How are British postage stamps designed?

Even those of us who don’t have pen pals still send the occasional letter through the post — whether it’s a business letter, or a birthday or Christmas card. The joy of finding a handwritten envelope on your doormat is certainly undeniable, and sending a letter to someone can be equally as enjoyable. So, how do we pay for our postage when we are sending these letters through the post? We buy postage stamps and apply them to our envelopes, and have done since May 1840.

You don’t have to be a stamp collector to take notice of and enjoy the vast array of postage stamps that are issued each year in Britain — the stamps that get your letters from A to B through the Royal Mail service. While there are always the plain 1st and 2nd class stamps available, the commemorative collections are much more fun, featuring images and artistic designs. Have you ever wondered how these special stamps come to be?

The progress of stamp design

A typical victorian penny black british stamp on a used envelope

The Penny Black on an envelope

Prior to the 1960s, postage stamps simply followed on from the design featured on the very first stamp in the public postal system: The Penny Black. For those not in the know, this was a black stamp featuring an image of the head of the monarchy (at the time of The Penny Black, this was Queen Victoria as a 15-year-old — which continued to be used throughout her reign) and the words “one penny”.

Later designs used different colours and layouts, but most were simply an image of the monarch and the stamp’s value — nothing like the exciting stamps we have access to today.

In 1965, Postmaster General Tony Benn made a change that still impacts upon the stamps of today — he increased the number of special commemorative stamp issues, which mark special events and dates of British importance, alongside national achievements in the arts, sport, and sciences. Even now, there are usually around 15 new postage stamp issues annually.

How are new postage stamps designed?

British Sign Language Postage Stamp

There are just two rules for the design of postage stamps in the UK, and these are:

  • The value of the stamp must be present
  • The monarch’s head must be present — in 1964, designer David Gentleman rather controversially suggested that the Queen’s head be omitted and replaced with the words ‘Great Britain’ or ‘UK postage’. This idea was soon overthrown by the Queen herself, and the monarch’s head remains on our stamps to this day.

The five-year stamp design process

In a process that can take up to five years, the design of a new stamp involves these stages:

  • Royal Mail researchers decide on the subject matter
  • Royal Mail invites proposals from Royal Mail designers for new stamp designs based on the chosen subject matter
  • Designs are put before the Stamp Advisory Committee
  • ‘Essays’ are produced, which are special proofs that reveal how the completed stamp will look
  • Each stamp is passed to the Queen for review
  • Once the stamp has royal approval, it can then be issued for sale

British Motor Car Postage Stamp

What is your favourite ever stamp issue? Do you keep your favourites or use them when posting letters to loved ones? Let us know in the comments below!

As a long-term stationery lover, I adore working for The Pen Company. My childhood saw me carrying around a little red briefcase covered in stickers and full of pens, paper and other such goodies; my adulthood sees me doing pretty much exactly the same!