Typography and coin design

In over seven years of working in the design and engraving department at The Royal Mint, I cannot recall a coin or medal design that didn’t include some element of written language. Whether it is the notation of an authorising country, the denomination, the year of production, or an artist’s initials; type and typography are fundamental elements of coin design.

Inspired to learn more about typography

Having come from a background in product design, typography is a discipline that I’ve never studied or researched, but due to the nature of my work I have found my interest in this area growing greatly over recent years.

The 2008 £2 - London Olympic centenary coin design
My design for the London Olympic centenary coin uses as a reference the medals struck for the Olympic Games of 1908.

With very basic knowledge but massive enthusiasm, I enrolled in a typography short course at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design. The course was run over 5 days during December 2011 in the school’s new Kings Cross campus, which provided an open and creative environment for our small group to begin to scratch the surface of this complex subject.

Atrium of Central Saint Martins, Kings Cross.
Atrium of Central Saint Martins, Kings Cross.

The course flowed through an even mixture of theory and project work with plenty of interjections of critiques and group discussion. The theory began by exploring the basic elements of typography and the principles for their effective use before looking deeper into the origins of written language, from Egyptian Hieroglyphs to the Latin alphabet.

There was then a more in-depth look at type classification focusing specifically on Blackletter, Humanist, Old Style, Transitional, Modern and Slab Serif. This session was broken up nicely when we were tasked to hand-draw letterforms, namely Blackletter and square Roman capitals. This exercise provided an insight into how these letterforms had developed as well as the grid systems on which they are based.

Hand drawn lettering on grid paper.
Hand drawn lettering on grid paper.

One of the most enjoyable things about the course was the fact that it was a computer free zone. All projects were completed by either hand drawing or cutting various letters and arranging them on a page to compose the type as either information or art.

Kerning task and other cut and paste examples.
Kerning task and other cut and paste examples.

The highlight of the week for me was undoubtedly the few hours of gaining access to Central Saint Martins’ letterpress facilities. In such a newly developed building, to walk through a door and be instantly transported back in time to a place where metal type is set by hand, and the meanings of ‘uppercase’ and ‘lowercase’ become so clear (and obvious) was really special.

Bringing new skills to my work in coin design

The focus on hand-skills is something that I already bring to my work at The Royal Mint, where many of our computer enabled designs begin with hand-drawn sketches, but the exciting aspect of attending this course is that the skills and knowledge I acquired will filter through to my work environment on a daily basis.

Tell us what you think!

Have you got a favourite typography based coin design? Can you think of great opportunities for typography-led coin designs in the future? Leave a comment for Thomas in our comments below.

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