The Extraordinary Design Journey of a Stamp—From Quasi-Secret Society to Perforated Perfection
PRINT on Print is a longform column focused on all things … print.
One inch by one inch.
A stamp doesn’t have to be thoughtfully designed. After all, as United States Postal Service Director of Stamp Services William Gicker points out below, it could simply feature a series of numbers or, say, a bar code.
But the remarkable thing is that stamps are thoughtfully designed—and how.
From the three-year lead time to the way the USPS works with designers and artists to “The Caves” where nearly 14 billion stamps are created every year, the marvelous process of creating stamps is a marvel in and of itself. And that’s not even taking into account what former PRINT New Visual Artist Ivan Cash dubs the “quasi-secret society” of which he is a member—the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee—alongside Gail Anderson, Peter Argentine, B. J. Bueno (chair), Kevin Butterfield, Spencer Crew, Cheryl R. Ganz, Mike Harrity, Joseph L. Kelley, Roger R. Ream, Harry Rinker, Maruchi Santana and Katherine C. Tobin.
“One of the amazing things about this,” Gicker says, “is most people don’t take the time to think about stamps at all—or if they do, it’s just like, ‘Oh, look at that.’ But that’s it. But there really is a lot that goes into it—a lot of time, and a lot of energy.”
Here, Gicker—who has been known to design and art direct stamps himself—exudes passion as he offers a guided tour of the raw materials that make the mail go round, and breaks down all things fantastically philately.
How’s your day going so far?
Oh, it’s going great. As the former director of Stamp Services used to say, “Every day is a stamp day.”
I love it. I’ve read that you’ve spent your entire career in the Stamp Services office, which is pretty extraordinary. What is it about stamps? Have they always appealed to you?
Well, I’ve got to say, as a kid, I think that I collected stamps for a short minute. My parents got me into a program that was put out by the Postal Service. I can’t say it really lasted, but what I found was, over time, looking back through all my stuff, there were certain stamps that caught my attention, so I just cut them off the envelope and kept them. I wouldn’t call myself a stamp collector, but it’s definitely within the stuff that I was drawn to and tucked away in all of my little tchotchke stuff.
You got your BA in English from West Chester University of Pennsylvania. Did you take any art or design classes back then?
One of my concentrations was photography. I’m not a graphic designer, but I do definitely have an interest in visual arts—also in spatial design. I worked a lot of retail during college, but what I really liked doing at retail was display work, creating visual displays. I was one of those students that, when I liked something, I just kept going with it. So by the time I graduated from college, I had a BA in English lit. I had minors in Russian and film criticism, and I had concentrations in women’s studies and photography. Because every time I liked something, I just …
The weird thing is, it was the perfect education to end up in stamps. I didn’t even know [such a career] existed, let alone have it be a goal. What I found here in my career at the Postal Service and Stamp Services is that it’s just a constant state of learning. Subjects come up from the public, they’re debated in CSAC—which is the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee—and by the time a stamp is issued, you know every facet of a subject that you had no prior knowledge of. I mean, it couldn’t have been a better fit.
What first brought you to the Stamp Services office?
Well, I actually came to the Postal Service for a one-day temp job. Like many people, I didn’t want to be a doctor or nurse or anything like that. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do after graduating from college. So I started temping just to feel out the world out there and see what different jobs felt like for different organizations.
It’s pretty extraordinary that a one-day temp job led to your lifelong career at the Stamp Services office.
Yeah. I can’t believe it’s been 22 years, but it has. But I would have stayed put because it’s just been fascinating, and you can’t say that about every job. So it’s been great. Of course, working with the design and with artists and designers—again, it adds this whole other element to the process and to my career that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
No doubt. To issue the wildly complex question: What essentially is the process? How does a stamp come to be?
The American public, believe it or not, is very interested in stamps. Stamp collecting certainly has waned a bit; it’s something that the older generations seemed more interested in, although there are still younger collectors. But what has been a continual source of fascination to me is we receive anywhere up to 30,000 suggestions a year from the American public requesting stamp [design] subjects.
It just never would have occurred to me before I got here that people would actually write in to request stamp subjects. But my group, Stamp Services, we actually respond to every one of those requests. We evaluate them. What we do is, there is a posted set of criteria on usps.com, and my staff, first, just makes sure that whatever’s being requested meets the criteria, hasn’t been done previously, or at least not within 25 years. If it meets the criteria, then it’s presented to the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, which has been in existence since 1957.
They, on a quarterly basis, review every subject that comes in from the public. When they review a subject, they do not see the originating letter. So it doesn’t matter if one person wrote in or if it was a petition with 10,000 names. It doesn’t matter if it was a senator or your grandmother. It’s a completely democratized system where they just simply see a subject, they know it has come in in that quarter, and they determine, based on the value or the merit of the subject matter itself, whether it should be considered for a stamp or not.
How big is your team that you have in-house?
There’s actually a few different parts to Stamp Services. Here at headquarters in D.C., there’s a stamp development group who oversees the process—from the time a subject comes in, they do the initial response, but all the way up through working with the committee of the design development, to the clearance process. All the way up, basically, until it’s released to our stamp manufacturing group, which is in Kansas City, MO. In Kansas City, MO, we have a facility out there that we call “The Caves.” It’s actually in an underground business park called SubTropolis.
So they oversee the printing process and distribution of all of our stamps. Then also out there is what’s called Stamp Fulfillment Services. They fulfill customer orders. … They also though are a distribution network for all of our Post Offices. So when new stamps come out, Post Offices will also contact Stamp Services, saying they want X quantity of stamps for their Post Office, and Stamp Fulfillment Services processes all of those orders as well.
I’ve always been fascinated by the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee. How do members get on? How are they appointed?
Well, they are ultimately appointed by the Postmaster General. Whether the Postmaster General selects them personally, or sometimes Postmasters General will come to my group and say, “Let’s consider some Millennial-aged people for the committee, or let’s do …” They might ask us, “What are we missing?” We try to have certain broad areas covered, like sports and history and literature and science. So they might come to us and say, “Well, what do you feel like you need on the committee as far as expertise or a voice for X?” Then we might make recommendations and gather names. We would research names of individuals and then we would present them to the Postmaster General, and then the Postmaster General makes the ultimate selection. The committee is only 15 people, so it’s not that big.
We don’t usually carry a full complement. Somewhere between 10 and 15 members are usually on it at any given time. They’re really representing the entire country, as far as trying to create programs, annual programs, that have as broad appeal as possible, but also a broad diversity mix. When I say diversity, I mean in many, many ways. Of course, diversity as far as racial diversity, but also gender diversity, topical diversity. If there’s pop culture, there’s also history. Really trying to create a good, broad snapshot of American culture and life in each year’s program.
When you’re trying to identify those subjects, in terms of the larger categorical things you want to focus on, what dictates that? Do you have brainstorms? Do you just have somebody coming up saying, “Hey, there’s an anniversary of this or that”?
Well, we do take into account anniversaries. So we’re very conscious of that. The committee does meet quarterly. They usually work three years out. So right now, for instance, they’re working on a 2023 program, and they do look at relevant anniversaries that will be taking place in a particular year, 2023 in this instance. …
When the committee reviews subjects from the public, they decide a “yes” or “no.” If it’s a “yes,” that doesn’t mean the subject’s guaranteed a stamp. It puts it into a holding bucket of ideas. So the committee revisits this. It’s called the “under consideration” list, which means that it made it [through] that initial vetting process. … Sometimes things come in that are very specific—let’s just say, a banjo player. I’m totally making that up. But they might say, “Well, I don’t know that there’s enough national recognition,” or “this person may not quite meet the standards of representing all banjo players,” or something, but “maybe banjo playing in and of itself is something we would like to recognize as a part of American culture.”
So they might use something as a springboard to do something else. It’s really a combination of things. Also, what they have approved for development that has not yet been assigned to a year or may have gotten bumped because sometimes we overproduce for a particular year if something doesn’t get through legal clearance or something like that.
For the three-year lead time, is that because of all the approvals, or the production process, or just everything all at once?
Yeah. It’s everything. The Postal Service very, very much takes the legal clearance process seriously. Ultimately, at the end of the day, when a stamp is released, we want it to be a very good news story. We want it to be positive because we very much see stamps as honoring the best of American culture. When a stamp gets issued, we don’t want any bad news. We don’t want any surprises. So we really do a lot of due diligence to ensure that if it’s, say, a person, we’ve worked closely with the estate, we’ve worked with consultants that are experts in a particular field to make sure that we know everything there is to know. We’ve checked out any red flags because, like I said, when that stamp comes out, we want it to be a celebration of whatever it is.
We want to really have all of our ‘i’s dotted and ‘t’s crossed. Also, really it does take time, sometimes depending on how complex a subject is, to design a stamp. It is one-by-one inch. Some things are simple. … But it might be a person who’s not very well known, and you want to convey what they’re being honored for. So if they were a biochemist or something, working at stamp size, a person’s name, face and something that starts to pique the interest enough. We know we can’t tell the whole story with a stamp, but we definitely want stamps to be educational, and we see them as … our current chair used a great term recently, as “the tip of the spear.” We want to engage a viewer enough that they want to know more.
Kind of a brilliant gateway. How do you select the designers that you work with? I mean, the ones I’ve talked to who have created stamps often hail it as the achievement of a lifetime.
Well, we are very thankful that most designers and illustrators do very much still see stamps as a benefit, something they really want to do. The Postal Service does not have a large budget or use a large budget, I should say, for stamp development. We pay our artists $5,000 max per design, whether that’s a painting or graphic design. In some realms, that’s not a lot of money. We work with portrait artists who, on an average commercial corporate portraiture, could be making between $75,000 and $100,000. So $5,000 then is very, very low, but they still are anxious to work with us, are happy to work with us, because of the honor of creating something that is part of our national identity. Because stamps are, at the end of the day, a limited security of the United States government. They’re like currency, but for limited use. But unlike currency, we get to celebrate our culture through them. Currency still has presidents, and that’s pretty much it. We get to highlight other parts of our culture, both people and events and things. It’s exciting to have it out there. But at the same time, we only do about 24 issues a year, so it’s still very limited. Considering we receive about 30,000 suggestions a year, we only do about 24—and maybe that’s even a little bit high. So it’s still quite an honor and quite a distinction to actually be on a stamp.
How do you go about choosing the people who create them—be they designers, illustrators, portrait artists?
Right. So we have working with us four people under contract to the Postal Service that serve as art directors. Those four are Antonio Alcalá, Greg Breeding, Derry Noyes and Ethel Kessler. They’ve been working with us for quite a long time. The challenge of working at stamp size can be confounding to artists and illustrators, especially if you’re used to doing poster work or portraiture, but our art directors are very good at working with artists and illustrators to figure out how to convey sometimes simple concepts, but sometimes complex concepts, down at stamp size. They’ve really developed an expertise at working at that scale. So the art directors are always on the lookout for new artists, illustrators, graphic designers, photographers. There are certain artists that we go back to quite a bit because, like I said, sometimes it is a challenge to get an artist to work at that scale. But we never give up. We keep trying. We always want new artists, new looks, trying to keep the program fresh and feeling very contemporary.
Just to circle back to one thing really fast—I read this, and I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it seems that ideas from the public have to be submitted via actual mail. Is that true?
I love it.
It’s hard to say—if someone sent us a very heartfelt email, we probably would still put it into consideration, but … the directions on our Postal website definitely say that all suggestions should be received by mail. I feel like if it’s important enough that you think it should be on a stamp, you should be able to take two minutes and write us a letter and use a stamp to mail it to us.
Exactly. You referenced this a little bit ago, but in terms of the print runs, what is the general output that you do each year?
First, let me just say there are commemorative stamps, which are issued on a yearly basis, and they’re printed in quantities [designed] to last about a year. Those quantities are based on past sales of like subject matter. It’s not an exact science, but it’s the best we have to go on. Then there are what you call Mail Use Stamps, so our flag booklets or our flower booklets. The print difference between those Mail Use booklets to commemorative stamps is pretty huge. So just to give you a rough example—for a commemorative stamp, we would probably print between 20 and 60 million, whereas with a flag booklet, we might print a billion stamps.
Last year, in 2020, we printed 13.7 billion stamps total for the whole year.
Yeah. So that’s one thing when we talk to artists that we always let them know.
What do you feel is the value and the importance of stamps and the Postal Service in society today?
I’m backing up just a little bit. So the reality is, stamps are, by nature, simply a ticket that tells the Postal Service that you paid for our service. You, when you buy a stamp, are actually buying our service. You’re buying the ability to send something from Point A to Point B, and we carry it for you. The stamp is essentially a ticket to show that you paid for our service, and then you stick that ticket onto the envelope, which proves that you’ve paid for our service. The reality is that [stamp] could have just been nothing—a little scrap of paper that has some numbers on it, or something. But postal administrations around the world, going back into the 1800s, decided that it should be more than just that. Personally, I find that very amazing.
So there started this tradition of putting presidents or queens or kings or other nationally significant marks or images on stamps. Then, as time went on, really around the world, but I’ll speak primarily to the U.S. Postal Service, we started putting other things on stamps. We slowly started incorporating more American culture rather than just our presidents or founding fathers. Then in the 1990s, a decision was made to start even looking at popular culture, and one of the first issuances that featured a popular culture icon was Elvis in 1994. Really, that was acknowledgement that, at least for our country, our pop culture is a major export, a great part of our culture. That maybe we should accept that into our stamp program—and it was hugely successful. People really went for the Elvis stamp. So I really see stamps worldwide as … I mean, we consider ours stamps to be our miniature works of art that tell the best story of America.
Part of our criteria is we don’t do disasters. We had a lot of calls after the Challenger disaster to do the Challenger disaster on a stamp, the Iranian hostage situation. Stamps are really a celebration of our country, and though those other type of items are very important and significant, they’re not really part of the celebratory telling of our culture. We have shied away from doing disasters or events that are negative in nature.
If I’m not mistaken, you’ve art directed and designed stamps yourself. What do you count as among your highlights?
Well, as a kid of the ’70s, definitely getting to work on the Star Wars stamps was a huge boon for me. I grew up with Star Wars as part of my life. So to get to work on that stamp pane, and then not even really realize it because we had worked with Drew Struzan many times prior to that, but incorporating his art style—I actually figured out later that he was the artist for some of the original poster work—made it that much cooler. So, certainly Star Wars.
[As for others,] Moss Hart was a playwright, but I had never heard of Moss Hart up until the time that we started working on [his] stamp. What was amazing to me was when we developed the stamp art, which was a very nice portrait with a Broadway setting behind him, his wife, his widow, was Kitty Carlisle. Now Kitty Carlisle I do remember from when I was young, watching these game shows with my grandparents, and Kitty Carlisle had boas and she was very fancy, very dressed up. I can’t say I knew her much because she had started out in Vaudeville. But when it came time to get the art approved, we actually went up to New York City where she lived to show her the art. We opened the container. … She just sat there and she pulled her hankie out of her sleeve and she just teared up and it was her Moss. So moments like that have made it all just very amazing. Now, I was not the art director or designer or anything on that one, but that type of experience has been something that’s made doing this just … it’s beyond the icing on the cake when you get to make someone’s day like that.
That’s amazing. You didn’t maintain a personal stamp collection as a kid. Do you now?
What I do collect are our annual yearbooks, and I have one for each year that I’ve been at the Postal Service, because it is really the yearly collection of our commemorative stamps. The stamps are in the books, but for me, looking through there, all the memories of what we went through to develop a stamp are in there.
Do you have a personal favorite stamp of all time?
I can’t say that I do. That’s partly because of that story I just told you. Certainly, there are stamps that have hardly any of those heartfelt-type memories, but there’s enough of them out there that the experiences, the people I’ve met, working with families, sometimes easy, sometimes not easy, it’s still memorable. It’s always been an amazing adventure. So I can’t say one particular stamp—but I think that it’s more just the whole process and the little gems that get revealed throughout.
This interview was lightly edited for clarity and condensed.
Special thanks to Ivan Cash.