Behind Britain's New Coins

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Last month, Britain's Royal Mint unveiled the first new coin designs in UK currency since 1968. The seven new coins, which will be rolled into circulation this summer, range from the penny to the pound and prominently feature the royal shield of arms. The shield is split into pieces between the penny and 50p coins, then replicated in full on the one pound coin.

The designs are a result of an open call by the Royal Mint in August 2005, and out of the 4000 entries, the winning idea came from 26-year-old Matt Dent, a designer at London's Three Fish in a Tree studio. He received a reported £35,000 for his efforts, but no reproduction royalties for the newest addition to the approximately 28 billion British coins in circulation. We spoke to Dent about the entry process, having his design in everyone's pocket and more.

What first interested you in the contest?
The opportunity was just so great, to have your design circulated nationally as the coinage was such a reward. That's what you want to do as a designer, get your work out there, you want to produce a piece of work that impacts people's lives and this, as a canvas, is as good as it could get.

What inspired the jigsaw puzzle aspect of the design?
Design that appeals to me is something you can get involved in and have fun with. There was a series of stamps that came out here that were like fruits and vegetables, and then you got other sets of stickers that allowed you to build these little characters. So it's that kind of thing that appeals to me and I liked the idea of the design working over a series of coins.

What was the most challenging aspect of the project?
I had to get my head around the technique and procedures in making coins, a lot of technical issues I had to learn about. There were little areas where I had to consider how the metal would work and I was given advice from the Royal Mint on how metal flows at high pressure, since the coins are churned out at a huge rate using massive force. But I was quite lucky to be able to work so closely with the Mint and they gave me some really good advice on things I wouldn't have really known about considering my print-based history.

Was there one piece of advice that made a particular impact?
I had an idea at one point about the 20 pence coin, for developing the border or getting rid of it for the most part. The area is a raised border that infringes onto the shield and I was hoping to strip that away but there was an issue of weight distribution and how that would work with slot machines and things like that. So it's interesting how many different considerations there were, in that respect.

Did you browse other any other coinage for inspiration?
Yeah, I was familiar with local coinage, like the old Irish currency before it was replaced with the Euro, looked at coins from various other European countries and then researched on the internet and in various books to get some ideas as to what worked and what didn't. I definitely tried to read up on it as much as possible and develop my understanding of the subject matter of heraldry, as well, in terms of what I was depicting and how to represent it accurately.

Many coin designs feature numerals, what made you move away from that?
Well, there was the space issue in terms of how to accommodate numerals but numerals only came about in the country in the 1970s. So I was sort of stripping it back to the way it was before, removing as much unnecessary information as possible and go for a cleaner look, really.

As with any public design competition (read: London 2012 logo) there's usually a healthy bit of criticism involved. Any particularly interesting, enlightening or insane commentary you've heard so far?
Yeah, a whole mixture, really. I was actually really worried about what the public reaction might be because I live and work in London and was here when (the Olympic logo) came out and those designers had to find a bunker somewhere and hide out for about three weeks. So I was worried what it would be like if the public turned against the design to that extent. But that hasn't happened and the public reception has been positive. There has been some negative stuff but nothing too bad. I hope people will warm to them. The initial response is usually reserved and then hopefully that changes as people get used to (the designs).

There's also a big difference between seeing a design online or in the paper and then holding it in one's hand.
Absolutely, it doesn't always translate that well. You don't really have a good idea until you've got the coins in your hands.

What did you learn as a designer throughout this process?
I learned a lot of technical information and absorbed it along the way, I think. I've learned a lot about working with metals and producing plasters, and how different mediums translate to one another. I've also met some really interesting people, not just in design but at institutions like the Royal Mint, so it's been quite an opportunity.

Has it sunk in that your designs will line the pockets of the British people for the foreseeable future?
Not really. I've just been looking at facts and figures and trying to get my head around the amount of coins in circulation... something like 28 billion or something phenomenal. I can't really get my head around that, so it all seems really bizarre. I think I'll need to start seeing them in the streets, in busker hats, people paying for the bus and things like that, to get used to it.
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