All In The Details

Taking a closer look at a distinct design element for the USPS holiday catalog.

by Seth Nickerson

I was sweating — and not just because of the sauna-like temperature of my workspace. It was my first time art-directing the holiday edition of USA Philatelic, the catalog of the United States Postal Service, and I didn’t know what to do. It needed something to bring the whole thing together, and yet time was running out.

I thumbed through last year’s edition, its beautiful hand-lettered headlines anchoring each page and supporting the stamps and products on display. With a sinking feeling, I acknowledged that there wasn’t time in the schedule to hire a letterer this time, since the cement was still wet in so many places. By the time it hardened enough to give an outside freelancer the necessary information and art direction, it would be too late.

I needed a solution that could pack a lot of visual interest into a compact space — something that could help theme and unify each spread without overpowering it. And the solution had to work on a variety of background colors, since the page backgrounds were one of those areas with “wet cement” signs all around.

Slowly, I arrived at the idea of making “badges”: type, lettering, illustration and ornamentation, all wrapped into a tidy little package. The pieces were falling into place, but — given the time constraints — I realized I would have to make these things myself.

Badge Sketches

I got to work, trying to dig up everything I could find that was similar to what I had in mind and sketching some ideas on paper. I fleshed out the Music Icons badge in Adobe Illustrator to show the client, and we were given the green light to move ahead with the full set of 15.

One of the challenges, then, was making each badge appropriate to the subject while still creating a cohesive set. How do you make something about American war heroes feel like part of the same family as something about flowers? I tried to achieve this by imbuing the ornaments and illustrative elements with meaning when I could, while keeping some of the visual elements consistent throughout. But the primary tool for determining the personality of each was in the type and lettering choices.

USAP Holiday

I collect screenshots of typefaces that interest me, and I keep books of type and lettering within arm’s reach on my desk. It was a blast to dig into those resources and then tweak, mold and fill in the gaps with some letters made from scratch to achieve the right flavor and composition for each badge. But I’ll admit that by the end, the well felt dangerously close to running dry; I needed some time to allow the water level to rise again.

Time will tell whether it’s a successful catalog, but overall, it was a fun experience in which I’m proud to say I had a hand. I’m glad the holiday season only comes once a year though, because it might take some time before I’m ready to do it all again.