This is the fourth of several reports on the basic information, the basic knowledge of minting coins and medals. These facts are so important they should be embedded in the repertoire of everyone associated with the medallic field and, certainly, everyone within the firms which make these.
DESIGN is what humans see on coins and medals, the surface configuration, the modulated relief of the pictorial elements. The image we observe forms our opinion of what we like or dislike in the total appearance shown on the struck piece.
The design includes the DEVICE, the LETTERING, any SYMBOLS or any other elements. Preparing the design is highly creative; the artist-designer may imagine a great many ideas in his mind, then selecting those that he thinks may have merit, he transmits these into two-dimensional graphic art or three-dimensional glyptic art form.
One theme may emerge immediately, or the artist may repeat the creative process over and over again, preparing small thumbnail drawings, elaborate potential drawings, or even sketches in clay or plaster. Throughout this process of trial and selection the designer keeps developing and refining the images until a design concept emerges.
Designing from a concept. With or without recognizing the steps, the coin or medal designer progresses through four levels of design creation: (1) philosophical, (2) symbolism, (3) form and arrangement, (4) detail. For the first level, the artist answers the question: “What concept am I trying to convey in this design?” More often than not a concept is supplied to the artist as instructions with the commission or work order.
Thus a first level concept for a company centennial medal design might be a few sentences: the stated company philosophy, how it views its past, a theme if any for its centennial, and somewhat of its goals for the future. Thus, the philosophy is better expressed – actually written out – rather than someone’s vague mental notions.
The second level is to relate the stated philosophy into symbolism. The designer must be a master of symbols. Coins and medals are small objects – thus all but the most significant elements must be eliminated — the chosen ones expressed in vivid symbolic form. Here the designer can use attributes, objects near the device to help identify it, and even costume or clothing of a person to aid in expressing the symbolism.
The superfluous has no room in coin and medal symbolism or design. Space does not permit it. Thus the artist faces the chore to express the philosophy in the briefest design. Designing an Olympic medal, for example, the artist might choose a torchbearer for the symbolism; the design might include a closeup view of the torchbearer. (Note it is not the logo or trademark of the Olympics – the five rings – that is a subsidiary device, which must be incorporated into the design as well to make it an official item).
With the concept and the symbolism in mind, the designer then relates this to the form and arrangement that will appear on the coin or medal. This is what is sketched: the shape or form of the device, all other design elements including lettering and their interrelated spacing. Here the designer brings all his artistic experience to bear. The artist incorporates all the inherent principles of design: harmony, rhythm, symmetry, balance, proportion, dominance, subordination, variety and repetition. The artist chooses the perspective, what eye level of the design, and whether a closeup or distant view. Many factors go into a design.
At this point the design is fixed – in the mind of the artist or on paper; if on paper or in clay it is called a study. The final level is the addition of detail. This can be indicated in the drawing, but more often it is left to be implemented on the model.
The addition of detail is where the final design may differ from the drawing. Since the plan may be modified repeatedly as the artist completes the carving, modeling or engraving. As one writer put it, the drawing is a study, a work plan to help the artist execute the final model; it is not a blueprint or execution order demanding that he do it the way he first conceived the design.
Modifications, improvements, and additions of charm are expected as the artist thinks about the design while his fingers shapes the model’s relief.
Early design considerations. The size – and other limitations (see chart below) – forces the artist-designer to be ruthless in eliminating nonessentials in coin and medal design. The small size is not a large size reduced, but every element is carefully chosen, then positioned for its spacial interrelationship. Here are some important design considerations:
- The artist must constantly keep in mind what the finished product, the coin or medal, will look like as he prepares his design and models.
- The more experience, knowledge and artistic acumen the artist can bring to his task of coin and medal design, the more superior a design and model he will produce.
- The ability to design distinguishes an artist from a craftsman.
- The most creative designer is the one who pushes the frontier of coin and medal technology to the edge; he exploits the existing technical possibilities of the media and is the first to learn and use new technical improvements as they develop
- An experienced designer knows what to bring of the past heritage of coin and medal design to be merged with current or modern trends or technical advances.
- A simple design with elaborate detail appeals to more viewers of coins and medals than an elaborate design with simple detail.
- Artistic beauty is timeless.
In symbolism the artist selects design metaphors and visual substitutes for his design concepts; it is the artist’s responsibility that his allegorical design be appropriate and understandable to an intelligent viewer. He must do this without using design clichés, those often-used design devices of the past that are trite and overly familiar. The artist must be creative by doing something new and innovative.
Add interest close up in a design. Because coins and medals are observed so close to the eyes, held close to the face, it is one of the few “intimate arts” (gems and cameos are among others). As such, the design is magnified, often physically with optical aids, or mentally as the item is viewed. Small, finely executed detail is magnified in the mind. One of the greatest charms of this glyptic art is the ability to reproduce great detail in such small space.
The opposite is also true. A large mass looms even larger on a coin or medal. A crude figure becomes even more crude. A poorly executed design registers distaste. Thus the artist must be aware of the nature of the media and the great importance of scale and detail.
The artist should also build “human interest” and perhaps “collectability” into each coin or medal design. The artist should learn what makes a design interesting to the general public and appealing to collectors. This does not mean to put an airplane into every design so they will all appeal to all aviation collectors, or some symbol of two hundred other highly collected topics, but to develop an insight, a knowledge of what is appropriate and appealing to both public and collector. The design the artist executes must be irresistible to both.
Malvina Hoffman’s design recommendations. In her book Sculpture Inside and Out, America’s great lady sculptor, Malvina Hoffman devoted a chapter to medallic design. Here is a synopsis of her recommendations:
- Eliminate unnecessary elements.
- Employ appropriate symbolism.
- Accent the important elements with authority.
- Use care in spacing the design elements.
- Execute the design with style.
Execute the design. By this point, the coin or medal designer should have fixed in his or her mind the concept, symbolism, form, arrangement and intended detail of the design at hand. It remains for the artist to execute it – to prepare a model in a form that is transferable to the technical requirements of the minting or medal making process.
The artist may work his original design in any media he or she is comfortable with – clay, plasteline, plaster, wax, wood or metal – carving away relief, or building up relief. But the coin or medal artist must master the process of plaster casting. By casting in plaster, the sculptor may progress back and forth from positive to negative, again carving or adding relief to either casting. This procedure is called modeling, where the artist actually creates the physical form, the modulated relief of the intended design.
The mint or medallic company would prefer to receive the final coin or medal design as a positive plaster casting. It could, in a rare instance, accommodate an artist, who for whatever reason, cannot provide a positive plaster. Their first step, then, would be to convert the artist’s original bas-relief into an acceptable positive plaster by their own casting.
For pantographic reduction the model should be oversize and have a crispness of detail. The fidelity of diemaking technology today is quite high – 99.99% of all the detail in the model can be reproduced in the die. But it cannot do this if the detail is not in the model. The playwright says “if its not on the page (the script) its not on the stage;” a medalist would say “if its not in the model its not in the medal.”
Or, the artist may engrave the dies directly – the time-honored way since coins were first struck. Dies are always cut exact size of the intended struck piece. Thus die engraving is more exacting than modeling. A modeled imperfection – should there be one – is reduced in proportion to the reduction from model to die. An imperfection in the die in exact size is far more noticeable. A slip of the burin while hand engraving a die is serious. A slip of the tool working in clay or plaster is not serious, such slip-ups can easily be repaired.
Completing the model. While working on this final stage of his or her coin or medal design, the artist adds the final detail – embellishing the model with ornamentation and minute detail to each form. It is here where the experienced artist adds the texture to the surface, fine lines of hair in the portrait, fine detail in clothing, buildings, coat of arms, the final shape of the lettering and overall sharpens up the detail and gives the model its crispness. It is at this point that the relief springs to life and the artist has executed the design with style, verve and authority.
Public design. Often nonprofessional artists are asked to design a coin or medal. Contests are sometimes held. School children are solicited to enter designs. Results and bound to be a disaster. Artists in the general public are not trained, nor have the experience in this field, yet it seems the public believes anyone can design a coin.
Recently in the 1990s at the U.S. Mint, particularly for the reverse design for each of the 50 State Quarters Program, each state was asked to furnish design suggestions. What the Mint engravers really wanted was not drawings or even designs, but what they called “narrations.” This was, in effect, concepts. Identify an event or persons involved, put this words, and led professional coin and medal artists develop the creative design – suitable for the miniature glyptic art for coin relief – from this concept.
Computer design. Designing coins and medals by computer lies somewhere between hand engraving – with stark, lifeless, fixed devices – and manual sculptural sketching and modelling with far more realistic, lifelike, creative designs, particularly of portraits. Computer design provides more mechanical control of relief execution. This in contrast to being done previously by tracer controlled techniques where this was a hand operation after the design was outlined by pantographic reduction on the face of the die.
Computer design reduces the time required to produce a three-dimensional design. It gives the computer operator many options and by selecting one of these renders the finished design. It is a shortcut by its timesaving. It is ideal for lettering and designs with buildings and logos but falls flat for portraits and scenes. Like hand engraving and tracer controlled techniques it greatly lacks vivification – making portraits look lifelike and other design elements more realistic. It too becomes, stilted, stark, frozen, lifeless.
At present however, and in the foreseeable future, it looks like computers will gradually replace design of coins and medals by human mind and human hands. Human computer designers will have to learn how to factor in far more options – what to insert and what to leave out and how best to present this in three dimension relief – in the new computer engraving technology.
Limitations of Coin and Medal Design
- Small size. Most coins and medals – 98% – are under two inches, all but a tiniest number are under six inches – so physical size is extremely limited.
- Intimacy. Because they are so small, coins and medals are viewed usually by one person close up – very intimate a few inches from the viewer (not like a painting or monument viewed from a distance, often by more that one person at a time).
- Circular form. Most coins and medals are round (perhaps 98+%); such roundness may restrict their design.
- Perspective. With some notable exceptions (as Jacques Wiener interior Cathedral perspective designs, or aerial views) most designs are linear perspective with a very narrow depth of perspective.
- Relief. On struck pieces the height of relief must be less than a few hundredths of an inch; medals may enjoy a greater relief but all very low relief with no undercutting permitted on any diestruck item.
- Tradition. Coins have a 2600-year tradition, medals over 550 years; thus tradition inevitably influences what can and cannot be done in numismatic and medallic design.
- Technical limitations. High speed coining presses require preformed (upset) blanks, designs without congruent mass (no massive portions back-to-back), ultra low relief, a protective rim, and other technical restrictions.
- User limitations. The rise of the vending industry requires coins of restricted designs and compositions to fit millions of machines in existence.
- Political limitations. Certain pictorial designs cannot be used for political reasons – embarrassment, ill-mannered, illegal or such.
- Wording restrictions. Obviously libelous statements cannot be put on coins and medals; certain other wording.
- Privacy limitations. The portrait of a living individual cannot be used on a coin or medal without their permission (politicians may be portrayed without permission, but not sports stars, entertainers, private individuals – not during their lifetime).