Waves of Color
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Case Study By
Antonio Alcala

July 2011–December 2012; issued December 1, 2012


United States Postal Service

Project Title

Waves of Color (high-denomination postage stamps)

  • Manager, stamp services: Steve Kearney
  • Manager, stamp development: Connie Totten-Oldham
  • Creative director: Bill Gicker
  • Art director: Antonio Alcalá
  • Designer: Michael Dyer
  • Color consultant: Helen McNiell

Ed. note: This case study is a selection from the 2013 “Justified” competition, for which an esteemed jury identified 14 submissions that demonstrate the value of design in a clear, compelling and accessible way.


The goals of this project were determined by the United States Postal Service (USPS). They asked for the following:

  • A new $2 stamp design to replace a 15-year-old design that depicted a bobcat.
  • A design that might take advantage of more ink colors and printing methods than is usually available for stamp issues.
  • A design that somehow reflects the stamp’s status as a higher-than-usual denomination.

The audience for this project was all United States Postal Service customers. Although the high-denomination product would be used most often by businesses shipping small packages, it was one component of a larger stamp program, serving as part of the United States of America’s brand both domestically and internationally. Therefore, it had a much larger intended audience.

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Waves of Color, $1 postage stamp (Photo: Antonio Alcalá)

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Waves of Color, $2 postage stamp (Photo: Antonio Alcalá)

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Waves of Color, $5 postage stamp (Photo: Antonio Alcalá)

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Waves of Color, $10 postage stamp (Photo: Antonio Alcalá)

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Waves of Color, complete set of U.S. high-denomination postage stamps (Photo: Antonio Alcalá)


As a business, the USPS was facing a number of pressing issues, including a drop in first class mail use due to increased customer reliance on email and limitations imposed by the U.S. Congress on the USPS’ business model. We were aware of these issues when working on the project.

Another consideration was the fact that the actual users of the stamp product need it, but don’t care—or do not think about—the solution.


As the art director, my approach to the project began with asking about production limitations. For example, how was this stamp to be printed? Additionally, recommendations were made by members of the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee to ensure that the stamp design somehow suggested its value.

There was no requirement that the new stamp look similar to the one it was replacing, or even to others in the series. In fact, I was encouraged to find a solution that looked different.


I researched currency design, early revenue tax stamps and intricate patterning. This led me to a general idea about approach, where I felt comfortable hiring a designer to work with me on the assignment.


There are three notable aspects to the solution.

First, at the initial design presentation, the stamp management team approved the design and asked that it be expanded to a set of four designs ($1, $2, $5 and $10).

Second, as the assignment was expanded, a decision was made to create the set so that the physical objects themselves alluded to their increasing value. For instance, the one-dollar stamp is physically the smallest and least complex of the stamps in the series, while the ten-dollar stamp is the largest and most complex. Each denomination has a distinctive color palette, and the ten-dollar stamp includes a metallic ink. These elements make each stamp feel distinctive yet part of a set. They also allow for easy identification by both postal clerks and consumers.

Third, it is worth noting that these are the first completely abstract designs issued by the USPS. The stamp program is notable for the breadth and variety of subjects celebrated on stamps. However, this set presents no defined subject. Instead, it allows each viewer the freedom to determine meaning. Visually, one may believe it represents fabric, architecture, scientific diagrams or something else entirely, but really it can be anything. It’s abstract. What could be a better representation of a country that celebrates freedom?

Most of the creative work for this project was done by Michael Dyer (the designer) and myself (the art director), with additional help from a color consultant. The remaining members of the project team were responsible for oversight and managing the approval process.


Key challenges included developing a design approach appropriate to the assignment while also bringing the fresh and unexpected to a product that has been around for 166 years


It’s difficult to measure the success of the product using standard metrics. There are no “competitors,” as this is the only set of $1, $2, $5 and $10 stamps available in the United States. However, the design was enthusiastically embraced by the USPS, and it was rushed to print on a compressed production schedule.

The stamp designs meet the project goals by using complex patterns to evoke the perception of high value. They also succeeded in expanding the design vocabulary available to designers of USPS stamps now and in the future.

Juror Comments

"The Waves of Color stamp set feels robustly and confidently American. The varying sizes, face designs and color palette all fall within a well-fitted system that is conceptual but simple, complex but essential and rich but unadorned. Beautifully done." Valerie Casey

"Not only are these postage stamps beautiful, they also feel incredibly expensive and high end—something that’s hard to accomplish in a tiny paper format. They make me want to pay too much for postage in order to find a way to use them." Jessica Hische

"These stamps have the clean, sophisticated, abstract elegance of Dutch currency design and made me a proud American—aesthetically." Brad Johnson

"Game changer. Moved the needle. Inspirational. What’s the big deal? The first United States Postal Service stamp that doesn’t use type, illustration or photography. Waves of Color is simple, elegant and modern." Clement Mok

"It’s about time the USA had simple, beautiful and sophisticated postage stamps." Josh Rubin

"National attitudes toward art and design are reflected in a country’s currency and postage stamps, which are also a form of currency. U.S. currency currently embodies our worst national dysfunctions, to the point that I am almost embarrassed to carry cash. Our stamps aren’t far behind. This high-denomination series is a stunning exception. Necessarily complex in form but elegantly simple in execution, these designs are abstract yet absorbingly contemplative, suggesting that we may yet be a graceful, modern nation." Christopher Simmons

"In a competition filled with complex solutions, intricate processes and multidisciplinary teams, the simplicity and beauty of these stamps was a tribute to intelligent design. Although the United States Postal Service has been issuing stamps for hundreds of years, this is the first abstract design that has been published—what a triumph. Making different denominations different sizes is also an innovation to be applauded." Alina Wheeler

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