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How Postage Stamps Are The Ultimate Design Challenge

Book covers and posters often snag the limelight for design ephemera, but the small size of stamps make them "a design problem distilled."

  • <p>Hong Kong, 1971; designed by Kan Tai Keung</p>
  • <p>Montreal Olympic Games, 1976; designed by Alois Matanovic</p>
  • <p>125 Anniversary of the Red Cross, 1988; designed by Maurice Gouju and Raymond Coatantiec</p>
  • <p>Singapore, 1969; designed by Tay Siew Chiah</p>
  • <p>Paraguay, 1974; designer unknown.</p>
  • <p>Ireland,1976; 50th Anniversary of the Irish Broadcasting Service. Designed by Graham Shepherd and Al O’Donnell</p>
  • <p>Columbia, 1971; 6th Pan American Games (Cali). Designer unknown</p>
  • <p>Denmark, 1986; Designed by Morten Stürp</p>
  • <p>Finland, 1975; designed by Paavo Huovinen</p>
  • <p>Great Britian, 1965; Churchill Commemoration. Designed by David Gentleman.</p>
  • <p>Ireland, 1965; designed by Peter Wildbur</p>
  • <p>Lebanon, 1972; Munich Olympic Games. Designer unknown.</p>
  • <p>Italy, 1971; designed by E Ciocca</p>
  • <p>Poland, 1979; 30th Anniversary of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance. Designed by Wojciech Freudenreich.</p>
  • <p>Switzerland, 1975; designed by Walter Beutter</p>
  • <p>Netherlands, 1970; designed by Willem Graatsma and Jan Slothouber</p>
  • <p>Czechoslovakia, 1990; Free General Election. Designed by Rostislav Vanek.</p>
  • <p>United States of America, 1971; designed by John Larrecq</p>
  • <p>Japan, 1980; 24th International Geographical Congress 10th International Cartographic Conference. Designed by Fumito Otani.</p>
  • <p>Colombia, 1972; 350th Anniversary of Bucaramanga City. Designed by David Consuegra.</p>
  • <p>United States of America, 1976 ; American Revolution Bicentennial 1776—1976. Designed by Ivan Chermayeff and Thomas Geismar.</p>
  • <p>Australia, 1971; Australian Natives’ Association Centenary. Designed by Richard Beck</p>
  • <p>Netherlands, 2005; Business Coil Stamps. Designed by Martijn Sandberg.</p>
  • <p>Denmark, 1966; For the benefit of Danish Red Cross. Designed by Viggo Bang.</p>
  • <p>Australia, 1970; Standard Gauge Rail Link. Designed by Brian Sadgrove.</p>
  • <p>Belgium, 1970; 75th Anniversary, International Co-operative Alliance. Designed by J Malvaux.</p>
  • 01 /26

    Hong Kong, 1971; designed by Kan Tai Keung

  • 02 /26

    Montreal Olympic Games, 1976; designed by Alois Matanovic

  • 03 /26

    125 Anniversary of the Red Cross, 1988; designed by Maurice Gouju and Raymond Coatantiec

  • 04 /26

    Singapore, 1969; designed by Tay Siew Chiah

  • 05 /26

    Paraguay, 1974; designer unknown.

  • 06 /26

    Ireland,1976; 50th Anniversary of the Irish Broadcasting Service. Designed by Graham Shepherd and Al O’Donnell

  • 07 /26

    Columbia, 1971; 6th Pan American Games (Cali). Designer unknown

  • 08 /26

    Denmark, 1986; Designed by Morten Stürp

  • 09 /26

    Finland, 1975; designed by Paavo Huovinen

  • 10 /26

    Great Britian, 1965; Churchill Commemoration. Designed by David Gentleman.

  • 11 /26

    Ireland, 1965; designed by Peter Wildbur

  • 12 /26

    Lebanon, 1972; Munich Olympic Games. Designer unknown.

  • 13 /26

    Italy, 1971; designed by E Ciocca

  • 14 /26

    Poland, 1979; 30th Anniversary of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance. Designed by Wojciech Freudenreich.

  • 15 /26

    Switzerland, 1975; designed by Walter Beutter

  • 16 /26

    Netherlands, 1970; designed by Willem Graatsma and Jan Slothouber

  • 17 /26

    Czechoslovakia, 1990; Free General Election. Designed by Rostislav Vanek.

  • 18 /26

    United States of America, 1971; designed by John Larrecq

  • 19 /26

    Japan, 1980; 24th International Geographical Congress 10th International Cartographic Conference. Designed by Fumito Otani.

  • 20 /26

    Colombia, 1972; 350th Anniversary of Bucaramanga City. Designed by David Consuegra.

  • 21 /26

    United States of America, 1976 ; American Revolution Bicentennial 1776—1976. Designed by Ivan Chermayeff and Thomas Geismar.

  • 22 /26

    Australia, 1971; Australian Natives’ Association Centenary. Designed by Richard Beck

  • 23 /26

    Netherlands, 2005; Business Coil Stamps. Designed by Martijn Sandberg.

  • 24 /26

    Denmark, 1966; For the benefit of Danish Red Cross. Designed by Viggo Bang.

  • 25 /26

    Australia, 1970; Standard Gauge Rail Link. Designed by Brian Sadgrove.

  • 26 /26

    Belgium, 1970; 75th Anniversary, International Co-operative Alliance. Designed by J Malvaux.

Stamps aren't the sexiest of graphic design mediums. They call to mind nerdy kids carrying around stamp books or tweedy old guys with tweezers and a magnifying glass. They do, however, present an interesting design challenge: how do you effectively communicate a message with such a small amount of space?

Many brilliant designers have taken up that challenge, as the design publisher Unit Editions makes evident with its latest title Graphic Stamps: The Miniature Beauty of Postage Stamps. Drawn from the collections of Iain Follett, design director of the U.K.-based agency Six, and Blair Thomson, the Toronto-based designer who runs the Instagram feed Graphilately, the stamps collected in the book are the creations of famous and lesser-known designers alike who worked within the tiny, perforated perimeters. Lance Wyman, for example, designed stamps for several different projects, including the iconic identity for 1968 Olympics in Mexico City and this amazing series for the Mexico World Cup in 1970. Meanwhile, Dutch designer Wim Crouwel dabbled in stamp design for his national postal service. Experimental Jetset recently designed stamps for the opening of the Stedelijk Museum in the Netherlands.

These designs buck the musty reputation of postage stamps with simple, vibrant graphics. They are rendered in multiple colors with superfine detailing and flourishes like special inks, embossing, and foiling. The best ones do what all good design does—they convey a message clearly and effectively, while being visually engaging—but on a tiny, tiny scale.

As design writer Mark Sinclair puts it in an essay in the book, the restrictive size and shape of stamps is a "design problem distilled." "Stamps are messages conveyed via the smallest of media," he says. "They are communication in miniature. And they have been made in their billions." As devices get smaller and smaller—hello, smartwatch screens—there's a lot to be learned from these analog missives in miniature.

All Images: courtesy Unit Editions

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