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Michael Bartalos

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Michael Bartalos photo

What inspired you to design for stamps?  Or how did you end up designing your first stamp?
I've been inspired to design stamps ever since I collected them as a kid. But even as an illustrator I couldn't quite figure out how to go about offering the U.S. Postal Service my services. Incredibly, the Postal Service came to me. It happened when USPS art director Richard Sheaff saw some posters I'd designed for Barneys New York department store and thought the style might be suitable for a stamp. He contacted me to contribute ideas for a Marathon stamp, and it was truly a dream come true to have my design chosen. So I have Barney’s art director Simon Doonan to thank for that, as well as Richard.

What design methods do you use, especially when you have to consider the final scale of your work will be quite small?
I start out by sketching ideas at the actual size of the stamp to remind myself of the scale that the final art will be reproduced at. Then I take my favorite pencil drawings and refine them in the computer. I work on a Mac and render my final artwork in Adobe Illustrator. This vector program creates the kind of bold clean graphics that reproduce well at small sizes.

42 cent stamp depicting Latin Jazz
Stamp designed by Bartalos
©All Rights Reserved
United States Postal Service

How do you determine your subject or, if the subject is assigned by USPS, how do you determine how to design for that subject? 
I start by researching the assigned subject, even if the topic is fairly familiar to me as in the case of the Latin Jazz stamp. There's always something new to learn and to possibly incorporate into the imagery. At the very least, it helps me capture the spirit of the subject and achieve accuracy. Then I'll play up a descriptive aspect of the image in order to communicate the stamp's theme more effectively and iconically. For example, I emphasized the runner's legs and winged feet in the Marathon stamp, and exaggerated the conga player's hands for Latin Jazz.

How does your style affect your final design, or how is your style reflected in the final design?
My style usually brings an element of playfulness and movement to the design. Conversely, the stamp's subject matter affects my approach. The topic may suggest a color palette or determine my lettering style (which is hand-rendered). Ultimately, I aim for an engaging graphic style that communicates effectively with a degree of sophistication.

What advice would you give to young designers?
Cultivate a passion for your work. Immerse yourself in the art and design community and let your heroes inspire you and your colleagues motivate you.

5 cent stamp To the Fine Arts
"To the Fine Arts" stamp, 1964,
designed by Stuart Davis
©All Rights Reserved
United States Postal Service

Why do you love designing stamps? What’s the best part about designing stamps?
I enjoy offering audiences a unique take on familiar subjects. If I can create a fresh, memorable angle to the topic, I'll know I've succeeded. It's gratifying to educate and entertain through stamp design because it's a significant communications medium that reaches broad audiences around the world. And of course, it's an honor to join the echelon of artists whose work has appeared on stamps. I'm specifically thinking of my art hero Stuart Davis whose "To the Fine Arts" stamp appeared in 1964.

What is the most difficult thing about illustrating/designing stamps?
The most difficult thing is deciding which of my ideas to show the USPS Advisory Committee. I usually create dozens of concepts (over a hundred in the case of the Latin Jazz stamp) which need to be narrowed down to a reasonable quantity (6 or so) for presentation. I've come to depend on my wife Lili, a graphic designer, for a second (and expert!) opinion in the editing process.

Michael Bartalos’ Biography

Michael Bartalos attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Pratt Institute. He works extensively in the graphic arts in the U.S., Europe and Japan. His design commissions include the Marathon and Latin Jazz commemorative stamps for the USPS, Swatch watches, and display graphics for the Singapore Science Centre and Wimbledon 2009.

Michael Bartalos signing covers that bear the Latin Jazz Stamp he designed at the National Postal Museum September 2008
Michael Bartalos signing covers that bear the Latin Jazz Stamp he designed at the National Postal Museum September 2008.

Bartalos also produces limited print editions and sculptural assemblages, and has created artist's book editions with New York's Purgatory Pie Press, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, and Dolphin Press & Print at the Maryland Institute College of Art. His editions are in private and public collections including those of the Getty Research Center, MoMA, the Walker Art Center, and Yale and Stanford University. 

In 2008 he was designated the California Academy of Science's first Affiliate Artist, and he is currently a National Science Foundation grantee with the NSF Antarctic Artist's and Writer's Program.

Bartalos lives and works in San Francisco and serves on the board of the San Francisco Center for the Book. His work can be seen online at and

Michael Bartalos’s Stamp Illustrations

The views, opinions and statements expressed on this website are those of the contributors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Smithsonian Institution.