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Features

Discover the design process behind the Christie stamps

22nd September 2016

Royal Mail have marked the centenary of Agatha Christie writing her first detective novel and creating Hercule Poirot by issuing a set of Special Stamps based on six of Christie’s mystery novels. Editorial Manager from Royal Mail’s Stamp & Collectibles department, Helen Cumberbatch, and the designer of the Agatha Christie stamps, Jim Sutherland, joined us to celebrate Agatha Christie in her birth town of Torquay on the 15th September, delivering an inspiring talk about the creation of the stamp set.

Royal Mail have been producing Special Stamps since the mid-1960s and now issue 14 Special Stamps sets a year. The stamps are used to celebrate significant events from British history and the life and work of important British people. Stamp sets in 2016 include those used to highlight the work of William Shakespeare, to mark the 90th birthday of Her Majesty the Queen, and to celebrate one of the most influential British bands of all time, Pink Floyd.

The stamp design process begins once the stamp subject is decided. Once this occurs, the content brief is drafted and sent to a few design agencies for them to develop and pitch their initial designs. In this case the brief stated that the stamps should depict key scenes from six of Agatha Christie’s iconic novels and that the treatment should be respectful of the source material and broadly respectful of the time period and settings they were written in. As the subject matter is based on solving mysteries, designers were encouraged to use methods that would increase intrigue and interest, with hidden messages within the designs that relate to the plots of the six stories.

Once the designs are submitted, Royal Mail’s design team decide which are the most successful and these selected designs are shown to the Stamp Advisory Committee for their feedback and approval. Once the designs have been agreed and finalised, a specially printed set is sent to The Queen for her Royal approval, and once granted the artwork is sent to the printers and work begins on the philatelic products that carry the stamps.

In the case of the Agatha Christie stamps, Helen described the most difficult decision being which of Christie’s 66 detective novels should be featured on the stamps. After careful consideration, six titles were chosen based on the following criteria:

The Mysterious Affair at Styles - Agatha Christie’s first detective novel and the first Hercule Poirot novel.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd - voted the ‘Greatest Crime Novel of All Time’ by the Crime Writers’ Association in 2013.

Murder on the Orient Express – a top-selling Agatha Christie novel and familiar to a wide audience.

The Body in the Library – the biggest-selling Miss Marple book.

A Murder is Announced – a Miss Marple title in the list of top Agatha Christie novels.

And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie’s biggest-selling mystery.

As soon as Jim Sutherland received the brief from Royal Mail he immediately read the six novels, which he loved. All of his copies are now full of scribbles from him reading the book and jotting down his initial ideas. Most designers are used to working on a fairly large canvas but with a stamp, space is so limited that it takes real skill to convey the essence of a subject within just a few centimetres. Part of Jim’s research included looking at previous and current book covers for the selected novels to see how past designers had re-imagined the stories. Jim worked with illustrator Neil Webb to bring the design ideas to life.

Staying true to the essence of Agatha Christie’s works, they concealed clues and references to the stories within the stamps using a mix of micro text, UV light and heat. As Christie is famous for her detective novels and detectives are often visually associated with magnifying glasses, the idea of people having to use a magnifying glass to reveal hidden elements felt like a natural fit. The use of micro text means that some clues are 22 times smaller than normal printed text.

To add to the mystery and intrigue of the stamps, Jim looked into the idea of incorporating optical illusions, such as ambiguous images, into some of the designs. An example of this is reflected in the smoke on the Murder on the Orient Express stamp.

Find out more about the stamps and purchase them here.