When Richard McPherren Cabeen wrote his Standard Handbook of Stamp Collecting 50 years ago, he dedicated at least one chapter to stamp design, and he identified three elements that should be present on every stamp.
“The design of a stamp should contain elements which will cause it to be recognized wherever it may travel as postage on a letter,” wrote Mr. Cabeen. “It should indicate the intended use, the country of origin, and the face value in the currency of the country.” Wouldn’t he be surprised to see current United States stamps!
Of the three elements Mr. Cabeen identified, the one that we can unequivocally say still appears on all U.S. stamps is the country name, often rendered as “USA.”
An argument might be made that the intended use is also still indicated by the word “Forever,” or by the various phrases found on the new stamps issued in connection with the most recent rate changes. By “intended use,” Mr. Cabeen meant an inscription indicating whether a stamp was regular postage, or air mail, or official. The newer inscriptions could be read to mean, “This stamp is intended to pay postage on a two-ounce letter,” or, “This stamp is intended to pay postage on a letter being mailed globally.”
What’s missing from most modern United States stamps, however, is the face value. To be certain, there are plenty of arguments in favor of having “Forever” stamps that are always valid for mailing a regular letter with no makeup postage needed. For example, the need for makeup stamps is largely eliminated. Quite frankly, the USPS could probably save some more money by not coming up with multiple new designs for certain rates every year; think back to when a set of definitives would be used for years, if not decades.
There’s something about a specified value, though, that to me makes a stamp look like a stamp. Maybe it’s not as big a deal as perforations, or the die cutting intended to mimic the appearance of perforations on modern self-adhesives, without which a stamp doesn’t quite look like a stamp. But I think it does make a difference. A specified face value is a visual cue that indicates a stamp is worth something, and without it, that stamp looks more like a sticker.
What’s your opinion? Does a face value on a stamp make it look more like a stamp, or does it not really matter?
When I begin sticking copies of Philosateleian Post’s new red-shouldered hawk stamp on my outgoing mail next month, it will be the 25th different local post stamp I have used since designing my first one back in 2004.
While I don’t consider myself to be an artist, my design skills have improved immensely over the years—and more importantly, I’ve developed an understanding of some things that do and don’t work. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when you’re designing your next local post stamp, artistamp, or cinderella.
Design at 300 DPI (or higher)
I designed my earliest Philosateleian Post stamps in Paint for Windows. It’s a solid little program, but anything you create with it is stuck at 96 DPI. Dots per inch refers to the number of dots that can be printed in a one-inch line; a higher DPI setting means a smoother looking print, while a lower resolution means what you print will be coarser or more grainy in appearance. If you’re printing anything remotely resembling a photo at a low DPI setting, it’s going to look rough.
A host of other graphics programs do allow you to change that setting, from Photoshop to the popular (and free!) Paint.NET. Before you paint the first pixel of your next masterpiece, make sure the file is set to print at 300 dpi or higher.
(This assumes, of course, that you’re creating bitmap images. If you’re creating vector image files, then this is not an issue.)
Keep it simple
Last year, I was determined to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Yosemite Grant, which set aside part of what is now Yosemite National Park for preservation. My wife and I visited Yosemite in 2013, and I took the same absolutely gorgeous photo that innumerable other visitors have taken: a panoramic shot of Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View. That photo would be the basis of my stamp.
I carefully designed an appropriate frame, resized the photo to fit within the frame, and printed out a proof copy.
It was ugly.
What I’d failed to keep in mind was that the most beautiful photo in the world, when resized to fit on a postage stamp, can become a muddy mess. Add to that the limitations of consumer-grade inkjet and laser printers, and the odds of a clear reproduction get even worse. The same thing goes for any design, even if it’s not a photo: if it’s overly complicated, getting a clear print is going to be challenging. Do you really want recipients of your stamp to have trouble figuring out what it pictures?
I was able to salvage my idea by applying some effects to the photo, including turning it into a black and white design, and ended up with one of my all-time favorite Philosateleian stamps:
So there are ways around it, but save yourself some frustration. Before you spend hours on a design, take your rough idea, whether it’s a photo or something computer-generated, and print it at stamp size. You may find you need to go back to the drawing board, or even take another approach altogether.
Avoid very small text, and (sometimes) light text on a dark background
If you’re printing from engraved plates, or even using professional quality printing presses, you can get away with tiny lettering on your stamp. For the rest of us, avoiding extremely small lettering is the way to go when designing cinderella stamps because everyday inkjet and laser printers simply can’t produce clear text if it’s below a certain size. Go below that threshold, and you’ll be lucky if you can read the text at all.
If you intend to use white or light text on a dark background, it becomes even more important to use a bigger font. If the text on your stamp is large enough, and the letters are sufficiently bold, you can get some nice results:
But even the “local postage” labels on the sides of this stamp are flirting with the limits of clarity, and that’s using a bold 14-point font!
Again, before you spend a lot of time making sure everything is just so, try printing your design-in-progess. It’s better to find out early that you need to bump your font size up a notch or two than to need to rework your design later.
Aim for perfection, then move along
You can spend a lot of time turning your idea into a local post stamp or artistamp, and I think you should get it as close to perfect as you can. I don’t know how many hours I’ve put into some of my designs, adjusting and tweaking and sometimes starting over altogether.
At the same time, at some point you have to move along.
I’m not saying you should just slap things together haphazardly and without forethought. Creating a nice stamp design can take time, and I want Philosateleia’s stamps to look as good as or better than real stamps. I think that’s a worthwhile goal for anyone designing local post stamps.
The fact is, however, that you’re not likely to achieve stamp design perfection. When I look back at some of my earliest issues, I have to laugh a little bit at the primitiveness and the absolute lack of perfection. Even designing those stamps, though, taught me things, some of which I’ve shared in this post. With regards to stamp design, it is the pursuit of perfection, not the achievement, that is important. Do the best you can, and then unleash your stamps on the world.