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Coins and Competitions

I’ve obsessed about the design of coins ever since I worked on the design for a Coin Gallery in a museum many years ago. Having seen the most beautiful coins ever minted in India, and then having lived though the clumsiness of the new Indian coins (not to mention the insensitivity of their “sleek” new features), I squealed with delight when I found the first of Britain’s new coins in my change from the supermarket.

The 2008 re-design by Mathew Dent

When put together, the coins of different denominations reflect the Royal Shield of the United Kingdom — which is the official coat-of-arms of the current British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. The one pound coin in the meanwhile, shows the shield in entirety.

Why am I sharing this with you?

Well for starters, the re-design is a fresh new approach to these little pieces of metal that we take for granted everyday. They stand out graphically, are easily recognizable by the touch and are distinctive in the 21st-century image of Britain that they project: a vibrant, multi-cultural community in a post-modern world.

The set itself was the outcome of a public competition held by the Royal Mint in 2005. Over 4,000 entries were received of which this design by welshman Matthew Dent was unveiled in 2008 – a good 3 years after the competition was closed. This design is the outcome of clear thinking, an open approach and government support. On this blog and elsewhere, we have seen and shared in the outcry over mis-managed public competitions to design important national symbols. While I often lose my faith in the Indian government’s short-sighted vision when it comes to design, I find it a comfort to see that somewhere, some governments actually take the effort to develop a private citizen’s idea into a refined system that works. No doubt that a great deal of thought, planning, research and refinement have gone into these coins, which replaced a set that wasn’t even all that bad in the first place:

Reverses of previous issues still in circulation

My point here is that I would really like to see the Government of India take design more seriously, rather than to give it so much unnecessary lip-service. Holding an open competition is a grand gesture when it comes to public relations, but once a design as been selected it needs to be tested, experimented with and rigorously put through its trials before being so grandly unveiled to the public. I wish I could say that using the consultative services of the country’s premier design institution were sufficient to allay the fears generated by bad design, but unfortunately, the coins that are now in circulation were designed by this institution in the first place.

India’s newly re-designed coins

I shudder to think of what could have been expected from the Indian Railways’ attempt at having a logo re-design competition. They announced the competition on May 5th, 2010, closed it on May 12th and then summarily announced that they had awarded the Rs. 5-lakh prize to Mumbai-based Palm Advertising. What a waste of advertising money!

This is the fundamental problem I have with a “tenders” approach to design and re-design as far as public utilities are concerned. Our babus sitting in New Delhi think of design as “commercial art”; as a beautifying process which anyone that can “paint and draw well” can undertake. That design is a wholistic approach to systems thinking, is something they miss out on completely.

Are our public and civil servants aware of what design can do for a country such as ours? Of how it can change people’s lives, bring good servcies and opportunity to the mass of 1 billion that live in it? It would serve them well to take a page out of Britain’s book and see what democratic design is really about. Opening new design schools is not a solution to India’s design needs when no one in the adminstration of the country is interested in investing time or energy in using design thinking to public benefit. At the end of the day, it’s one thing to create a National Design Policy, and quite another to put your money where your mouth is.


  1. armeen wrote:

    Yes, very true. There is no sensitivity to these things in India, and we really have to work towards changing it somehow. There is so much potential for amazing coins with India’s culture and diversity.

    These are brilliant coins and Matt Dent won (deseverdly) the prestigious Black Pencil at D&AD for it. They are just wow:

  2. Avinash wrote:

    So the Railways is willing to pay five lakh rupees for a new logo, but the Finance Ministry only had Rs.250,000 for the symbol of our national currency.


  3. Rashmi wrote:

    Ruchi, I know how these issues must be irking you ! If it’s any consolation – the Comptroller & Auditor General office ( CAG) has announced a distinct logo for themselves! Interested ?

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