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Who should we let you feature on your own postage stamp?

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For as long as I can recall, I’ve wanted to design a postage stamp.

My dad taught me his love of stamp collecting before I was six, and I went pretty deep with it. At 10, I was poring over differences between intaglio and rotogravure printing, and sleuthing perforation, inking and watermark differences in old scraps of government-issued paper from the 1800s.

In fact one of the reasons I became a graphic designer and typographer was very likely my nerdy amazement for postage stamps.

Someday perhaps I’ll be fortunate enough to join that elite of designers who have been commissioned to create a postage stamp. But I still got to design a stamp — and so can the rest of you. In this age where everyone is a designer, Canada Post has released its Picture Postage app (for iPhone, Android and Blackberry); every Canadian can now design their own stamp.

My niece Rachel and nephew Ami are becoming Canadian citizens this year. My brother and I were both born in Ottawa, however he moved to San Diego and both his kids are Americans. He recently decided to take advantage of the opportunity to have his kids get their Canadian citizenship. During their most recent visit to Canada, I happened to snap a photo with my smartphone of my niece signing her citizenship papers. I then promptly forgot about the photo along with all the other wonderful pictures on my phone that I never get around to sharing.

And then the Picture Postage app crossed my path. Eager to try it out, I went flipping through my phone for a photo and found the image of my niece. What a perfect gift to surprise her with when her citizenship comes through: a sheet of Canadian stamps in her honour! (Did I just ruin the surprise?)

Screen capture of David using the editing tool in Canada Post’s Picture Post app

So now that we all wield the power to publish designs with the Canada brand, who decides what themes, fonts and colour schemes are allowed to be made into a ‘Canada’ stamp? What will our government tolerate? Montreal student protests? Naked babies? CUPW slogans? Instructions for invading Flin Flon? What would happen if someone designs a stamp with caricatures of the Pope or the Prophet Mohammed? Visuals are powerful — and that’s the challenge. We can communicate images that celebrate family and accomplishment and the best of human values. We can urge people to create a better society. Or we can use images to hurt, to deceive, and to manipulate. And as new technologies create new possibilities, we must keep in mind that just because we can doesn’t mean we should.

I wanted to see the list of things you can’t put on a stamp. So, I got in touch with Canada Post’s Sally McMullen, product manager for Picture Postage. She tells me that ours is one of only a few national postal agencies that are crowdsourcing stamp design, and that the program will expand substantially next month.

It turns out that every image is vetted and scrutinized. No dictators, national flags, logos or copyrighted images, etc. are allowed. Once a week or so, Canada Post receives an image that requires a careful well-documented, approve-or-reject decision.

As well, Sally tells me that equally challenging for Canada Post designer Stéphane Huot was the development of the simple designs for the standing frames that surround the crowdsourced’s artwork. A dozen new frames are coming out November 5, 2012. We’ll see what Canada Post comes up with — there’ll be customizable photo postcards and greeting cards. For me, however, the postage stamp itself, with its iconic role in society and graphic design over the last quarter millennium, is where the democratization is so notable.

David’s postage stamp: His niece and her father complete her Canadian citizenship papers at her grandparent’s coffee table

Meanwhile I’ll wait (days not weeks!) for the stamps featuring my niece to arrive, and also patiently hope that someday Canada Post will ask me to design a stamp that celebrates design for all.

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Reviewed October 12, 2012

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