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Everything I needed to know about do good design, I learned from my dad

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My Dad’s 85th birthday passed just a little while ago. I can remember back when he introduced me to stamp collecting. I was just five years old, and I don’t think he realized that he was actually introducing me to a lifelong love of graphic design, typography, printing techniques … not to mention a love of travel. (Social justice came later.)

Photo of the Sri Lankan stamp seller showing his stamp collections.

In Sri Lanka, Saminda Leel Gunaratne shares his passion for stamp collecting

Discovering design in my Dad’s stamp collection

I recall it as a Sunday morning: Dad was working on his collection and I was so fascinated that he presented me an envelope of around 1,000 stamps and a magnifying glass! I spread them out all over the floor of my room, some torn from envelopes, some loose, some mint, some postmarked. They were from all over the world! India, Ceylon, Israel, USA, and of course from across Canada.

All the kids in my family were stamp collectors, however I soon far out-obsessed my siblings. Later I’d get a morning Globe & Mail route just so I could earn money to fuel my addiction to the monthly philatelic show at Ottawa’s Chateau Laurier. By then I was into watermarking paper varieties, nerdily discerning intaglio from lithography on turn-of-the-century definitive issues. It was the older stamps that intrigued me as much as the variety of places and cultures and alphabets and typefaces. It’s how I learned to distinguish printing techniques and paper and letterforms and appreciate history and culture … and how to balance a budget too. Perhaps everything I needed to learn to be a graphic designer I learned from my Dad.

Design thinking in Sri Lanka

Fast forward to last month in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), on my way to speak in Goa at India’s most celebrated design pilgrimage, Rajesh Kejriwal’s DesignYatra (literally “design pilgimage” … another story!).

In my last hours in Colombo, Sri Lanka, just before heading on to southern India I insisted that we visit the War Memorial, and it was on the way there at twilight that I ran into a man named Saminda Leel Gunaratne.

Saminda was urging tourists to exchange 1,000 Sri Lankan rupees (around $10) for a small collection of Sri Lankan coins and stamps. I was happy to oblige, as I love bringing home currency and I had just a few hours left in the country. I was wrong to think he was just in it for the money–the transaction was complete, yet Saminda kept telling me about his passion for stamps from around the world and why he loved them so, and in turn I told him of my love of stamps and how they eventually led me to over 50 countries.

I told him I’d be pleased to send him some stamps from far-off lands, and asked him how many he’d like. He fell quiet. I said, “ask for what you want in this world. Please give me a number.” After some thought, he humbly declared “between one and 1,000.” And so I told him that I would send him 1,000 stamps. Which I’ve just packaged up for him and sent from my long-neglected collection.

Pay it (or mail it) forward

Wouldn’t it be fun if Saminda were to receive thousands of stamps from all around the world? Let’s make it happen. Email me or tweet me and I’ll send you his address. Or, send your stamps to David Berman Communications at 340 Selby Avenue, Ottawa, K2A 3X6, and I’ll send them on. Let’s pay forward some graphic design inspiration and shared joy.

Designing a better world starts with building trust. And great design is often about exceeding expectations.

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Reviewed November 7, 2014


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