Forever Stamps

The most difficult part about moving (besides carefully packing your wife’s collection of vintage Fiesta ware) is having to establish a relationship with a new postmaster. When you live and work in small towns, this relationship is important. Barbara has made this transition easy for me, and seems quite accepting, in public venues, of my inquiries into daily USPS operations, requests to browse through the stamp inventory, requests for various USPS products, and of course my bad jokes.

I was fairly new to the area when I came in with my first request for the Pioneers of American Industrial Design stamp series. In my defense details in the initial media release by the USPS said the stamps were “to be released in 2011.” Last time I checked January 2011 is in the year 2011. Much to my disappointment, Barbara was often quick to tell me that the stamps had not arrived yet. A couple weeks ago, the stamps had arrived. I bought all of the sheets that were available.

At that time I felt obligated to share with her the story about the Star Wars stamps. (Update: I only have three sheets remaining and they now are reserved for very special correspondence. They are not for mailing the water bill—a mistake my wife made that was twice as bad since they are only 41-cent stamps and two had to be used. Egads!) I told Barbara about those Star Wars stamps and my relationship with my former postmaster Robert (whom I have only spoken with only three times via phone in the year since we moved), which were featured in a blog post here on IBD. I couldn’t tell if Barbara was comforted or disturbed. Now that I put this all in writing, I’m a bit disturbed.

The new Pioneers of American Industrial Design stamps are awesome (not quite as awesome at the Star Wars stamps, but equally awesome to watching Paul eat hot wings). USPS.com states:

The Pioneers of American Industrial Design (Forever®) stamp pane honors 12 of the nation’s most important and influential industrial designers. Encompassing everything from furniture and electric kitchen appliances to corporate office buildings and passenger trains, the work of these designers helped shape the look of everyday life in the 20th century.

Each stamp features the name of a designer and a photograph of an object created by the designer, as well as a description of the object and the year or years when the object was created. The selvage features a photograph of the “Airflow” fan designed by Robert Heller around 1937.

I know what you are thinking. “So what, right?” This is a blog about interpretive design (along with baseball, food, and working with people who have Cheeto dust in their goatees) not industrial design. Graphic design is a subset of the design profession, like industrial, fashion, or interior design. Each discipline has something that interpretive designers can learn from. (Insert your own joke here about what Paul and I could learn from fashion design. Keys to humor success include the use of red Crocs, bow ties, sweater vests, bowling shirts, and a very worn-out 2008 World Championship Philadelphia Phillies T-shirt.)

When looking at the objects featured on the stamps it is easy to see beauty in simplicity. The organization of hard materials to create something practical while ergonomic, original, and affordable is no easy challenge. It requires a person that is creative and analytical.

Rhead’s Fiesta ware Disc Picture, featured above, is a classic example of simple beauty. (A second example is my son and I’m not really sure what that means but I know it’s true.) It’s a practical item but the design adds to its usefulness while still be unique enough to stand out. There are plenty of pitchers out there today but this one stands out. It has also stood up to the test of time. Nonpersonal interpretive media can be the same way. Making an exhibit stand out by applying interpretive techniques, such as strong interpretive writing, makes that exhibit less like a piece of Tupperware serving up your message and more like a disc picture.

Since much of what we do in interpretive graphic design is related to a computer screen, we don’t spend enough time thinking about the tangible materials that will make up the product or be displayed within the end product. These materials can inspire you. Whether it is a color, texture, overall feeling or even a typeface, take time to look at the material objects that the exhibit will be constructed out of or even a part of the subject matter.

Much like interpretation being a combination of arts and sciences, interpretive and graphic design is as well. You have to draw from your creative side so that you are not creating the same product over and over while still applying that creativity in systematic way that improves the message being presented. Many shortcomings in interpretive projects lean too far in either direction. Balance is the key.

The stamps are also “Forever” stamps which will always be valued at the current first-class rate. That can keep foolish over-postage accidents of valuable (intrinsic value) space saga stamps from happening.

Exclamation Points! Their Time Has Come!

Typographically, exclamation points derive from stacking the letters in the Latin word io (exclamation of joy). And though they have been around for a long time—since the 15th century—there was no separate key for exclamation points on typewriters before the 1970s. For as long as I can remember, grammarians have told us to use them sparingly, if at all. I’ve always thought of them as the Comic Sans or clipart of punctuation.

Yet, only four short decades after the exclamation point got its own spot on a typewriter, a new style guide called Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home suggests that we should use them as much as possible (at least in emails).

I’m always deeply suspicious of any correspondence that uses too many exclamation points. I’ve considered setting up a filter on my email that blocks any message with multiple exclamation points in sequence (“!!!”). One of my favorite quotes from Terry Pratchett’s humor-fantasy Discworld series (now on its 157th book, or so it seems) is this one from the title character in the 1990 book Eric:

Multiple exclamation marks are a sure sign of a diseased mind.

There’s a generally accepted rule among my male college friends that no correspondence among any of us should ever include an exclamation point (though this rule is frequently broken in any message referring to Las Vegas or attractive dental hygienists).

And in spite of all this prejudice against the exclamation point, I frequently find myself staring at work-related emails that I am about to send, wondering if I should change “Thanks” to “Thanks!” And I frequently do.

Granted there’s a difference between using an exclamation point in an email and in a professional scenario—as in a business letter, formal writing, or interpretive media. Author Elmore Leonard, detailing his 10 rules of writing, says, “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” If you are writing the text for an interpretive exhibit and sticking to the generally accepted rule of 150 words per panel, this means you are allowed one exclamation point roughly every 220 to 330 panels. If you use three exclamation points following “OMG” in a text message, then you are done with them for 999,999 more messages (a week and a half, if you’re some people I know).

If it’s true what F. Scott Fitzgerald said, that “an exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke,” then the people of Hamilton!, Ohio, must think they’re pretty funny. In 1986, the city of Hamilton, a town of more than 60,000 happy residents, changed its name to Hamilton! to generate publicity. And you know they’re laughing over at Yahoo! When you click on the exclamation point in the logo at www.yahoo.com, it plays the Yahoo! yodel jingle.

By Leonard’s and many other people’s standards, a lot of people overuse exclamation points, not just in personal communication but in professional writing. Some people refuse to use them altogether (like Elaine’s boss in a very funny episode of Seinfeld), while others can’t update their Facebook statuses without at least three of them. You’ll see me use them on this site occasionally, but I doubt I’ve ever used one in an editorial in Legacy magazine.

I tend to think of exclamation points the same way I do about swearing. They’re crutches people use when they can’t think of words to better express their thoughts—but sometimes it just feels right to let loose. In interpretive writing, I can see justification for using them sparingly (exclamation points, that is, not curse words), but when you’re reviewing your writing, I’d encourage removing them first and seeing if they need to be added back in. If you really need the exclamation points, maybe you don’t have the right words yet.

Well, that’s it! See you next week!