INTERVIEW: Terrence W. McCaffrey, USPS' stamp dispenser

Postage art comes of digital age


  • Favorite Activies: Designing stamps, 'a real passion with me,' and collecting antique tin toys

  • Last book read: The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

  • Leisure activity: Bicycling with his 51/2-year-old grandson, Nicholas

  • Best job: 'The job I have'getting to see my work everywhere.'

  • Terrence W. McCaffrey

    Terrence W. McCaffrey, the Postal Service's first full-time designer, has had a hand in USPS graphical productions since 1970.
    He personally designed the $3 Mars Pathfinder souvenir sheet, several Love Cherub stamps, the $2.90 Priority Mail eagle, the $9.95 Express Mail eagle, and numerous other stamps, posters and publications.

    Trained at the Corcoran School of Art, McCaffrey began his career as a computer artist in the 1960s, when the tools were quite different. He currently uses many graphics applications that he taught himself.
    He joined the Stamp Services office in 1990 and subsequently became responsible for all philatelic products. In 1992, he was named creative director of stamp and stationery design. He became manager of all stamp development last year.

    McCaffrey is pictured with a forthcoming sheet of U.S. postage stamps featuring flesh-eating plants, which were rendered entirely by computer.

    GCN chief technology editor Susan M. Menke interviewed McCaffrey.

    GCN: How long have you been designing stamps?

    MCCAFFREY: I've been with the Postal Service for almost 31 years. I joined it in 1970 after being an assistant art director at a computer firm in Bethesda, Md., that no longer exists. The entire art department of nine got laid off one day when they were trying to cut corners.

    Having just had a first child and bought a first house, I found myself on the street. I ended up coming to the Postal Service after having sworn I would never, never work for the government.
    At that point, the Postal Service was just changing over from the Post Office Department under President Nixon. My job was to redesign everything. I was the very first designer the Postal Service ever hired.

    Before that, they had flip-chart presentation people and illustrators. So I had to recreate everything with the new corporate logo: brochures, magazines, posters, the whole works.

    GCN: When did you start using computers?

    MCCAFFREY: That was the ancient days, when we did everything with wax and paste-ups and acetate overlays. It wasn't until 15 or 16 years ago that we got computers in the art department. We started using them for page layout of the postal magazine and some of our books.

    When I came over to stamps 11 years ago, I was still the only designer on staff. I have six art directors working for me, scattered around the country. They work directly with illustrators and photographers, and in many cases they design the stamps themselves.
    For about nine years we've been working on computers. We would be lost without them for rapid turnaround. We work on an average of 200 designs at any given time, three years in advance'Christmas stamps, commemoratives, regular stamps.

    We're trying to cut down the size of the program because of budget considerations, but when you're working on so many designs, you're always trying to stay ahead of the game. We used to design a stamp and turn it over to the printer a couple of weeks later, but now we're able to generate an entire year's program and unveil it all at one time.

    Nine years ago, there was only a little bit of computer design. It wasn't until about 1996 that April Greiman designed a women's suffrage stamp for us, totally on an Apple Macintosh. Since then, every stamp we do is touched by computers, even if it's only scanning in an artist's illustration. The art director has to put on the type and the perforations and crop it by computer.

    The file is turned over to Dodge Color Inc. of Bethesda, which rescans the artwork at higher resolution and prepares the final files for the printer. We look at the proofs and make sure it's exactly what we want.

    GCN: How many stamps do you print at a time?

    MCCAFFREY: Fifteen years ago there was a standing order for 150 million of every commemorative stamp. Now we have varying numbers. We target them to different audiences, such as serious stamp collectors. We print 25 to 30 million of those. The standard run is 80 to 100 million, and some that are more popular will go up to 200 million.

    Christmas stamps and love stamps can be printed in quantities up to 1.2 billion per year. We produce a total of about 8 billion stamps a year on the average, although we've reduced our quantities a lot because of meter imprints. But it is a massive quantity.

    GCN: What computer training do your art directors have?

    MCCAFFREY: A lot of it is self-taught. Everybody uses Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, the two primary elements. Adobe Freehand and QuarkXPress are used less. Virtually all of the art directors picked it up on their jobs. I'm self-taught on Photoshop and Illustrator.

    GCN: What's the approval process for your designs?

    MCCAFFREY: There's a committee called the Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee, made up of 12 people who come to Washington every three months and are paid a stipend to spend two days reviewing our designs and the subject matter.

    We receive on average more than 50,000 suggestions from the public every year. That's not counting the average 1,500 portfolios I get from artists who want to design stamps. I get another 1,000 to 1,500 unsolicited designs. People draw something on a napkin and say, 'Please print this as a stamp.'

    There is a certain set of criteria the designs must meet. Whatever makes that cull is given to the committee on a quarterly basis. They analyze whether it meets the national interest and is worthy of being a stamp. They can vote to put it on hold for a specific anniversary. It's a good mix of people, and they put together the annual program. No postmaster general has ever overruled them in the 11 years I've been working with them.

    GCN: How many stamps are self-stick versus gummed?

    MCCAFFREY: That's changed over the years. The 2002 stamp program, which we're going to unveil in a few months, will be 90 percent to 95 percent self-adhesive. With the exception of one or two designs for special collectors, everything comes in self-adhesive.

    GCN: What's the largest stamp you've designed?

    MCCAFFREY: It was a $3 priority mail stamp that I designed of the Mars Pathfinder. The stamp is the size of the 'affix stamp here' space on a priority mail envelope.

    The smallest stamp was an Indian head penny stamp from the 1970s, about five-eighths of an inch wide'a lot of people wrote in to complain that it was too small to tear out of the sheet.

    GCN: How frequently do you make production errors?

    MCCAFFREY: We're the only business where, if we make a mistake, people really want to buy it. We try not to make mistakes, and we go to great lengths to get things correct.

    The biggest error we've experienced while I've been here was in 1994 with the Bill Pickett cowboy stamp illustrating what turned out to be his brother. It really wasn't our fault'the photo we worked from had been in the National Archives and reproduced many times. Pickett's relatives had been trying to change the identification for 70 years but met with a lack of interest. Once we put it on a stamp, it was a major faux pas.

    We now verify every minute detail of every stamp. We check uniform colors, count buttons on shirts and check lengths of beards on 100-year-old faces.

    Sometimes we still make mistakes. The most recent one was the Grand Canyon stamp, made from a stock photo. The committee asked that we add small type indicating the location because the stamp was designed for mailing abroad. Unfortunately, someone looked at the photo sleeve and saw 'Grand Canyon, Colorado River' but typed 'Grand Canyon, Colorado.'

    I got a call from a USPS official who said, 'You don't know where the hell the Grand Canyon is! It's not in Colorado.' And we shredded every one. The collector community still believes there are some out there.

    We reprinted it, and not until the day of the ceremony at the Grand Canyon did a park ranger look over his shoulder and point out that the photo had been flopped.


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