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No longer are postage stamps staid icons of officialdom, they are outlets for exceptional design, striking imagery, hilarious wit, even biting satire. Yet no other form of graphic design is as sacrosanct or more indicative of a nation’s character. With the exception of a
national flag no other official design is more politicized. Postage stamps are more than
mere currency, they are a nation’s signboard. They commemorate the most important
issues and events, and they are potent
instruments for propaganda when they
carry messages designed to influence, inspire,
What appears on stamps is usually
determined by committees. In the United
States a citizens advisory panel comprising
experts in various areas of popular culture,
sports and art advise the Postmaster General on what stamps to issue.
Special interest groups are known to lobby as vociferously for stamp
recognition as for congressional legislation. Stamps are the most widely
recognized collectible, and in certain nations, the field of stamp collecting
is a major industry. The postal agencies of larger nations have become
veritable stamp dealers either to supplement their national budgets or to
subsidize their postal services. In countries where the postal service is
privatized, such as the Netherlands, brisk sales can mean the difference
between profit and
Designing postage stamps is not easy. With the eyes of a nation
focused on the result, these images are intensely scrutinized. When the
Croatian artist Boris Bucan designed his nation’s first airmail stamp he came
under fire. Since this breakaway Yugoslav republic had very few commercial
airplanes, he designed a stamp that showed a paper airplane against a blue
sky. Although the stamp was published, his sarcasm went unappreciated by
countrymen who petitioned for its recall. Conversely, there were few if any
notes of displeasure when the Dutch designer Rick Vermeulen, of Hard
Werken Design in Rotterdam, designed a preprinted paid postcard for the
Royal PTT Nederlands on which he included a picture of himself in a comic
pose. Vermeulen was commissioned to design a stamp that somehow
represented the users of such cards. After conducting research, he determined
that ninety-five percent of preprinted postcards were used by sweepstakes
players and contestants to enter quizzes and games. He, therefore, decided to
show a quiz master (Mr. Vermullen himself) standing over a TV screen that
projects the seventy-cent value of the stamp in large numerals. The seven is
decked out like a crossword puzzle, while the zero is a dart board,
representing a game of chance. The quiz master holds up two prizes: in one
hand money and the other hand flowers. The image is printed outside of the
formal stamp area, giving it the appearance of a
The Royal PTT Nederlands is one of the most progressive
postal agencies. Back in the early 1930s its visionary director, Jean-François
Van Royen, commissioned avant-garde designers, Piet Zwart and Paul
Schuitema, to create advertisements and stamps that transcended
convention by employing their distinctive use of type foto (College and New
Typography). Under Paul Hefting, art director of the art and design
department, the PTT continues to push the limits of the postage stamp
tradition in terms of marketing, management, and design. Since the PTT
was privatized less than a decade ago, the emphasis has been placed on
increasing the number of stamp sales by creating designs that people are
compelled to buy for utilitarian and aesthetic
In addition to the conventional postage stamps, PTT encourages
designers to take unique approaches to commemorative, cautionary, and
information stamps. They lead the way in commissioning internationally
known graphic artists to extend the boundaries. French designer and
former principal of Grapes design collective Pierre Bernard designed a
series of Red Cross stamps; British designer Neville Brody designed stamps
for a national flower exhibition; Belgian cartoonist Ever Mullen designed a
series of child welfare stamps; and American Robert Nakata of Studio
Dumbar in Den Haag designed stamps commemorating 150 years of travel
on the Dutch railways. Nakata’s design is indicative of the creative license
afforded by the PTT. To suggest the idea of travel, Nakata used the famous
Kiss by Rodin to signify both arrival or farewell. To ground this metaphor
behind the sculpture the roof of a railway station platform is
To stimulate sales to collectors and users stamps must elicit
intellectual or emotional responses. That distinctive stamps are designed
annually indicates that the world’s postal services understand that the
public has tastes that can be served by stamps. That many of these are
designed by inventive graphic designers proves that this art for the masses
is by no means crass.