Making a Mark


A series of illustrations by HKDI students will be featured on a new set of stamps issued by Hong Kong Post on October 17 this year.

The postage stamp was, of course, invented for entirely practical purposes. Its basic function, payment for postage, has been performed since the 1880s, if not earlier. The design of a stamp comes with its own unique set of challenges and opportunities that have provided a space for countless designers to experiment and explore. For example, designers have experimented with alternatives to printing stamps on paper; in 2004, the Swiss Post issued a stamp printed on 0.7mm thick pine wood. The stamp was created by a Swiss Post in-house designer, Thomas Rathgeb. Unusually for a postage stamp, the material meant every stamp was slightly different due to the visible grain of the wood.

Modern stamps are often ‘tagged’ with fluorescent or phosphorescent dyes. This serves a dual purpose; firstly it allows text-reading and franking machinery in sorting offices to align correctly with the envelope. In addition, it adds another layer of complexity to the design of the stamp, making counterfeiting more difficult. In fact, many of the most notable design features of stamps stem from the need to provide security - to make stamps difficult to forge. Traditionally this has been done by using printing techniques that are difficult to replicate. Intaglio printing produces very high quality images that are almost impossible to replicate. But it is a costly, labour and skill intensive process, meaning that few countries; Sweden, Denmark, Slovakia and the Czech Republic among them, still use this technique for their stamps. Microprinting is used for similar reasons - miniscule lettering included in designs make for stamps that are hard to forge.

To provide a yet higher level of security, there have been experiments with holographic stamps. The US Postal Service produced a holographic stamp for the World Stamp Expo 2000 and in 2015 Jersey Post issued a holographic £5 stamp. Of course, design features such as holograms and microprinting increase the cost and difficulty of producing sets of stamps. For this reason, stamp design tends to be a highly collaborative process; Jersey’s holographic stamp design was a collaboration between the Manchester-based design agency True North, security printers Cartor International and the German hologram manufacture, Kurz.

Many designers have embraced design elements developed as security features and put them to use in imaginative ways. A 2016 Royal Mail issue designed by Studio Sutherland celebrated the work of crime writer Agatha Christie by featuring designs containing hidden ‘clues’ relating to the crimes featured in Christie’s novels. Some clues were hidden by microprinting and could be revealed with use of a microscope, others were hidden with the use of fluorescent ink that is only visible under UV light, or even heat sensitive ink that only becomes visible when slightly heated.

With ubiquitous home computing now a reality, there is an alternative to buying postage stamps at the post office that is both more secure and more convenient. The United States Postal Service allows customers to buy stamp paper imprinted with phosphorescent dye and print their own stamps at home, by paying online and generating a unique QR code. This system also has the advantage of allowing customers to print a single stamp of the precise value required for the weight of their package rather than having to buy several stamps and round-up the value. Better still, some posts, including Royal Mail in the UK, allow customers to carry out the whole process at home without even buying specialised stamp paper. Thanks to the latest cryptography techniques, customers can pay for and generate a unique QR code that cannot be reused or counterfeited.

But if traditional stamp design has always been driven by security concerns, and QR code postage labels solve the problem of security while also being more convenient, is there a future for the postage stamp as we know it?


Clearly, many customers prefer the old-fashioned way of sending a letter - and some privacy advocates have voiced concerns that putting a QR code on a letter means that it can be traced from the person who payed online for postage all the way to the recipient, opening up the possibility that governments could harvest surveillance data from letters sent and received. However, as demonstrated by the millions of customers who use of social media, convenience always wins out over privacy. And so, the replacement of traditional picture-stamps with uninteresting barcodes would seem inevitable were it not for the popularity of philately; collecting stamps has long been a popular pastime and may be one of the last things keeping them from becoming obsolete. With this in mind, posts around the world have sought to deliver ever more collectable designs to attract ever more collectors. With the vast number of stamps issued collecting the stamps issued within a single country can become an impossible task, prompting philatelists to collect according to themes; for example, stamps featurings birds, landscapes or buildings. This has led collectors to specialise in ever more esoteric subjects, such as bicycles, or even beards. 
In the world of collecting, where the rarest are also the most sought-after, the most valuable are those with unusual printing errors that were not spotted before the stamp was issued. So it is unusual for stamps to become famous for their design alone. However, some designs such as the Penny Black or the Machin Series have become iconic in their own right.

Collectable for its far-reaching historical impact, the Machin Series of stamps was first issued in 1967 after several years of development led by the Artist Arnold Machin. The series has been in continual use since its first issue, making it perhaps the longest-serving stamp design anywhere in the world. Stamps derived from Machin’s portrait of Queen Elizabeth II have been used around the world, including in Hong Kong until their replacement in 1997, in anticipation of the handover of sovereignty.

Of perhaps even greater historical importance, the Penny Black is regarded as the world’s first postage stamp. Issued in 1840 from an engraving by Charles and Frederick Heath based on a sketch by Henry Corbould, the design was used for all subsequent Victorian stamps. A total of 68,808,000 Penny Blacks were made. Nowadays, a used Penny Black can be bought for a little over HK$150 but a mint-condition example can cost many thousands of dollars, depending on whether it still has the adhesive gum on the reverse or whether the margins of the stamp have been trimmed.

David Gentleman’s example demonstrates how the commissioning of a new stamp can be highly political. The Royal Mail Stamps Advisory Committee oversees the design of stamps in the UK. Until 1965, the committee was chaired by famed art historian Sir Kenneth Clarke. Clarke was dedicated to keeping the face of the queen on stamps, declaring that “the admission of pictorial stamps would lead to complete banality”. However, the arrival of designer David Gentleman, supported by a new Postmaster General, the left-wing politician Tony Benn, led to Clarke resigning his post. Gentleman owed his reputation as an innovator to his work for Penguin Books, creating covers featuring modernist woodcuts paired with striking Helvetica typography. Applying his modern sensibilities to stamps, Gentleman went on to design more than 100 stamps for Royal Mail.

The design of stamps is highly specialised and presents the designer with a unique set of problems to solve. Students from HKDI are among the latest to take on this challenge; a new series of stamps to be issued later this year by Hong Kong Post will feature designs by HKDI students depicting the qipao, a figure-hugging style of dress which has come to epitomise Chinese femininity. The highlight of the series, which will be issued on October 17, will be the HK$20 stamp which will be printed in the shape of the silhouette of a qipao on special cloth-textured paper. The students working on the project made use of many sources when researching the qipao.

“There was a long period of in-depth research. Aside from using books for reference, our team is thankful to several overseas collectors, the Hong Kong Society of Cheongsam Artistry, and the qipao master tailors who shared items from their collections as well as lots of very important information,” said HKDI lecturer Ashley Ng, who was involved in the project.

According to Ng, hands-on research and input from experts were essential parts of the project. The students worked to produce hundreds of qipao illustrations. From those, Yolanda Law and Mel Chan were selected to contribute their artwork.

“Women’s apparel has always been an indicator of social status,” Ng said. “In the old days they would purchase their favourite fabrics and tailor their own designs, trends were influenced by celebrities rather than by designers. So the qipao reflects changes in women’s rights, ideals of beauty as well as Chinese culture.”

Designing a stamp comes with a very particular set of challenges; not least because a stamp gives the designer such little room to utilise.

“Some artworks that we worked with were very detailed and had to be given up on due to the issue of resizing,” Ng said. “Each artwork had to be prepared very carefully to fit the specific decade it represents, from changes in hairstyles to make-up, the length of the dress and the pattern. All this has to be shown clearly in a small space. A lot of time was spent communicating between the students and the experts to make sure that we got everything just right.” Thanks to such in-depth research, this collection of stamps is a collectable document of social and cultural history. And, as a Chinese cultural symbol with global appeal, it is only fitting the qipao should adorn letters sent around the world from Hong Kong.