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All Posts Tagged With: "Tim Shuck"

Great Coin Design, by Committee

The CCAC is on a mission to improve the designs of U.S. coins. As the first bold step to accomplish this goal, they established a subcommittee. Seriously.

Along with the new Subcommittee on Coin Design Excellence, the effort also produced a ‘visual definition of design excellence’, which includes an image reference guide of 25 U.S. coin designs and 39 world coin and medal designs, and a helpful list of 17 characteristics of design excellence. The latter bears repeating in entirety (as quoted in Coin World):

* use of texture and pattern
* meaningful negative space
* thoughtful relationship of negative to positive space
* stylization
* ethnical influences
* allegory and symbolism
* detail yes, crowding no
* use of perspective
* used of forced perspective
* minimal layers
* harmonious, restrained type styles
* clarity
* interwoven images, not busy collages
* contrast of texture and smooth
* fluidity
* subtlety
* relevance of obverse to reverse

Ok, pop quiz. In 25 words or less, describe precisely what any three of these list items mean, as applied to coin design, and discuss whether that item is or is not currently identifiable on any U.S. coin. Points will be deducted for the use of jargon. Bonus: show which items in the list are more or less the same as other items in the list.

The 17 characteristics are intended to be “a benchmark to inspire those who design U.S. coins to be more innovative and creative.” Though “not trying to blame anyone or point fingers”, and noting that “we believe we have some wonderful artists and don’t doubt their talent at all”, it is the work of these same artists with which the CCAC seems to find fault. Were I a current Mint coin designer I would be skeptical of the CCAC’s non-finger-pointing assurance.

This endeavor seems to be an attempt to quantify the answer to the basic question of “What is good design?”. The implication is that good design will happen if all 17 guidelines are met. Oh, and by being inspired by the 39-item reference guide set. Certainly there are principles to which good design adheres, but can excellent creative results be summoned by following a list? It seems obvious to note that design appreciation is subject to the experience and interests of the viewer. Great art for thee is not necessarily great art for me.

The Subcommittee on Coin Design Excellence is a classic bureaucratic response to a perceived problem: create committees, study the issue for awhile, create guidelines, apply guidelines, have a bunch of meetings, and then congratulate yourself for solving the problem. Or, possibly, bemoan the fact that people aren’t listening to you. The reality of such efforts is that the process often becomes more important than results.

It is ironic that contemporary U.S. coins appear in the reference guide set (think about that- good enough to be in a reference set but not creative or innovative?); and that CCAC Chairman Gary Marks likes the 2010 Union Shield cent reverse, while member Donald Scarinci says the design makes him ‘want to vomit’. So, which is it? Do we currently have excellent designs or don’t we? Marks also admitted that, regarding coin design, “It’s art, so it’s subjective to some degree”.

This begs the question: if two prominent members of the CCAC don’t agree on what represents good design, how will a subcommittee, the CCAC, and the CFA all reach agreement on what is good design? And, even if all members agree on what they think to be some really excellent coin designs, what if the public (and artists not part of the CCAC or CFA) don’t like them at all? What if everyone agrees on only 10% of new coins designs? Is that enough to call it a 21st century coin renaissance?

What I see in this are words and phrases of indeterminate definition, a possible clash of egos, and an attempt to put into a box an extremely subjective endeavor. I am reminded of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, wherein “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” The CCAC would have each and every U.S. coin design be ‘above average’.

The desire is of course understandable. It is natural to want all things to be perfect, to have all efforts to achieve success. But it is also necessary to realize that great efforts, lists, committees, and intent do not necessarily produce great results. Sometimes, I’m afraid, just the opposite. I suspect that in spite of the CCAC’s zeal, ‘great’ coin designs will continue to be rare, and subjective. Perhaps that is as it should be.

Pocket Change Yields an Unusual Find

By Tim Shuck

Many collectors have occasionally discovered an older coin in circulation. I have, usually Wheat Lincoln cents of various dates or, more infrequently, a silver dime or quarter. I’ve never been too surprised at these finds because the cents, dimes, and quarters of 40 or more years ago look much like the ones minted more recently. Thus, they often pass back and forth without drawing attention.

Occasionally, a non-collector might notice the ‘wheat’ on the back of cents, and a few might have wondered about the different surface and edge coloration when silver coins are encountered. But those older coins are the same diameter and approximately the same weight as their modern versions, and don’t stand out unless you’re carefully looking.

Roll-searchers of course find a great variety of coins, not only older U.S. coins but often world coins as well. I’m not a roll-searcher and confess that though I do look through the coins I receive, I am not as vigilant as many coin collectors in closely examining change.

Recently however I was notified of a in-circulation find that I’m fairly certain even I would have noticed. In an email from my brother in the Richmond, Virginia, area, he noted that a co-worker had discovered an unusual coin in his pocket change. A U.S. coin, but one that didn’t quite look right. I contacted the finder, and he provided me with this narrative (slightly edited for publication):

“I went through the drive-through at the local Chic-fil-A to get a milkshake. I confess to a serious addiction to their milkshakes. I got the change and stuffed it my pocket and drove off for home.

When I was getting ready to throw the change into the coin jar on the kitchen counter, I noticed that a couple of quarters looked very new. My wife is saving state quarters to make full sets for the grandkids and I’m under instructions to check any good ones to see if she needs them. (more…)