Rorie Katz, the creative mastermind behind the UNPA’s output © R Katz

The design of small things
The master artist behind the iconic United Nations stamps
1 Jun 2024

Rorie Katz was born in New York, graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), and has worked with the United Nations Postal Administration (UNPA) since 1997. In 2008, she became Head of the Graphics and Communications Department. She has designed hundreds of stamps over the years, loves the entire design process, and is very proud to work for the UN. She and her team have had the pleasure of working with artists and designers from around the world. She states: “Designing postage stamps is my way of promoting the important issues of the United Nations in tiny images that travel the world through the mail.”

“I have one of the greatest jobs”

Rorie’s words. Her job involves helping to interpret the stamp program into what are, ultimately, beautiful pieces of art. Various suggestions for stamp themes arrive with the team from all over the world and, once the Advisory Committee approves each year’s themes, Rorie and her team ignite the creative process.

As a supervisor as well as designer, she finds artists and illustrators whose work fits each theme, then collaborates with them to turn that work into postage stamps as well as other philatelic products and promotional materials: such as first day cover envelopes, annual collection folders, prestige booklets on World Heritage sites, and endangered species folders.

While Rorie contends that the UNPA has perhaps the smallest art department of any postal administration, she is very proud of the high level of design achieved. The graphics team includes designer and illustrator Sergio Baradat, and Pamela Gray who, amongst many other tasks, writes all the text for products, advertisements, and promotional materials, ensuring all the work is printed and delivered to spec and deadline, including their ‘Fascination’ magazine, available in four languages.

And the teamwork evidently pays off: they have won or ranked highly in almost every competition entered, even winning a Guinness Book of World Records entry for the most words – in the form of the full text of the Declaration of Human Rights – on a stamp. Their works have also appeared in the new laissez-passer (UNLP) as feature stamps illustrated by Sergio Baradat, while their John Lennon stamps won the 2021 Most Popular Music Stamp Award’s Yehudi Menuhin Trophy.

Collaboration and creativity are imperative to the process
behind designing each UN stamp © Karolina Grabowska, Pexels

Stamping out a path

Knowing you’re an artist often starts early. For Rorie, the first time she picked up a crayon she knew and attending RISD for her BFA – followed by the Pratt Institute for Design – flowed naturally from that moment in childhood. Now, as a designer since 1997 and heading up Graphics and Communications since 2008, she has spent the majority of her career at the UN.

The work has, of course, come with its challenges, and some of the themes her team has been tasked to create have covered difficult topics. Taking the work of the UN and trying to celebrate its history through the medium of postage stamps is always a challenge. The team always try to find the positive aspect of each theme and then present it in a way that is inherently beautiful, something that people may be moved to collect.

A mark of pride

And what of all this work? Rorie remarks that, perhaps, it is the long lineage of work combined over the years of which she feels the most pride. When you see all the stamps created from 1951 until today, you can see the story of the United Nations unfold. Rorie is entitled to feel proud that her work forms part of that global legacy. It also marks her personal path of growth and development as a designer over the years. Fresh out of school when she began, she can see the efforts of all the talented people she has had the pleasure to meet and collaborate with. Understandably, being a part of UNPA has become a big part of Rorie.

Even so, being a designer by trade can be a quest for eternal improvement. So, did she ever design a stamp which was then issued and left her feeling it could have been better? “As a designer, the most difficult part is deciding when 

a project is finished. After each stamp issue goes to print, I question: is it good enough, could I have done better?”, she remarks. Perhaps no matter how long you do the job, that feeling never goes away. Always doing the best you can is how you learn that what you are doing is enough.

Room for change?

It’s true to say that postage stamps are no longer coveted and collected as they were in days past. Technology changes and stamps are no longer needed to send messages around the world. We are in jeopardy of losing this special art form, something that makes Rorie sad. There is nothing like a handwritten letter in the mail, it shows the care a person took to write it, select the perfect stamp to affix on the envelope, and send it out into the world.

“My wish is for more people to see the value in postage stamps. Recognize that these little pieces of paper tell a story and these stories are important.” 

* Richard Turner is a UN Today Contributor.
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