• 05.19.17

The Story Behind The USPS’s First Color-Changing Stamp

An art director at the USPS explains why stamp design is more important than you think.

The United States Postal Service has been in existence since 1792, but that doesn’t mean this centuries-old agency isn’t trying to keep up with the times–at least when it comes to stamp design.


In commemoration of the upcoming solar eclipse that will be visible across the continental U.S. this summer–on August 21, to be exact–the Postal Service is debuting a new stamp that uses temperature-sensitive ink. The stamp depicts a solar eclipse, when the moon passes between the Earth and the sun, casting a shadow on the planet’s surface and making the corona brilliantly visible. But when you put your finger on the stamp, the ink activates, and the dark mass over the sun is revealed to be the moon.

The stamp was created by the graphic designer Antonio Alcalá. Alcalá is the founder of the Alexandria, Virginia, design firm Studio A, which does a lot of work for D.C.’s multitude of museums, including the National Gallery of Art, the Folger Shakespeare Library, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Library of Congress. A graphic designer by training, Alcalá has been an art director for the USPS since 2011. He has designed stamps of the solar system and of Pluto in the past, making him the USPS’s de-facto space stamp designer–a role he inherited from a retiring designer when he was first invited to join the team.

Alcalá believes that stamps are a particularly potent way of what he calls “branding the United States.”


[Image: Antonio Alcalá/USPS]
“It’s one of the few things that goes out with the message about who the United States is, what we celebrate, what are important events and people in our history,” Alcalá says. It goes to every town, every house in the United States. It’s a pretty powerful and effective communications piece.”

This is the USPS’s first stamp that uses thermochromic ink, in what may be an effort get people excited about stamps and paper mail in the age of the web. A different upcoming design will use a UV coating, another first for the USPS, to “enhance the content and the sensation of this particular stamp subject.” While the stamp is still under wraps, I’d wager a guess here–it might be the sun, which he mentioned looking into as a potential design.


“They are increasingly looking at different print techniques that they can introduce to the stamps that make them more than just a piece of paper,” Alcalá says.

[Image: Antonio Alcalá/USPS]
This stamp in particular is meant to celebrate science and the U.S.’s history of innovation in space–even if these seemingly elemental parts of the U.S.’s reputation are now under threat with President Trump’s proposed budget cuts for scientific research, including basic medical and climate change research. After all, no stamp–even one with thermochromic ink and a clever design–can save the country’s brand if it continues to devalue science.

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Follow her on Twitter @kschwabable.