What could be more demanding than a commission to design an image the size of a matchbox, with a print-run of 350 million? And not just one image, but a treatment across four or five others, to be published as a series, while remembering that each one has to work in isolation. And the images must fulfil another set of criteria, namely to produce a contemporary visual identity for a nation. Add this to the fact that HRH herself has the final word and the task becomes, to say the least, daunting.
The task? Designing a set of commemorative stamps for the Royal Mail. They may be small, but they must be perfectly formed, and Barry Robinson, head of the design and editorial department at the Royal Mail, will see that they are. Immensely proud of the Post Office’s design heritage (did you know that the film unit is credited with having invented the documentary back in the Thirties?), Robinson spells out the profundity of the task: “What we’re engaged in is the last remaining public patronage exercise on a large scale.”
The Royal Mail’s set-in-stone list of “criteria and conventions” makes challenging reading for any prospective designer of commemorative stamps: “To reflect the British contribution to world affairs, in a variety of fields of activity including the arts and sciences… and to reflect the many and varied aspects of Britain and the British way of life… (while) any topic which may be controversial or cause offence nationally or internationally is avoided, particularly implication of propaganda whether it be religious or political.”
Before joining the Post Office in the late Seventies, Robinson’s background was in corporate identity. He worked as design manager at Wolff Olins during the heyday of the mega-marque (BOC, ICL, Bovis). When the corporation split into three divisions – Royal Mail, Post Office Counters and Parcelforce – he then took his department over to the stamps programme because, as he candidly admits, “I thought there was quite a lot to be done.” With an eight-strong team of designers, including right-hand woman Jane Ryan, and “wordsmith” Philip Parker, the department is responsible for commissioning and seeing through to production more than 300 design projects annually, including nine sets of commemorative stamps.
From first-day covers to presentation packs and the Royal Mail Special Stamps year book, which tells “the stories behind the stamps”, to air letters and maintenance of the definitives, the variety of projects allow for a sliding-scale of aesthetic approaches, from the traditional to the wildly innovative, with the “specials” free to veer between the extremes.
“I look on the specials as having a three-way benefit. First of all, the designers who are commissioned get a public platform around the world for their art – 75 million copies of an ordinary stamp, and at Christmas about 350 million… and they get paid a professional fee. We’ve never accepted speculative work. We benefit because we make money out of it every time someone buys a stamp either to use or put in a collection. Last year the Royal Mail made a pre-tax profit of 411m.
“And the public actually receives beautiful stamps on their doormat. We don’t fool ourselves that we please all the people all the time. If you’re commissioning artists or designers who’ve got something to say, then hopefully that tiny bit of paper is making a powerful statement. It’s a backhanded compliment if someone takes the time to write an eight-page letter on ruled paper, addressed to the postmaster general, London, saying, ‘this is disgusting’. So they’ve noticed it, and all we can say is hopefully they’ll like the next set.”
The process of selecting those subjects is further complicated by the fact that it isn’t design and editorial, but the marketing department which has the final say. After sifting through 2000 suggestions a year from the public and organisations celebrating anniversaries, as well as suggestions from design and editorial, a shortlist is market-researched. According to Rosena Robson, senior product manager of the Philatelic Marketing Department, the list is a collaboration between the two departments. For Robinson, what is most important is that: “In 100 years’ time people will look back and say: ‘How did they get away with that? Look at this fantastic piece of work by Andy Goldsworthy or David Hockney. How did [the Post Office] persuade them to do a set of stamps?'”
He continues: “Marketing is primarily interested in the collectors’ market. Philatelists want a stamp that’s line-engraved, printed in intaglio and displays traditional values, while a collector using the British Philatelic Bureau in Edinburgh (a Royal Mail service which posts first-day covers to subscribers) will probably be more interested in the popular themes of flora, fauna, transport and the Royal Family.”
With such a multi-headed monster of a task to fulfil, Robinson falls back on his legacy of corporate design. Without being drawn on the Post Office Group’s implementation of its identity, he is happy that his department is able to set its own standards. “The problem with stamps is that they’re such small items, so we create a mini-identity for each of the issues, across the presentation packs and first-day covers. We choose not to use too many of the basic elements of [Post Office/Royal Mail] branding.” This constitutes a serious management project, commissioning three groups of designers or individual image-makers (illustrators and photographers) to work on each set of stamps. Once the stamps are designed, other commissions for promotional material (with an average print-run of 300 000 for a presentation pack), will go to a further group of graphic designers.”
The three-into-one tactic is intended to generate variety. Design and editorial staff carry out initial research into the shortlisted subjects before choosing creative teams to take the idea off in various directions. Robinson says: “I’m always on the look-out for designers and illustrators because you never know who you’re going to need. As sponsors of the RSA student design bursary, we have a finger on the pulse of every design college, we keep in touch with the generation coming up and subsequently commission them.”
Last year’s Christmas stamps were designed by Royal College of Art illustration graduate Laura Stoddart, the youngest person ever to design a British stamp, while Beaulieu’s official photographer Simon Clay, who shot the images for Classic Sports Cars (another 1996 set), was spotted by design department personnel while researching at the National Motor Museum.
Briefing the three teams is an art in itself. Robinson’s most basic requirement? “You have to ask, ‘what is going to have the best impact on the envelope?'” Supplied with sheets of blank stamps, four-up enlargements, and templates of the values and Queen’s head, the hopefuls are given a couple of months to think and discuss, during which time they’ll have at least three more meetings with Robinson’s team. The final art work must meet the “criteria and conventions” and certain operational requirements, but Robinson is wary if an idea looks too finished too soon. He explains: “We try not to bog the designers down with details. When the editor of the yearbook asks designers what their brief was they nearly always say ‘we had a totally free hand’. But we’re the hands that steer the boat; We’re not up front… stamps are all about distilling an idea down to its basic element.”
Remaining totally impartial, Robinson then presents the three treatments to the Stamp Advisory Committee (SAC). Evolving from a Design Council committee when then postmaster general Tony Benn introduced special stamps back in the Sixties, the committee wasn’t brought in-house until the Post Office became a corporation. The current committee of 12 is intended to represent a cross-section of users and experts, with enough experience and knowledge to offer advice on improvements.
The SAC has been known to reject suggestions and revert back to an original treatment. But, once approved by the SAC, the proposed design ascends through ministerial ranks, via diplomatic bag, to the Queen, who Robinson praises as “fairly liberal”. When a design is finally “adopted” the design and editorial team “research it to exhaustion”, and although they have no control over the print budget, will work with their securities printers and the designers to choose a suitable print method (photogravure, off-set litho or intaglio), and proof the stamp, perforations and all, “as many times as is necessary”.
Robinson is convinced that a process with so many stages, checks and possible pitfalls, keeps the creative pressure on. The successful originators of a set of commemorative stamps can safely say they’ve earned the accolade, the only drawback being that they’ll have a long time to wait before their next invitation to participate comes along. For the design bridesmaids who don’t make it, the fact that last year’s entire stamp programme came from first-timers, should be encouragement enough to accept Robinson’s next brief.
There’s no getting away from the fact that this process is long and arduous; “We can’t be trendy,” says Robinson, “because if you pursue trends in typography or illustration, those trends are gone after a year, and it takes us a year to issue.” With the stamps on sale for another 12 months after the date of issue they need staying power as well as instant impact. “But I don’t want to produce a set of stamps like any other from two or three years ago. If the stamps haven’t moved on, we’re not progressing.”
The evidence is there to see. From Stephanie Nash’s cool, spacious Twentieth Century Women of Achievement, to the Why Not Associates’ promotional material which accompanied Howard Brown’s Football Legends’ series, to Glenn Tutssel’s mirthful Big Stars from the Small Screen, which brought the strange world of the Clangers into close proximity with the Queen’s head, the calibre of ideas married to high quality image-making, produce tiny, but intense, statements which range from the heroic to the surreal.
The last word goes to one of the Royal Mail’s satisfied designers. Glenn Tutssel was very clear with his answer when asked about the experience of designing stamps. Quite simply, “a brilliant client to work with”.