why we call them miscellaneous products. It’s miscellaneous because it’s kind of chunked together. They’re security-designed, and there are certain things that we put in those products that no one needs to know about; it’s actually what makes the product secure. I’m not trying to be vague, but I am trying to be extremely cautious and careful, because of security concerns.
Security aside, how has technology affected your day-to-day?
It really hasn’t affected it; it’s a part of it. I say it all the time: The computer, to me, is just another pencil, it’s just another tool. Trust me, I will never put down my paper and pencil when I’m sketching and formulating designs. I do the same thing with computers. So it’s part of the process, but it’s not the only process.
Do you have a formalized style or branding guide?
No, that’s why the apprenticeship was seven years. You’re pulling on designs, layouts, theories, concepts from the individual artists. So if you can imagine one artist having that arsenal in his mind, imagine three others incorporated with him. You have now four artists who are good at all art aspects, and we pretty much just work together, and try to do the best stuff we can do.
Beyond your training, what or who are your artistic influences?
My style is a little different, because I look up to two artists that I studied in high school and still study to today: M.C. Escher and Georgia O’Keefe. They’re on very different aspects of art: one’s very linear, or very strict drawing, and that’s M.C. Escher. I’m pretty sure you’ve seen his work before, where it’s a lot of puzzles and morphing. O’Keefe, she works very loose, very close into flowers, very loose watercolors. Like I said, they’re on two different sides of the spectrum. And that’s why I like them both: because if I’m good enough, I’ll meet right in the middle where I can pretty much design anything.
Do you draw or paint on the side too?
No, I kind of leave it all here when I hit the door. I’m actually a musician outside of here.
What do you play?
Keyboard, piano, drums. I write and arrange my own stuff.
A different kind of art.
Back to your art in the office: What is the most challenging part about being a banknote designer?
It’s just a challenging job in general, so I can’t even really say one part that’s challenging other than trying to beat counterfeiters. The challenge is trying to stay ahead of technology -- computers, printers -- that’s the challenge. When we put a note out, we’re scrambling and trying to figure out how we can make the next one better. Because technology evolves every single day, and we’ve got to be two to three steps ahead of it.
Have you ever come across a counterfeit bill in the real world?
No, I’ve never run into that. We work closely with the Secret Service so we’re aware of what they look like, but I’ve never come across one.
Editor's note: Bureau of Engraving and Printing public affairs specialist Lydia Washington jumped in here to say...
Less than 1/100th of 1% of U.S. currency is counterfeit. Because of the job that they do here before it even gets out.
Do you feel any sort of pressure given the exposure of your work? Most artists' work will be seen by thousands of people, and that's if they're lucky. Your work is seen -- and touched -- by millions upon millions.
I think I was just talking to one of the guys I work with last week. I was telling him, “We have a very interesting job. Only four of us in the country. But you know what I realized? Every time we finish a note or we finish a design, we’re hungry to get to the next one.” We really don’t spend a lot of time on what we just did; we get ready for the next one. That’s a key part to keep our minds fresh, so we don’t feel pressure. Because honestly, we’ll put that thing together, and then we’re looking to see how we can become better at the next one.
Last one: I don't imagine you get to take bills home, but are there any perks to your position?
Not really. It is the federal government.