Alumni Profile • Kevin van der Leek '86
A whale, a child, a stamp

When artist and graphic designer Kevin van der Leek '86 moved to Vancouver, B.C., he began regularly visiting the city's aquarium. Little did he suspect that 20 years later he'd be commissioned to communicate his enthusiasm and affection for the place to hundreds of millions of people around the world.

On June 15, Canada Post released a single domestic-rate postage stamp van der Leek designed to commemorate the Vancouver Aquarium's 50th anniversary. The stamp's image-one of the aquarium's smallest visitors spellbound before its largest inhabitant-is one van der Leek has witnessed many times in the years he's taken his children there, though the little girl in the image is not his daughter, but the photographer's.

"From a design perspective it's very straightforward," van der Leek said. "I knew the juxtaposition of size had a lot of visual appeal. Plus there's the emotional appeal of a child's sheer awe and joy in the presence of this creature."

It was the very simplicity and immediacy of van der Leek's work that appealed to Canada Post. A selection committee chose his design from those submitted by other Vancouver graphic artists. Alain Leduc, a manager of stamp design and production for Canada Post, congratulated van der Leek on evoking "the wonder of nature and the awe of children."

Canada Post stamp commemorating the Vancouver Aquarium's 50th anniversaryThough the stamp is simple and straightforward, the design process behind it was not. Van der Leek was given pages of description about the Vancouver Aquarium's 70,000 creatures; its 50 years of conservation, education and research; its present mission; and its vision. All of that had to be crystallized in an image measuring ¾ inch by 1¾ inch. In fact, van der Leek submitted two designs, and actually liked better the one not chosen. "It was more involved from a design perspective," he said, "and showed more of the breadth of the aquarium's work."

But his day job designing book covers and interiors for Eerdmans Publishing Co. helped him understand that a stamp "functions a lot like a book cover or a poster. In a glance it has to reflect content and trigger an emotional response."

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To order a book of the stamps, visit Canada Post's Web site,, and follow the links on stamp collecting, or call its toll-free number: (800) 565-4362.

See more of van der Leek's winning artwork from the 2004 Calvin Alumni Design Competition

The beluga-child design seems to be doing just that. Sales of the stamp have been brisk, not only among letter-mailers, but also among stamp collectors. Canada Post produces commemorative, collectible stamps to generate revenue, and therefore, van der Leek said, "They take the time and expense to do it right." Having his design reproduced with such care-he was flown to Ottawa to suggest color adjustments as the stamp rolled off the presses-made the experience of creating a commemorative stamp "fun with a capital F."

Besides the pleasure of receiving letters stamped with his design, van der Leek takes another satisfaction from the project: As a commemorative, his stamp is now in the collections not only of philatelists around the world, but also in the Canada Archives and the Canada Museum of Civilization. "A lot of graphic design work is ephemeral, here today and gone tomorrow," he said. "But these stamps are now part of our history."