Design in Miniature

Design in Miniature

Stamps are just small prints with neat perforated edges and there‘s no mystique about designing them. The ones I like best look simple, but this is deceptive: their few square centimetres can be a battleground.

There is plenty of room for imagination and inventiveness, but none for mistakes, muddles or irrelevance. Stamps sit on the cusp between images and designs: they can be either pictures – of planes, ships, swans, people – or expressions of more elusive concepts like evolution, Christmas, social reform, a millennium; sometimes both. Concentrating any of these, whether images or notions, into such a tiny space takes some thought.


Stamp designs with portraits in various techniques of eighteen British rulers. This version does not feature the obligatory Queen’s head.


When I was about eight, an aunt gave me a small stamp album. The stamps were fun to pore over and sort and stick in on stamp-hinges – I remember liking a triangular Liberian one with a plane on it. But I soon got bored with the tedious and repetitive monochrome images of monarchs and heads of state; matchboxes, with their ships and swans and tigers, were more interesting, and after a bit I lost interest in stamps altogether. I certainly never expected to design one. So it came as a surprise when, twenty-five years later, I was invited to enter a competition for a set of stamps on the unpromising theme of ‘Productivity’. I was already used to drawing, painting and engraving for books and magazines and posters, and had made some colour lithographs, so I felt at home drawing for print. But at that point I knew much less about selecting and organizing images and ideas in order to give them meaning – in other words, designing.


Battle of Hastings, Royal Mail, 1963.


1962 was a good time to start. Until then, British stamps had mostly been staid, loyal and conventional. Subject matter had been restricted: only monarchs could appear on British stamps. Even Shakespeare, a mere commoner, had to be smuggled in under the guise of being an event, a festival; as a person, he would never have made it. But when Churchill died, he was thought so important that the ‘no commoners’ rule had to be relaxed and he got his stamps virtually overnight. The climate was changing and new ideas could take root.

At about this time, a radical MP called Tony Benn became Postmaster General; and one of the first things he did was to ask the public at large for ideas for improving stamps. I wrote to him with two key proposals. The first was to make the range of admissible subjects wider, more interesting and more coherent. Benn commissioned me to design an Album of a hundred new designs to show how such a policy would work. In order to reflect national history and achievements more vividly, the stamps in the Album showed sets of British scientists, inventors, engineers, architects, painters, and national flora and fauna. Many of the subjects suggested in the Album later became issued stamps.


Stamp-sheet on the Battle of Britain 1940, Royal Mail, 1969.


My second proposal was to leave the Queen’s head off. This was trickier. Almost all British stamps had been royal portraits. Some, like the Penny Black, the first stamp ever issued anywhere, were stately and beautiful; but generally they were respectful, conventional and dull. But as soon as stamps had to be pictorial or illustrative as well as including the head, a problem arose. The Queen’s head was an oblique photographic portrait, and I’d already found out that it was difficult to squeeze it in alongside anything else: the two elements were inevitably at odds. It was like trying to put both sides of a coin on the same side. So the Album also showed ways of replacing the Queen’s head with coats of arms or simply with ‘Great Britain’ or ‘UK’. My first Churchill and Battle of Britain designs had been essayed (proofed) without the Queen’s head and had been rejected. But as a fall-back, the Album also showed how the difficulty could be resolved if the head was reduced to a smaller profile silhouette. This was the option the Queen preferred and it has been used ever since.

I enjoyed designing stamps because the thinking could best be done alone in my studio. I used a different graphic approach for each new set, and often also a new medium: wood engraving, airbrushed Letra film, photography, mixed media, soft graphite used to pick up the top of my kitchen table; and eventually digital origination. Finding out how to do all this was exciting, even if it meant working all night to get them finished. The small scale was never a problem. Reducing an image to 25% for a stamp was little different from blowing it up to 2000% for a mural: on my retina they were the same size. But learning to exploit the printing processes took longer. Much of the charm or beauty of the early stamps had come from the magical skill of the craftsmen who engraved the designs on copper or steel. Even in the sixties, photogravure stamps still depended heavily not only on smelly acid baths and staff in gumboots, but on the printers’ brilliant but anonymous retouchers. Now the technology has changed again – printing cylinders are digitally engraved almost instantly – and the magic has to come from the minds of the designers. But designers have to be practical too, and this meant making sure the designs would print well, by seeing in the various alternative printing processes not their snags but their different virtues. I liked the soft tonal gradations of photogravure for Concorde, the BBC loudspeaker, the hull of the Great Britain. But gravure breaks up at the edges – blow a gravure stamp up enough and instantly it’s all cells – and offset doesn’t.


Social Reformers: Robert Owen, Royal Mail, 1969.


The clean sharp edges of offset determined the way I designed the mechanical Post Office Developments set. Digital origination is quick and useful but it also creates new problems: working alongside the printers to originate the Millennium design digitally was tricky because their computer couldn’t yet cope with subtle colour overprinting.

The stamps’ subjects were always already settled, but working out how to depict or express them was up to the designer; and it took time. There are always plenty of options, but identifying the right one is difficult. Yet if one didn’t have this responsibility, the task would be boring: the designer, as the person who has thought hardest about it, is certainly the best judge. I’ve always been given a free hand, initially by friendly but mystified Post Office officials still wholly ignorant about design, and later on by Royal Mail’s experienced design directors. But as marketing grows more pervasive, designers risk finding themselves merely its useful handmaidens, lumbered with other people’s newly acquired agendas and ambitions. And since the Royal Mail is still only semi-privatized, the government too can still stick its oar in. Once a set of stamps I’d designed for an ecological theme, designs that the Post Office had already accepted, were turned down under pressure from a right-wing and business-obsessed government to make them more industry-friendly. I was invited to do this, but rather than emasculate my designs for a subject as important as the environment, I resigned the commission.


Concorde, Royal Mail, 1969.


Stamps in the sixties were news and for a while I enjoyed the mild excitement of interviews in the press and on television and appearing in a Post Office film. My experiences then taught me that it was possible to challenge convention and confound my sceptical or anxious clients by turning ideas and designs they’d considered revolutionary into normal usage.

Designing these early stamps taught me a lot. I realized that they had to be simple but intelligible; that they shouldn’t be overloaded or stuffy or obvious or obscure. They had to catch the eye, make people look and perhaps even think. The overall experience also taught me self-confidence, determination, tenacity and some degree of flexibility. These have stood me in good stead in the rest of my work.

But where stamps are concerned I now feel a detached observer of a changed scene, even wondering sometimes if there are now too many new issues. The Royal Mail has to hire celebrities to get the press interested in them. If selling stamps to philatelists is more profitable or less troublesome than delivering letters, it makes financial sense to issue more and more of them.

But it would be a pity if even in these electronic times they were to degenerate into mere articles of merchandise produced mainly in order to be collected. I’d rather feel that stamps will go on keeping their practical usefulness as a postal necessity, a way of getting a letter delivered, just as the Penny Black was.

David Gentleman, London, 2006


Essay taken from 'AGI: Graphic Design Since 1950' by Ben & Elly Bos