There is something very odd about postage stamp design. In our discussion on flag design, we mention that many designers work on a very small canvas (about 1 inch by 1 ½ inches) because flags will often look very small to people who are far away and/or on the ground. This practicality then leads to a more simplistic design for the pros. But while postage stamps are always small, many times they are incredibly ornate. In fact, it often seems like people try and cram as much as they can in space that is usually about 1 inch by .87 inches.
There are a few things that make philatelists (that means stamp collectors) swoon or cringe, and this almost all of it is based around design principles. Here is how looking at the good and bad of stamps can help shape some of the ways you look at design:
Don’t Dumb it Down
We often talk about how you don’t want to go too complex or convoluted when you are doing design. It can confuse people or you may just be trying to say too much, muddling your message. But as this designer of a Forever Stamp says, she actually wanted to make people work a little to grasp her design. Does this mean you should be doing the same? Not necessarily, but it does show that not everything is black and white when it comes to design. You must always look at the context and not be afraid to challenge people if that can enhance the visuals. Yes, simplicity can be powerful, but sometimes your project may require asking more from your audience. Don’t be afraid to test them a little bit if it seems appropriate.
Don’t Be Confined
We can all visualize the traditional, rectangular postage stamp, and it almost seems sacrilege to approach it in any different way. But “A number of additional shapes have been used, including triangles, rhombuses, octagons, circles, and various freeform shapes including heart shapes, and even a banana shaped stamp issued by Tonga from 1969 to 1985.” You may not be working with the same kind of time-tested restraints that stamp designers do, but it’s not uncommon to feel boxed in by a certain set of design rules that seem unbreakable. Just remember that doesn’t mean you can’t be fearless and still try to break them.
Know Your Format
While experimenting can have amazing results, you also need to keep in mind that there are going to be limitations to what you can and can’t do. Just like how a stamp has limitations based on how it’s printed, you may need to make sure you’re not shooting off in directions that are physically impossible or will cause multiple headaches in the production process. Venture outside the box but make sure you don’t go so far that you can’t find your way back to a viable product. Strong graphic design allows for plenty that can be accomplished even when dealing with what seems like basic templates.
Review, Review, Review
Mistakes on stamps can be minor or massive, but they usually stem from oversights by multiple people. As a designer you are ground zero. That means you can make sure to keep mistakes to a minimum by constantly going back and double-checking to make sure you have all the details right and that nothing can be misconstrued before handing it off. Of course no one is perfect and mistakes can always slip past us, but part of being a designer is to not only make something great, but to make sure that you are not putting a faulty product in the client’s hands. Nothing hurts more than spending days working tirelessly on a project, only to have it mocked for years to come.