Until the plainer blue passports came in this year, the UK’s inner pages included line drawings of Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North sculpture; the painter John Constable; and the first computer programmer, mathematician Ada Lovelace. Shakespeare’s head was embedded on each page as a watermark. Japan’s new passport features no fewer than 24 works from Katsushika Hokusai’s iconic woodblock series, Thirty-six views of Mt Fuji, and America’s most recent complete redesign, released in 2007, includes an engraving of the battle that inspired The Star-Spangled Banner along with Mount Rushmore, long-horned cattle and a clipper ship.
Sometimes, these carefully curated contents can send unwitting messages: it’s almost a century since married American women have been able to get their own passports, rather than travelling on (and therefore always with – they couldn’t cross a border solo) their husbands’. However, among the 13 inspirational quotes from influential Americans that fill the pages of the current design, only one is attributed to a woman, prominent African-American scholar Anna Julia Cooper. It’s a far cry from Gabon’s passport which, up until its biometric redesign, might just have been the world’s most gynocentric passport, thanks to a cover displaying an image of a bare-breasted mother nursing an infant.
Yet patriotic though they seem, these design features are dictated by a prime driver of passport design: not aesthetics but security. Simply put, the more elaborate a passport’s pages, the harder it is to forge. Some of the whizziest features of the modern passport are also due to security concerns; consider, for instance, Canada’s 2015 redesign. Shine a UV light on its pages and the skies above its otherwise fairly standard scenery flare with vibrant firework displays, bright constellations and a rainbow’s arc. At the turn of the millennium, when another otherwise hidden security feature, the biometric chip, began to be added globally, it meant that a new symbol appeared on the jacket of any passport carrying one.
As for the Taiwanese redesign, in the end, the government decided against bubble tea and bears. The new version looks incredibly similar to the old, the critical difference being that the English words “Republic of China” are minimised, now encircling the sun rather than floating above it in a much larger font.
It certainly doesn’t rival Norway’s 2014 redo, by Neue Design Studio, which riffs on the theme of the fabled Norwegian landscape and comes in three colours, white, turquoise and vermillion, nodding to convention while looking bracingly contemporary. Inside, they’re as Nordically minimalist as you could wish for – but a UV beam makes the Northern Lights appear.