I recently completed one of my first assignments as an art director for the U.S. Postal Service: the design of stamps commemorating the musical genius of both Miles Davis and Edith Piaf. The pair were chosen for the honor of being featured on a joint issue between USPS and France’s La Poste — a significant occurrence I was thrilled to be a part of.
Years ago, when I was in art school, my classmates and I were required to fill our sketchbooks with page after page of graphite-smeared drawings, none of them larger than a thumbnail. At the time, it felt like busy work. But our teacher’s intention was to encourage us to generate new ideas through the iterative act of drawing in miniature. Working on the Miles Davis and Edith Piaf stamps, I found myself thinking of some of the lessons I learned during those tedious days.
Because a postage stamp and a thumbnail sketch are essentially the same size, I forced myself to first sit down and draw — rather than start as usual at my computer. Sketchbook in hand, I tried to imagine Miles and Edith presented at stamp size. I became almost instantly bored with the idea of portraiture and wondered if there were a way to capture Miles and Edith performing. It was then that I remembered an iconic image of Miles playing his trumpet from the early 1960s.
With much help, I began to research the overwhelming number of photographic images of Miles and Edith. Their physical differences are almost comic: Miles was a lean, black man and Edith was a short, white woman. Miles often wore flamboyant costumes and Edith always wore a basic black dress.
From a design perspective, these were desirable differences that ensured the stamps would be distinctive — that the unique personalities of Miles and Edith would be preserved and even accentuated. But how would I express them together, to create aesthetic harmony? In what ways were Miles and Edith alike?
With those questions in mind, I was struck by the way Miles often leaned back while playing the trumpet and the way Edith used her body and hands to express her voice. I returned to my sketchbook to explore how I could make use of their unique body language. To my delight, pencil strokes helped me discover a simple parallel structure to hold these disparate figures together.
Starting with the iconic image of Miles, I looked back at the photographic research for images of Edith that reflected the same diagonal posture. I found a beautiful image of Edith shot from a slanted angle that enhanced the drama of her posture. As a pairing, these two images of Miles and Edith share a diagonal stress that provided the visual organization I was looking for.
I became so enamored with the stamp framework that I also designed the larger stamp pane in much the same way, creating diagonal movement from the lower left to the upper right. What results — I hope — is a cohesive design that preserves a glimpse into what makes Miles Davis and Edith Piaf so utterly unique and brilliant.