By Kathryn Westcott
It has billionaires and big ambitions. Now India wants something that no global economic powerhouse should be without: an international symbol for its currency.
Clockwise from top right: The dollar, the euro, the yen, the pound
The hope is that the rupee sign will become as ubiquitous as the US dollar ($), or that instant emblem of the digital age, the @ symbol.
But how easy is it to launch a symbol on the international stage and land a coveted place on keyboards the world over?
It doesn't happen very often. One of the most recent symbols to make the leap, the € for euro, had a long and difficult birth.
Before that, in 1971, the @ symbol was assigned an important international role, as the critical connector in e-mail addresses.
A 30-year-old computer programmer named Ray Tomlinson, looking for coding to send the first ever e-mail, surveyed the keyboard on his Model-33 Teletype and chose @ - which is apparently centuries old and has served various different functions - because it was unlikely to appear in a person's name.
The Indian government's search for the perfectly formed sign is via an open competition, which stipulates that entries "should represent the historical and cultural ethos of India."
It's the same route that Russia went down in the 1990s, in its search, so far unsuccessful, for a symbol to represent the rouble.
Jasmine Montgomery, of design consultancy FutureBrand, London, says Delhi's move shows it has realised the importance of country branding. But she warns that it can be a tricky thing to manage.
Currency symbols get used in all sorts of ways
"If the Indian Government is looking for something that symbolises its culture, it must equally bear in mind its business audience," she says. "When you look at it from a business point of view, different things come into play. Monetary policy and the stability of the currency is very important.
"The currency symbol could be a powerful part of the country's brand iconography, a signal of stability and the fact that it is a player on the world stage."
However, she says while devising an international currency symbol is a "brilliant idea", the competition has been set up in the wrong way.
"The idea that the symbol should have some cultural significance is a difficult one," she says. "The dollar, for example, doesn't signify liberty and freedom - there is nothing recognisably American about it."
The origins of the dollar sign have fallen into obscurity. What is known is that the symbol is more recent than the name, which has references in Shakespeare's Macbeth and The Tempest.
One explanation - the most widespread - is that the dollar sign was derived from the Spanish peso. Another, is that the dollar sign has origins in a numeral "8", denoting pieces of eight.
Nowadays, designing new symbols involves rigorous testing, says Ms Montgomery.
"The Indian Government will have to consider very carefully how the symbol would be used in all its technical applications - how does it look on the web, blown up on posters, on mobile phones."
India would not want a symbol that looked bad when it was turned upside down, she says - "like someone's bottom," for example.
The European Commission believes it got it right with the euro symbol. Its website optimistically announces that the "success of the euro as a currency worldwide owes a small debt to the unique and memorable symbol supporting the euro notes and coins".
The euro was originally designed as a logo
The official version is that it the symbol is "a combination of the Greek epsilon, as a sign of the weight of European civilisation, an E for Europe, and the parallel lines crossing through stand for the stability of the euro", and was designed by an anonymous team of four.
But a former chief graphic designer for the European Economic Community, Arthur Eisenmenger, has claimed that it was in fact he who created the symbol a quarter of a century before its unveiling in 1997.
Mr Eisenmenger, the acknowledged creator of the European flag, said in an interview some years ago, he drew the symbol "without much consideration."
"I wasn't thinking of the euro at the time, but just something that symbolised Europe," he said.
But while the European Commission takes satisfaction in the € symbol, typeface designers say the launch was not well managed.
"The European Central Bank presented it as a logo. At the time, it hadn't considered the technical consequences of it being incorporated into the everyday graphic language, and how it would translate to, say, computers or mobile phones," says Jurgen Siebert, head of graphics software company FontShop in Berlin.
Getting a symbol onto the international scene can be a complicated and lengthy process, says Mr Siebert.
There are the questions about where the new character should be placed in the character table and where it should be placed on the keyboard. (Outside the country in question, it is most likely to be rendered through special coding with keyboard short-cuts.)
International currency symbols have similar attributes in their vertical and horizontal lines
Then the operating systems of millions of computers would need to be upgraded, as would dozens and dozens of font sets.
When a computer stores a character, it stores it according to one of several different coding standards, (for example Ascii or Unicode). Any new character would need to be added to those standards, so that when a computer receives it, it knows how to render it to the screen.
Even after a decade, many people still do not use the euro sign. The BBC, for example, writes out "euro", partly because it may still be unfamiliar to some readers, and partly because many keyboards still do not feature the sign.
"When it's all about ease of use and speed, it doesn't make sense that the word euro is still being written out," says Mr Siebert.
While the Indian government has set few conditions for the design of the Rupee the Russian competition, launched in 1999 by a group of journalists and designers and backed by the Russian Central Bank, issued a number of guidelines.
- Simple graphics, strong and easy to write - a single symbol
- Even weight - not overloaded with strokes or have any minor unnecessary lines
- Width not exceeding that of a zero - so it can fit into columns for company reports and accounting
The favourites are reportedly designs based around the letter R, or its equivalent in Cyrillic script, P. One shows an R with two strokes across its spine, similar to the euro, and another has a P crossed by two diagonal lines.
Either would fit well into the existing suite of international currency symbols, but there is still no consensus on what Russia's economic badge of honour should be.
Could India beat them to it?
"It's going to take a very long time before it translates into something," says Sudeshna Sen, foreign editor of India's Economic Times. "But an open competition like this will be fun for the people."
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
How about a zero (0) with a slash through it? After all, India gave the world the zero or shoonya, and the goal of every government is to make sure that its citizens have something more than zero in their pockets.
Shikari Shambu, Chicago
You have a few guesses about the origin of the $ symbol for the US Dollar. It is just the two letters "U" and "S" superimposed, and then simplified over time.
Most currency symbols are a crossed letter. The £ is a crossed L (for Librum, the Latin word for weight or pound), the $ a crossed S (for Spanish dollar), the ¥ a crossed Y (for Yen) and the € a crossed E (for Euro). The symbol for a rupee should, therefore, be a crossed R (or whichever Indian character is equivalent to a letter R).
Arthur Adams, Warrington
To be honest, ten years after the introduction of the Euro I still struggle to make use of the "€". It is true, the symbol is perfect and has a great appearance and design, but it is not very feasible for those who do not have artistic skills. I mean, when one does the "€" in handwriting, the "arch" is never properly made and the two lines end up having the same length, when one is shorter than the other.
Paulo Castro Garrido, Erfurt, Germany
How about just using a capital R? It's already on the keyboard, in all the fonts, etc. easy to remember and draw and will be distinguishable as a currency symbol by its context. It would work for roubles or rupees - first country to decide gets dibs.
Deborah, Amersham, Bucks
These days more keyboards in Europe do have the euro sign - maybe the BBC needs to update its hardware? Albeit I've got to hold Alt Gr and then type 4 to get it (€, ooh). Even without that, one could still hold Alt and they type 0128 on the number pad, €_€ aah.
James D, Derby
India also needs to keep in mind that it is not the ONLY country that uses the Rupee currency. Several other South Asian countries use the Rupee as well. There are/were plans to introduce a single currency in the region. So, they might want to keep this in mind when designing the symbol.
Bimal de Silva, London
I echo Mr Shambu's comment (a zero with a slash through it) but would add a second horizontal slash, simultaneously echoing the advent of "0" as well as creating an abstraction of the national flag.
The zero I believe was discovered by the Arabs, not Indians.
For the origin of the dollar symbol, just Google an image of the old Spanish Dollars or Eight-Real Pieces (pieces of eight) that were used in America before independence. On either side of the shield, you'll see a pillar with a scroll wrapped around it - which, if you draw it out, is an "S" with two vertical lines through it
Warwick Cairns, Windsor
How silly is this? Economic strength is not determined by symbolism but with economic resilience. India should spend its resources wisely in education and open up economic opportunities.
Rajeev Nair, Sioux Falls
The crossed R is already in use - in medicine as the symbol for prescription (from the Latin radix). Strangely the computer character gurus don't seem to have ever implemented it. But don't let that stop us! It would seem a consistent choice for Rupee. But something from Sanskrit might be prettier.
Chris Ryall, Liverpool UK
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