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Circulating keepsakes: The design process of a commemorative circulation coin

For more than 75 years, we’ve issued special circulation coins to help Canadians celebrate, remember, honour or reflect upon the events and/or people who have shaped our nation’s history and heritage. It’s a tradition that began during the Second World War with the famous Victory Nickel (1943-45), and it’s something we plan on doing for as long as there are stories to tell.

In recent years, Canadian commemorative circulation coins have become a colourful lot. Red, green, yellow and blue—we keep finding new ways to experiment with colour since introducing the world’s first coloured circulation piece in 2004, the 25-cent Poppy coin. Many of our recent commemorative circulation pieces also include a painted element that adds a pop of colour to your pocket change.

Colour is a powerful tool for ensuring these coins and their themes are immediately recognizable. And no, it’s not a gimmick: colours have inherent emotional and psychological meaning, and tinting just one design element can spin a story in a whole new way and even change your interpretation.

It’s all part of our efforts to innovate the art of minting, and it truly is an artform. But whether coloured or struck (engraved only), the process for choosing a design for each commemorative circulation coin is (mostly) the same.

Step one: Find a good story.

It all begins with the theme. We’re minting stories, and any special feature, like colour, only serves to further enhance the storytelling.

Canada’s commemorative circulation coins highlight events, places, milestones or other topics of national significance. Sometimes a theme will align with a big national celebration, such as Canada 150 in 2017, or a milestone like the 75th anniversary of the UN Charter in 2020. Other times, we’ll feature a theme or topic that’s of special concern to all Canadians, one that’s close to our hearts.

How do we know what people want to see? In addition to extensive historical research, and consultation with community stakeholders, we also welcome suggestions from all Canadians, including collectors - obviously. Both the theme and the coin design need to be as meaningful as they are memorable; this requires a lot of advance planning, consultation and thorough research, so the work begins roughly two years (and sometimes more) in advance.

Step two: Acquire great art.

For all our numismatic coins, not just commemorative circulation ones, we rely on art to tell the story. Once the theme has been selected and we’ve decided on a coin format or, in the case of commemorative circulation coins, denomination, it’s time to consider the coin design. The design needs to strike the perfect balance between captivating art and storytelling.

We reach out to Canadian artists like Joe Average, whose design appears on the 2019 Equality circulation dollar. We invite them to take part in a competition in which they submit art concepts they have develop based on information we provide, which includes coin specifications and general guidelines.

Shortlisted designs are evaluated through a research study conducted online with a nationally representative sample of respondents over the age of 18, residing in Canada. Designs that are most appealing, and thus most likely to be collected, are then recommended by the Mint for approval by the Government of Canada.

Once a design is officially selected, we commission the artist to refine their initial concept and get it coin-ready. While they are perfecting their design, the Product Manager and the Engineering team work out some details, like the best combination of aesthetic appeal and manufacturability. We might also suggest the artist make a few tweaks or enhancements to ensure the detailed art will look its best on a small metallic canvas; it might mean adding an extra line here, shifting some elements, or even eliminating those that could get lost in translation once engraved.

All remaining details, both big and small, need to be accurate. With every design, we consult outside experts and invite them to closely scrutinize the art to ensure a true representation. After the artboard is finalized, the design is recommended to the Government of Canada for approval. If the coins are approved, that’s when production can begin.

Step three: Mint a work of art that’s accessible to all.

Our Winnipeg facility is a high-volume, technology-driven, production powerhouse—it’s where all the magic happens for circulation coins, whether Canadian or foreign, regular or commemorative issues. You can read more about the production process here, or you can see that process in action in this behind-the-scenes look at the making of our 2020 75th anniversary of the End of the Second World War commemorative two-dollar piece:

From honouring triumphs, to marking turning points in history, our commemorative circulation coins are enduring stories that touch millions of lives. Finding one in your change is an invitation to hold onto a piece of history or a defining moment that connects us all.

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