A few weeks ago, designer Matthew Dent‘s latest project was unveiled. He’d won a competition where the winning entrant would get to see their design made up and eventually used by millions of people. Not bad going. But then Dent is lucky (and skilful) enough to have created the look of the UK’s new coinage, which is set to be put in circulation by the Royal Mint later in the year. The reverse of each coin will feature a section from the Royal Arms shield, which is then replicated in its entirety on the reverse of the £1 coin. The 1p, 2p, 5p, 10p, 20p and 50p coins can then be laid out to recreate the shield itself. Dent, 26, currently works at London studio Three Fish in a Tree having studied graphic design at the University of Brighton, and he talked to us about the design that lies behind this rather impressive project.
Although you haven’t designed coins before, is currency something that’s interested you before, as a non-designer and designer?
As a child I was interested in all things shiny, and as I grew up I became interested in all things ‘designy’. There are moments in my life where currency, and especially coinage, made an impression on me in different ways, though I’d never actually considered designing coinage until I became aware of the competition.
What led you to the idea of having a sense of visual unity between the coins? Traditionally the UK coins have been quite distinctly separate. Did a heraldic device help to provide the answer?
The brief called for six designs to represent the United Kingdom. The idea of a united design in a jigsaw-style execution – choosing one subject to appear across the six coins – avoided any awkward emphasis on any particular countries and was a solution which I could see working. This approach seemed intriguing since I hadn’t seen anything like this used in coin design before.
The reason I settled on heraldry as a subject matter for this idea was, firstly, because there was a significant emphasis on heraldry in the brief and, secondly, using an emblem such as the shield of the Royal Arms was a successful vehicle for the design in terms of its almost square-like mass. In practical terms, this meant that coins could be arranged above and below one another as well as to the left and right of one another – a much more satisfying result than had it been a linear arrangement.
When did the “unifying” design of the £1 coin come about?
The Royal Mint Advisory Committee played a huge part in the development of my design, and this idea of the inclusion of a unifying £1 coin came from an inspired meeting of theirs as a way of depicting, defining and supporting the entire design.
How different was your initial submission to the Royal Mint’s Advisory Committee to how they look as finished coins? What changes did you have to make and why?
I think if you held my initial idea submission against the finished article, the similarities would be fairly apparent. Saying that, there were plenty of revisions made throughout the course of the competition, and occasions when elements were required to be redrawn from scratch.
One of the most obvious differences between the first incarnation and the last is that the one penny and 20 pence pieces ended up in opposite positions. Switching these two coins during the development of the idea seemed to aid the overall balance of the design; the copper plated coins of the 1p and 2p would no longer be beside each other. Another major distinction was that the rotation of the 50 pence changed; initially it was flat side bottom, but by rotating the coin through 1/14, so that it was point downwards, the shape of the coin mirrored the shape of the shield and the whole design seemed much more cohesive for it.
Were there any things you weren’t allowed to include on the designs, or had to alter for security reasons?
There were plenty of technical issues I had to come to terms with in conjunction with the distribution of metal across the coin and the high-speed striking process. At one point I considered suggesting that half the 20 pence’s border – where it met the shield – be removed. It would have still been a rounded heptagon, only its border wouldn’t completely surround the coin. There were potential issues with this; I learnt that the distribution of metal wouldn’t be balanced, thereby possibly affecting the striking of the coins and the acceptance of them by cash machines. Oh well… this competition was a learning curve. And as someone who was unfamiliar with the technical aspects of coin manufacture – you have to ask don’t you?
How did you feel when you saw the first metal drafts of the coins, based on pieces you’d worked on with sculptor, John Bergdahl?
It was a heart-in-the-mouth moment to see how they worked. I gather that reducing the large plaster models to actual sized metal trial coins can polarise the success of the design; they either tend to succeed or fail. There’s always the chance that the degree of detail on a plaster model can become overwhelming when reduced in size, and the eye can find it hard to distinguish one thing from another. A gorgeous eight-inch plaster model doesn’t necessarily mean a gorgeous trial coin.
But on seeing them I was delighted with how they had turned out, and it really sent home the significance of the competition’s outcome – I was holding a set of the nation’s trial coins in my hand.
You’ve mentioned that the playful idea behind the set is something that appeals to you? Can you explain a bit more about this?
My initial excitement over this jigsaw style approach was that I could imagine the coins being played with, arranged and enjoyed in a way in which coinage hasn’t been before. I could see their appeal to children, their interest to adults, and also I could imagine that I’d want to piece them together myself given half a chance.
This ‘interactive’ aspect of the jigsaw idea is an exciting angle. Assimilating a design is a satisfying and empowering activity; choosing to create the design as intended or doing something completely different – it’s up to you. Yes it’s coinage, it’s a practical medium, you can still buy your pint with it, but this approach gave coinage some scope to develop a different personality.
The coins will be used by millions of people – and be among the most recognisable of modern designs. Has the enormity of the project sunk in yet?
Not really. I’ve had plenty of time to get used to it, but I’m struggling to be honest. I think it’ll take the filtering of the coins through to people’s pockets to send the reality of it home. Saying that, I think I’ll still be pinching myself for years to come.
So are you tempted to tackle the notes now?
The notes are a completely different kettle of fish… but never say never.