Collect the whole set

They may retain some very traditional imagery, but the new reverse designs for UK coins feature a radical ‘collective’ idea, says Gina Lovett


From the summer, those calling ‘tails’ may be surprised to find the familiar symbols of Britannia, the English lion and the thistle have been replaced by magnified segments of the royal heraldic shield.

Brighton University graduate and emerging graphic designer, 26-year-old Mathew Dent, has created a jigsaw of designs that can be assembled together, to be minted on to the reverse sides of new UK coins.

Over the past week, he has hit the headlines for his unprecedented ‘collective’ coin design ‘system’ that unifies the 1p, 2p, 5p, 10p, 20p, 50p and £1 pieces, unveiled last week by The Royal Mint.

Approved by both the Queen and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the design aims to reflect the ‘united’ in United Kingdom, while offering all the enjoyment of assembling coins to form a complete shield.

‘I’d really like to see the designs being used in a way that they are enjoyed being pieced together and played with,’ says Dent.

Dent, who ordinarily works for London graphics and branding consultancy Three Fish in a Tree, explains that the concept of unity struck him after considering that previous coins had been designed in isolation and at different times.

By printing off a variety of scales of a computerised image of the shield, and placing the collection of coins at strategic ‘anchor’ points, then tracing and working inwards, Dent was able to devise the correct scale and execute his idea, finally developing a linear and graphic submission. The Royal Mint brought on board low-relief sculptor John Bergdahl, who created scaled-up plaster versions, to help realise depth.

Despite a barrage of politically charged media opinion at the loss of the nation’s identity, and pedantic observations of the omitting of any Welsh symbol, the design community has broadly welcomed the new reverse designs.

Former Master of the Royal Designers for Industry Mike Dempsey says that although he is ‘not a great fan of heraldic shields’, he feels the fragmenting and totality features are ‘very interesting’.

Curator for the department of furniture, textiles and fashion at the Victoria & Albert Museum Gareth Williams says, ‘Reworking heraldic imagery is playing it pretty safe, but it avoids gimmicky new images that would tire quickly.’ He adds, ‘I like the “jigsaw puzzle” idea, and that each coin looks like it is a magnification of part of the whole crest.’

Traditionally, The Royal Mint calls upon its repertoire of esteemed designers to work on such projects, but in this instance it raised the portcullis and invited the public into the fray, with an open competition in 2005.

The competition yielded around 4000 designs from 526 designers, taking The Royal Mint Advisory Committee a year to finally excogitate Dent’s winning design.

The design, according to Professor Sir Christopher Frayling, chairman of The Royal Mint Advisory Committee and Rector of the Royal College of Art, works on typographic, cultural historical and low-relief sculptural levels.

The Royal Mint marketing director Dave Knight explains that the cost of undertaking such a redesign exercise is minimal, with only the £35 000 prize money denting The Royal Mint coffers.

Specially invited artists and members of The Royal Mint’s engraving team also undertook the project by way of benchmarking, but few tweaks were needed, says Knight. Given the particularly linear style of the new design, he adds, there were some technical challenges as to how to manage the reaction of the metal when struck, but nothing that posed any major problems.

Though The Royal Mint works with recommended external designers on commemorative projects such as the design of the £2 coin, its prestigious, and somewhat stealthy, in-house 16-strong design team undertakes up to 500 projects a year. These can range from special collections to coinage redesigns for countries around the globe.

The team competes internationally with other mints, such as the Austrian Mint, the Royal Australian Mint, the Royal Canadian Mint and The US Mint, most often through public tender.

The team, which includes design, engraving and engineering functions, comes from disciplines as far-ranging as jewellery, animation, graphics, illustration and ceramics.

Chief engraver and head of design at The Royal Mint Matthew Bonaccorsi explains, ‘We all have quite varied backgrounds, but there is, in fact, a lot in common because of working to strict deadlines and within material, graphic and proportion constraints.’

Most coins and coin collections are produced in nickel, nickel-plated steel or copper-plated steel, but increasing costs, Bonaccorsi says, have given rise to coinage being produced in metals as unorthodox as stainless steel, and even aluminium. ‘That was a nightmare to work with,’ he reveals.

Coining it

• The reverse of the current 1p, 2p, 5p and 10p coins were designed by Christopher Ironside

• William Gardener designed the reverse of the 20p coin, first issued in 1982

• The first base metal £2 coin was issued in 1986 to commemorate the 13th Commonwealth Games held that year in Scotland. Commemorative £2 coins continue to be issued in single-colour nickel-brass for special occasions

• Designers of the reverse of the £2 include Bruce Rushin, Ron Dutton, Robert Evans, Matthew Bonaccorsi, John Mills, Robert Lowe, Peter Forster, Bob Elderton, Rod Kelly, Yvonne Holton and David Gentleman

• The 50p coin, with its numerous anniversary editions, has showcased designs by Christopher Ironside, David Wynne, Mary Milner Dickens, John Mills, David Cornell, James Butler, Tom Phillips, Claire Aldridge, Clive Duncan and Kerry Jones

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