Stamps: The angels of nation branding

Recently, as we have been discovering and sharing stories about stamps and their creators, we began to notice how these tiny pieces of paper could play a huge role in building a nation’s brand.

By Siddharth Khandelwal and Swati Paranjpe

Original 3D relief taken from The Standards Manual

Over the last week, in a seemingly serendipitous confluence, we were looking into the American Revolution Bicentennial stamps. At the same time the turmoil in Afghanistan kept growing. Every message around the evolving situation has been heart wrenching and trying. It is impossible to say with any certainty where the root cause of this never-ending cycle of pain and tumult lies. For Americans however, the country’s downfall to the Taliban must appear to be fairly dystopian.

The American Revolution Bicentennial stamps.

Ironically, America found itself in similar straits in the early 70’s. The years leading up to the 200 year anniversary were rife with internal strife. As Christopher Bonanos recalls, “The preparation for the American Revolution Bicentennial was a nationwide moment of cognitive dissonance, and had that happened ten or twenty years earlier, the celebration would have been unambiguous. Instead, during the several years of planning, inflation spiked; the Vietnam conflict ended with a retreat; Israel and Egypt kept shooting at each other; and Richard Nixon quit the presidency after most of America decided that, no matter what he said, maybe he was a crook. Everyone seemed to hate everyone else’s hair and what it stood for.

The rest of the world saw America as a great power, but Americans themselves were living through a period the writer Thomas Hine has called the Great Funk.”

The Great Funk of 1970’s America saw mass protests and disillusionment with offices of power. Image credit: The History Collection

Siddharth: “The job of a graphic designer is, often, to take dissonance and turn it into clarity.” This poignant line by Bonanos is apt for what Bruce Blackburn was able to achieve. Famous for designing NASA’s iconic “worm” insignia, he was also responsible for the creation of the symbol to commemorate 200 years of the American Revolution, while working at the design firm Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv. He described the task as — “What an intimidating challenge, just take 200 years of history and distill them into a form that would make a good lapel pin. Not exactly a piece of cake.”

A truly unique problem statement, one any designer — including myself — would love to create a solution for.

The construction of a rounded, softer star that is palatable and celebratory. Image credit: The standards Manual

Blackburn’s process and the story of his experience was an interesting design read. Inspired by the 5 pointed star from an early version of the Revolutionary Flag, he borrowed the historic reference, but toned down its military aggression. By wrapping the star in stripes of red, white and blue bunting, he created a unique surrounding star, rounded and soft, to make it more palatable and celebratory.

Like most commissions the timelines were tight and after a presidential review, the symbol was encased in verbal information to make it look more official. For this reason only the stamps and the first day cover — released in 1971 — carry the original symbol as designed by Blackburn without any additions or changes. The encased unit was then blasted across countrywide celebrations — used at events, as souvenirs, on proclamations and even on the Viking Mars Lander.

First Day Cover stamps that showcased the four military units of the revolution.

SWATI: The spirit of revolution and unity inspired by the 200 year celebration, allowed Americans to rise above their dissonance. July 1976 was a grand party. The identity and stamps were a balm for the country’s internal tumult and are remembered with nostalgia and pride. A timeless clarion call for what the nation should mean to its citizens. A powerful message on a tiny canvas.

What are the Taliban if not a local militia? One whose ideology we may not agree with, just as the revolutionary ideals of the Americans did not sit well with the foreign powers that controlled them. Will posterity remember them as the villains of the story? Or will they be honoured as revolutionaries, freeing their nation from foreign influence?

If and when the Taliban’s stamps are released, will they also become the heroes of their nation’s history?

SIDDHARTH: As Afghanistan’s future unfolds, let us remember — one man’s terrorist is another’s hero. If and when the Taliban’s stamps are released, will they also become the heroes of their nation’s history? This is the power that stamps have, to reaffirm or alter a nation’s narrative. When future generations look back to connect the dots, what will the stamps of today show them?

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