Current 02/2008

Stamp Design

The issue of a new stamp also had the keen interest of the highest officials in the post office headquarters, the issuing body of the stamps. The printing was done by a special printing house nominated by the government as a printer for secured official documents. Stamp were security papers. A print run of stamps may very well represent a considerable value. Misprints of stamps - after its official release - could become almost priceless objects.

The design of stamps and its execution were exiting and glamourous. The designer had the attention of governmental big shots and press proofs were judged in special heavily guarded security environments. The designer's challenge was to create a precious graphic miniature. One was given the space of about six square centimeters to express value and delicate excellence. Most designers put far more time in the design than what was covered by the design fee.

Filatelists were anxiously waiting for any new issue and new releases were always accompanied by a printed booklet carrying the stamp series, a special first day stamp and a story about the designer and the process of the design. From the start you were sure that your stamp designs were given a proper place in history, a large global army of filatelists would take care of that part.

 

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Alas, this situation has dramatically changed over time. It all started with issuing more and more (special) stamp series, because it is very lucrative to do so. Stamps represent a value for a service that still has to be carrier out after its purchase and filatelists will never demand this service so in this case the mark-up of this small piece of printed paper is phenomenal. It is a bit like printing money. At first the new special issues were done to promote good causes or memorial dates of important social organisations. Then the post offices around the world were privatised so these organisations became even more profit driven. Advanced digital printing and the internet did the rest. Today you can order your own stamps over the web. To announce your wedding, your birthday, a new product or whatever you feel is appropriate. The amount of 'snail mail' has dropped dramatically, so the post tries to persuade its costumers to use the service by offering everyone some of the old glamour.

Not only personalised stamps can be ordered online, practically all traditional graphic products are on offer starting with a minimum order of one copy. Today you can announce your kid's birthday with your designs on the postcard, the stamp, the posters and you can send bound books with pictures to all participants after the party. Obviously, there will also be a special birthday website (with a webcam) and email newsletters, all broad(narrow)casted to be received by various outlets. A complete personalised media campaign for a birthday celebration of a toddler. Yours after a few mouse-clicks and a defensible attack on your credit card. Graphic design is in its heyday, but somehow the glamour has rub off a bit along the way.

 

Graphic Architects

During that time they knew that the involvement of a professional graphic designer was seen as an essential ingredient to achieve their goal. Not only architects felt that way but commercial and governmental organisations did too. What I vividly remember from my conversations with the architects was their envy about the position of graphic designers during that time. They saw graphic designers having direct access to the highest level of management, while they themselves often had to deal with specialised departments concerned with production space. Graphic design was seen as an important carrier of the organisation's mission, architecture was part of facilities management, the commodity provider of appropriate square meters.

 

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Boy, perceptions have changed. Architecture has moved from servicing carefully considered production space to the major carrier of a corporate style. Mayors and executive officers have all turned to architects to grab - preferably worldwide - attention for their organisations through breathtaking architectural designs. And some architects have delivered indeed what was required.

It seems as if graphic design has moved to the role of commodity provider. Direct access to top management has been cut off by the introduction of communication departments in organisations everywhere. Graphic designers deliver only the visuals for communication concepts in which development they themselves do not take part. Not particularly a structure where the profession of graphic design is challenged to move its frontiers. Architects certainly do not envy our position any longer. They all have graphic designers employed in-house.

Today, the graphic designers seem to envy the architect's position. The way they show it is not by attempting to get even the way the architects did before, but by calling themselves no longer designers but architects instead. Information architects were the first to adopt the qualification but now identity architects are also showing up, soon book, magazine, font, signage, interactive (and what else have you) architects will follow. Maybe it's time to abandon our much inflated designers qualification all together and call ourselves from now on: graphic architects.

 

One designer In Africa

Most of Africa doesn't even come close to this income figure. Our only (white) member on the black continent resides in South Africa, one of the wealthiest parts, although also supporting the biggest wealth apartheid on the planet. It is not likely that only a minimum level of general wealth is conditional for design to thrive in a society. Economic activity has to have reached the stage where selling services is prominent and governmental influence on society has to be sophisticated. Sometimes it seems that smaller societies are more likely to foster a more widespread advanced design culture than big ones, which tend to have concentrations in a few specific areas with dense cultural activities. None of these conditions apply to South Africa, yet the country carries cultural extremes worth mentioning.

 

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South Africa is a big powerful country. Since the international society lifted its trade embargo some years ago, tourism has taken off tremendously because of its stunningly beautiful nature. In some well protected parts of the country nature can still be observed from the times before humans aggressively changed the habitat to serve their own needs, for instance by killing all large mammals into extinction. In these areas humans must be caged to be protected and not the other way around. It is for us a compelling and humbling way to participate. The difference between the natural and the man made - designed - environment in South Africa cannot be bigger. Cities are on average compositions of various grades of ugliness and are probably instructive showcases of the results of bad city planning. Even the acclaimed city of Cape Town is hardly worth visiting anymore for the spoiled tourist. Nothing in the city is left that cannot be seen elsewhere in a better condition. The reasons it is still a popular holiday destination among the young must be found in its climate and the relatively low cost of partying.

The magnificent coast is stripped of its beauty in a breathtaking speed, as it happens or already has happened everywhere else. Especially construction during the last 30 years or so have been disastrous. The best designed environments are maybe the well guarded concentration estates for the particular group of wealthy people that like to live together exclusively sharing approximately the same age, skin colour, the same balance on their bank accounts and an exceptional fondness for the play of golf.

The once colonising powers have shaped the built environment of South Africa for the most part. And Western culture seems to continue its reign. The living conditions and culture of the indigenous population is extremely different by comparison. There is the absolute absurdity of the designs of some newly built townships: large conglomerations of identical tiny house cubicles, often with shared sanitation facilities, put closely together in a square grid on a treeless hill. It s difficult to imagine what went on in the heads of the designers when they conceived these constructions supposedly suitable for human dwelling. This is a country with enough engineering power to construct their own nukes and a hospital in Cape Town was once the home of the first heart transplantation. The self constructed shanty towns have a more human touch although extremely impoverished. Sometimes, the constructions bear a resemblance to the architectural designs of Frank Gehry or Coop Himmelbau, and look even more appropriate since clearly not designed out of esthetic preferences but obviously limited by materialistic constraints. Also the way tiny businesses try to imitate the graphic glamour of the West is interesting. These direct, naive and unskilled graphics expose sometimes painfully effective the shallowness of Western visual corporate culture.

It is good to realise that the indigenous African culture has had once a tremendous influence on the development of modern Western visual art. Picasso, for instance, has found essential inspiration for his work in the African masks and sculptures. The traditional mood arresting artefacts are still around. (Buy authentic African art, take it to your home and it feels like someone has moved in.) These artifacts are probably no longer used for their original purposes but they are still offered on the market, often for ridiculously low prices. Traditional masterpieces can be yours for the same amount as what you would be charged for to have a tasteless terrace beer on the Champs Elysées in Paris. Regrettably, all this magnificent stuff are things from the past. The hands that made them are all covered with earth. There are no successors, the new wood work is cheap tourist stuff, entirely uninteresting.

One cannot trot around in Africa without having occasional serious attacks of melancholy and nostalgia. Heart touching beauty and decline are steady companions. Society is in a painful transition. Nature can be preserved in windstill corners, human culture cannot. It dies when the minds, hands and hearts that carry it are starting to be busy with other things. It dies when the young loose interest and turn away.

 

Updates

Thomas Couderc work updates

Thomas Couderc has updated their work, see it here.

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Clément Vauchez has updated their work, see it here.

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Alexandre Dimos has updated their work, see it here.

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Alan Chan has updated their work, see it here.

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