The Daily Heller: All Creatures Small and Smaller

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March 3 was United Nations World Wildlife Day (I missed it) but for the occasion, the design consultancy Osborne Ross (founded in London in 2001) are reshowing their exquisite postage stamp issues for Royal Mail, highlighting insects of the British Isles threatened with extinction. I'm glad they did, as I had missed the stamps too when they were first released in 2008 (as well as their innovative and witty "Animail" series). So, this gave me the chance, being a closet philatelist, to ask some philatelic questions. Enjoy the gorgeous stamps, bugs and answers below (and be prepared to see philatelic rarities).

Who is the lead at the postal office who commissioned the stamps?

There is a small team at Royal Mail responsible for the commissioning of stamp design. The team will approach two or three people: designers, illustrators and/or photographers, with the same brief. The submitted designs are put in front of the Stamp Advisory Committee, and from these, one is chosen to go forward (occasionally two will go through for development before a decision is made). The final design is taken to Buckingham Palace to obtain royal approval before the set is issued.

Your Endangered Insect stamps transform these otherwise creeping, crawling and flying creatures into luminescent gems. Have you done other postage themes, as well?

We’ve had some success over the years and have so far had around 14 sets go to print.

Who did the actual design?

Osborne Ross consists of Deborah Osborne and myself [Andrew Ross]: We’re the designers. Due to the seasonal availability and rarity of these insects, specimens were used from the Natural History Museum; the photography was by the in-house photographer and the retouching was by Richard Baker. Some of the specimens were from as far back as the 1930s, so Richard had quite a job on his hands.

U.K. stamps are so gorgeous. They must be a real treat to work on?

Over the years we’ve had really varied stamp issues to design. One of the joys of working on these subjects is that you get to work with people who are very passionate about their subject and you get to see things through their eyes. Their excitement is infectious.

Are there any constrictions and restrictions with your concept?

With the insect stamps, we wanted to convey the idea that these little creatures were scuttling over the paper of the stamp, and that you had just caught them mid-scuttle. We wanted all other required items—the value, the Queen's head, the caption—to be as recessive as possible to allow the beautiful colors and details of the insects to sing out.

Who is the "market" for these endangered issues?

There was no specific market for these stamps: They were put into general circulation and were available at all post offices. Of course, philatelists take a special interest in all new issues and represent a significant market.

Keeping with the "all creatures big and small" theme, I'm fascinated by your series "Animail." Great pun title and even more brilliant visual pun design. Tell me about this unique collection.

Animail was a set of six stamps that were issued in 2016. Each stamp is designed to allow the character’s hands, feet or tail to fold around the edge of an envelope or postcard, resulting in the animal appearing to be holding onto your letter or parcel.

Did the postal service know what to expect? Or did you shake the foundation of the House of Windsor?

The brief from Royal Mail was very open: “Design something which has never been done before and which will appeal to children.” We presented several ideas but this was the one that everyone liked from the very start. We tried variants using people but animals gave more scope in terms of hanging and clinging onto things; they were also inherently cuter. It was then a matter of coming up with a set which had variety in terms of color and shape as well as what kind of creature it was—not too many birds nor too many mammals.

Once this was narrowed down it was a matter of reworking each creature to conform with the technical requirements of a stamp: how far down the stamp should be on an envelope, how far in, which colors to use to enable a good phosphor reading for sorting. This required sending trial stamps through the system and resulted in several stages of adjustment.

The images are fabulous (to use a critical term). Who did them?We did all the illustrations ourselves in a simple geometric way to start with. This was then tempered with a little friendliness and quirkiness to give the creatures personality. We wanted simplicity because the images have to work so small and had to allow a suitable area on each one to allow for the Queen’s head and value. It was also useful to have straight edges in some places, which allowed for perforations: part of the visual language of a stamp.

Don't they break too many of the rules of postage stamps?There are the preconceived notions of what a
stamp looks like, which you need to be mindful of. Otherwise you end up with something which looks more like a sticker than a stamp; this stamp issue was a balancing act of mixing the fun of the brief with the gravitas of the object.Once you have a design that everyone is happy with, the design has to jump through a second hoop in terms of technical constraints: how big it is, its positioning on the envelope, and in this instance there was also the matter of how much the stamp could appear on the back of the envelope!We needed to be mindful of both of these sets of criteria—in order not to create a trap for ourselves further down the line—whilst trying to create something which hadn’t been done before.