A Graphic History of Postal Stamp Design

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Pages from 'Graphic Stamps,' published by Unit Editions (all images courtesy Unit Editions) (click to enlarge)

Typically measuring no larger than one square-inch, postage stamps may not serve as the most welcoming canvases for creative expression, but countless have carried beautiful and ingenious designs. Graphic Stamps, recently published by Unit Editions, presents and celebrates the rich graphic design of these small objects most of us regard as a slip of paper to stick on an envelope to ensure safe delivery. The book draws from the collections of two designers in the UK, Blair Thomson and Iain Follett, who both have early roots in stamp-collecting as children. Edited by Tony Brook and Adrian Shaughnessy, it represents the first in Unit Edition's new Archive Series, described as "a bibliographic celebration of graphic design archives and collections."

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Cover of 'Graphic Stamps,' published by Unit Editions (click to enlarge)

Organized by each stamp's country of origin, the 330-page tome is image-heavy, bringing together 450 stamps from 58 nations — plus the United Nations. They're enlarged and set against black, making it easy to study the various layouts and typefaces employed in what Thomson and Follett consider overlooked treasures within the history of graphic design.

"Great stamp designs convey a universal idea in a way that is clear and effective, while at the same time being engaging and original," Follett says in an included interview. "Often the production and finish can elevate the design to a higher level.

"Within the wider world of graphic design," he continues, "I think that stamp design has been somewhat overlooked and forgotten, or perhaps overshadowed by other areas such as poster design which is often collected by designers."

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Pages from 'Graphic Stamps,' published by Unit Editions (click to enlarge)

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Pages from 'Graphic Stamps,' published by Unit Editions (click to enlarge)

While many stamp collectors track down and procure stamps for their historic or monetary value, Thomson and Follett have been curious about the designers behind the tiny artworks they've amassed and have often managed to identify them. These names are included on each page in addition to their country of origin, the year created, edition, and their title — which essentially describes the particular event, organization, or individual for which they were made. As Shaughnessy describes in the book's introduction, many of these designers are not well known, going unmentioned in encyclopedias of graphic design aside from a few minimal references. Unfortunately, while Thomson and Follett give them credit in Graphic Stamps, I feel they missed an opportunity to highlight the practices of these designers and offer any basic information on who they were, or are. In their included individual interviews, both list some of their favorite designers; it would have been helpful i f they had provided anything they knew at least on these named artists.

We do receive a bit of stamp design history courtesy of Mark Sinclair, deputy editor of Creative Review, who in a short essay surveys different design approaches over time and from various countries. Influential moments of graphic design he touches upon include Brazil's focus on figures of value as the main typographic component of its stamps; Switzerland's expert use of the photogravure process that began in 1957; and the use of modern lithography in an Israeli series from 1960.

"The quality of stamp design internationally entered something of a golden period from the late 1960s to the early 1980s as designers applied current graphic design principles to stamps and enjoyed the freedom that advances in printing technology now offered them," Sinclair summarizes. "The results — invariably featuring bright, bold optimistic colors and confident graphic shapes — can be seen in much of the work included in this book."

Even if we do not receive much information or background on the individual stamps, it is fascinating to flip through Graphic Stamps and observe the diverse palettes and modernist typefaces to which Thomson and Follett are both so drawn. This is stamp porn presented at its finest, beautifully bound and presented. I also enjoy seeing the variety of events, campaigns, or even buildings that different countries have chosen to commemorate through such a tiny but very public object (images of people are rare appearances in the pair's collections). Many stamps featured in the book celebrate what you may expect — Christmas, the Olympics, and independence anniversaries — but many also honor very particular occasions. A number, for instance, were printed to commemorate a country's technological advancements: in 1980, designer David Consuegra created a stamp featuring SMPTE color bars to mark the inauguration of color television in Colombia; tha t same year, illustrator Gian Calvi produced one with patterns of rotary phones, satellite dishes, and other devices to recognize Brazil's 15th anniversary of the National Telecommunications System. One of my favorites celebrates the 1998 World Book and Copyright Day; printed in the Czech Republic and designed by Zuzana Lednická, the image is minimal and clean, featuring an orange book balancing on its corner and accompanied by a blue "C" symbol.

Some of the stamps Thomson and Follett have collected are also devoted to the same event but produced by different countries, and it's pretty interesting to compare them (although with no index included, you'll have to spend some time doing some of your own exploring). For example, in 1976, the theme of World Health Day was "Foresight Prevents Blindness," and a number of countries issued related stamps. Those from Iran and Bangladesh are in Graphic Stamps; they both, unsurprisingly, feature eyes, but Iran's is more aesthetically focused, embedding an eye in a colorful impossible square while Bangladesh's is more educational, with an eye gazing upon sight-improving foods such as a carrot and and egg. Such stamps particularly remind us that the objects do not only help us communicate with other people but also carry messages of their own: while small, they serve as platforms to convey the distinct cultural visions of each nation.

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Pages from 'Graphic Stamps,' published by Unit Editions (click to enlarge)

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Pages from 'Graphic Stamps,' published by Unit Editions (click to enlarge)

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Pages from 'Graphic Stamps,' published by Unit Editions (click to enlarge)

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Pages from 'Graphic Stamps,' published by Unit Editions (click to enlarge)

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Pages from 'Graphic Stamps,' published by Unit Editions (click to enlarge)

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Pages from 'Graphic Stamps,' published by Unit Editions (click to enlarge)

Graphic Stamps is published by Unit Editions and available through their website.

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