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Design.  The selection and artistic arrangement of the relief elements – the devices, images, symbols and lettering – that appear on a coin or medal. Preparing the design is highly creative; the artist-designer may imagine a great many ideas in his mind, and 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.

Levels of design creation.  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?"  Sometimes concepts are supplied to the artist as instructions with the commission.

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, it is better if the philosophy is 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! Coin and medal design area is extremely limited – coins and medals are small objects – thus all but the most significant elements must be eliminated and 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 and clothing to aid in vivifying the symbolism.

There is no room for the superfluous 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).  See symbols and symbolism, allegory and personification.

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.  See drawing and sketches.

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 an execution order demanding that he do it the way he first conceived the design. It is to be expected that there will be modifications, improvements, additions of charm, 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 adjacent) – 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 and 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.

∙ A simple design with elaborate detail appeals to more viewers of coins and medals than an elaborate design with simple detail.

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 and do 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 and finely executed detail is magnified in the mind and 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 to collectors. This does not mean to put an airplane into every design so they will all appeal to 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:

1)  Eliminate unnecessary elements.

2)  Employ appropriate symbolism.

3)  Accent the important elements with authority.

4)  Use care in spacing the design elements.

5)  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 and 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. It was learned what the Mint engravers really wanted was not delineations 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 and in the foreseeable future, it does not look like computers will ever replace design of coins and medals by human mind and human hands. Human designers can factor far more options – what to insert and what to leave out and how best to present this in three dimension relief – filtering this through a artist’s creative mental process rather than what a computer wants to do.


A7   {1939} Hoffman. Sculpture Inside and Out.

A33 {1972} Gentleman. Design in Miniature.

P34 {1972} Grove. The Making of A Medal.

           Limitations of Coin and Medal Design           


 1.  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. 


 2.  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).                  


 3.  Circular form.  Most coins and medals are round (per-

     haps 98+%); such roundness may restrict their design.


 4.  Perspective.  With some notable exceptions (as Jacques

     Wiener designs, or aerial views) most designs are     

     linear perspective with a very narrow depth of       



 5.  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.     


 6.  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.                                 


 7.  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.                              


 8.  User limitations.  The rise of the vending industry  

     requires coins of restricted designs and compositions

     to fit millions of machines in existence.            


 9.  Political limitations.  Certain pictorial designs    

     cannot be used for political reasons – embarrassment,

     ill-mannered, illegal or such.                       


10.  Wording restrictions.  Obviously libelous statements 

     cannot be put on coins and medals; certain other     



11.  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).   

excerpted with permission from

An Encyclopedia of Coin and Medal Technology

For Artists, Makers, Collectors and Curators


Roger W. Burdette, Editor

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