Developing the look
Flags of Our Nation was designed as a series of workhorse "mail-use" stamps — printed as coils in large quantities. But the series was also ambitious: Introducing a compelling, multi-year release into broad distribution might serve as a magnet for new collectors. So a fresh look was essential.
Early sketches from art director Howard Paine and artist Tom Engeman envisioned flags flying in the breeze rather than lying in flat repose on the stamp. As the look developed for the surrounding scene, they chose a "snapshot" effect — rejecting state flowers and conventional landmarks in favor of an everyday scene or activity, or occasionally, rare wildlife or a stunning vista.
Finding the shape
Stamps produced in coils are typically of definitive format, the smallest of all U.S. stamps. Yet Paine wanted more space for each flag and the vignette. He and Engeman developed designs both in the squarish definitive size and in the larger, commemorative format commonly used in the collectible program. A larger canvas would be friendly to the fine detail in the flags, they argued, and a wide format would allow the scene beneath the flag to be embellished with strong vertical elements on the right side of the stamp. Postal Service executives agreed, and the series was slotted to be a "first" — commemorative stamps produced in coils.
Getting it right
Defining the general look and size was just the beginning. Do you know how many windows appear on the ship depicted on New Hampshire's state flag? Or how many drops of blood appear on the pelican's chest on Louisiana's banner? Sources are numerous and don't always agree.
Engeman and Paine were supported by a team of researchers, as well as a vexillologist named Whitney Smith. A vexillologist is an expert on heraldry and flag design, and Smith reconciled conflicting versions of the flag designs to ensure the utmost accuracy. "Tom Engeman had to draw every one of these flags," Paine says. "But he did it with Whitney Smith's approval of every feather on every bird and every petal on every flower."
Making it work
As Engeman and Paine were generating designs, intense discussions with the printer were in progress. Coils of commemorative stamps had never been produced, and re-tooling would be required. Creating new dies (the cutting templates for perforations) was an expensive proposition. Then the team found the perfect solution: Simply by removing the die between two vertical definitive stamps, a large horizontal stamp could be created, twice the width of a definitive and slightly wider than the commemorative size—essentially a "double-definitive." This solved the manufacturing challenge nicely; instead of the traditional coil of 100 definitive stamps, Flags of Our Nation would be issued in coils of 50 "double-definitives."
Even the most thoroughly researched and beautifully designed stamp can fall apart on the press. Rather than using standard electromechanical methods for creating a gravure printing cylinder, stamps for the Flags of Our Nation series are created with laser-engraving methods, an enhanced printing technology provided through Sennett Security Products. Laser engraving takes longer but allows a finer printing resolution in the final output, rendering maximum detail. For each image, skilled operators manually customize the screening, a time-consuming process that can require several internal tests. "We are accurate," Paine says, "just as accurate as you can possibly be at this scale."