The magnificent Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) is, after the coast redwood, North America’s second-tallest tree, reaching heights of 300 feet or more. Found throughout the wetter parts of Cascadia, it was declared the State Tree of Oregon in 1939 and has appeared on Oregon’s passenger car license plates since 1988.
In designing a flag for Cascadia, Alexander Baretich chose the Douglas-fir as its emblem, based both on its prevalence in the bioregion and his lifelong familiarity with it, as dominated the southwest Portland neighborhood where he grew up.
The Douglas-fir has also captivated the imagination of Clifton Stone, who recently wrote to us to share some designs he has made to represent the state of Oregon:
I came up with a flag that is a close-up of a Douglas Fir sprig–six needles on a twig. I got the idea because I sometimes play around with macro-photography, the Doug Fir is obviously a major symbol for the state, and I totally love the look of close-ups of conifer sprigs and other small, graphically-patterned natural phenomena. Viewed closely enough, they can look like hidden natural flags.
His first design featured green needles symmetrically branching out from a central horizontal bar. He calls the design “the Doug Sprig”.
Looking more closely at Douglas-fir sprigs, he noticed that the needles actually branch off alternately from the stem. This led to a second, preferred version. (In heraldic terms, the reversing of colors between the upper and lower green-and-white stripes is called counterchanged.)
For his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Visual Communications project at Beckmans College of Design in Stockholm, Sweden, Oskar Pernefeldt has produced a very slick set of marketing materials for an “official proposal” for “the International Flag of Planet Earth“. On May 18th, Jacob Kastrenakes posted on The Verge a writeup entitled, with needless belligerency, This is the flag we’ll plant when we conquer an alien planet. This went viral, sending Pernefeldt’s flag concept zipping internationally around the planet Earth, in cyber space if not outer space.
Is this school project the first Internet-savvy “product launch” for a new flag? As a point of comparison, it will be interesting over the coming months to see how the countries of Fiji and New Zealand will use graphic design and social media platforms to market the new flags now being worked on.
This project was far from a solo effort. Pernefeldt thanks 15 individuals (including FIAV president Michel Lupant, and a heraldic artist from the Swedish national archives, Henrik Dahlström) and the following diverse set of six companies for their assistance:
bsmart – a photography, 3D/CGI, and image retouch company based in Stockholm and Cape Town
Johnér Images – a stock photography “natural imagery” firm
Flaggfabriken Kronan – a Swedish flag maker and retailer
LG Electronics – the South Korean consumer electronics giant
Namnband – a Swedish company specializing in garment labeling equipment
NASA – the US space agency (but why not the European Space Agency?)
All in all, a very impressive student project on futuristic vexillography. It would have been even stronger had it addressed the materials requirements for spaceworthy flags, and for flags that could actually fly in the thin Martian atmosphere. And it does not try to position itself within the existing design space for earth flags, including John McConnell’s famous Earth Flag. But for an undergraduate art project, really not bad at all — and perhaps something Fiji, New Zealand, and other new flag promotion projects can learn from.
In the past few years the British Union Jack and flags that incorporate it have been matters of public interest and debate. Fiji and New Zealand, and, to a lesser extent, Australia and the UK are or have been reconsidering the suitability of their existing flags. Only Tuvalu appears resolute in keeping the Union Jack on its flag.
Taking these in order of time horizon for change, from most far-off to most near-term (and, perhaps not coincidentally, from biggest to smallest in affected population — with 9000-person Tuvalu as an outlier):
Shaenaz Voss: senior manager Fiji Airways, former executive officer of Air Fiji, board member of Unit Trust of Fiji and Film Fiji;
Ilaitia Jikoiono: artist and designer and creative director of Style Magazine;
Shammi Lochan: radio personality and currently radio program director Fiji Broadcasting Corporation;
Lenora Qereqeretabua: national public relations consultant and former Miss Hibiscus;
Manpreet Kaur: academic specialising in linguistics and diasporic studies at the University of Fiji;
Niqa Tuvuki: culture and heritage specialist at the Fiji Arts Council;
The Tui Wainunu Ratu Orisi Baleitavea;
Agni Deo Singh: trade unionist and general secretary of the Fiji Teachers Union;
Craig Marlow: community artist;
Tiko Matawalu: sporting personality, rugby player and coach;
Dinesh Patel: businessman and member of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
The committee will be chaired by Iliesa Delana, Assistant Minister for Youth and Sports and Para-Olympic Gold Medalist.
At last week’s meeting of the Portland Flag Association, Ted Kaye shared with us the exciting news that he will be joining the committee as its 13th member and only vexillologist. Apparently an interview that he did with the online magazine Vice and reprinted by the Fiji Sun caught the eye of the Fijian government, and convinced them of the need for a “flag expert and vexillologist”. Ted said he was very honored that they reached out to him to serve in that role, and would soon be on a plane to Suva.
This marked a milestone in visibility for vexillology. Mars calls his design podcast 99% Invisible, and “99% Invisible” is actually not a bad characterization of vexillology. A young field, it sprang up in the late 1960s when political scientist Whitney Smith and collaborators began to develop a systematic approach to the subject, founded the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA), and organized annual meetings. It wasn’t until 1994 that NAVA’s annual journal Raven began showcasing academic vexillological research. Despite a core of dedicated researchers, this interdisciplinary enterprise still for the most part flies under the radar.
Two days ago a video of the talk became available on ted.com and YouTube, and we noticed a spike in traffic to this our website. (Welcome, TED visitors!) Why? Because much of Mars’ talk featured excerpts from a recorded interview with Ted Kaye, a founder of PFA and the compiler of the most influential resource for flag design advice, a NAVA booklet entitled Good Flag, Bad Flag: How to Design a Great Flag. (Bafflingly, NAVA has removed this booklet from the public portion of their website, but you can still find a copy of it here on the PFA site — in English and five other languages — as well as elsewhere on the net.)
Mars brought an almost evangelical zeal to teaching the audience about the Good Flag, Bad Flag principles. The crux of the talk is that these principles of good design are important not just for city flag design but for city design more generally:
Roman Mars: As we move more and more into cities,the city flag will becomenot just a symbol of that city as a place,but also it could becomea symbol of how that city considers design itself,especially today, as the populace is becoming more design-aware.And I think design awareness is at an all-time high.A well-designed flag could be seen as an indicator of how a cityconsiders all of its design systems:its public transit,its parks, its signage.It might seem frivolous, but it’s not.
Ted Kaye: Often when city leaders say,“We have more important things to do than worry about a city flag,”my response is,“If you had a great city flag,you would have a banner for people to rally underto face those more important things.”
Roman Mars: I’ve seen firsthand what a good city flag can doin the case of Chicago.The marriage of good design and civic prideis something that we need in all places.The best part about municipal flagsis that we own them.They are an open-source,publicly owned design language of the community.
The the popular meme shows, the flag of Norway is the “mother of flags”.
It doesn’t, however, contain itself (unless you don’t care about the relative widths of the white and blue parts to the whole). In other words, it is not self-similar.
A less-popular meme points out one national flag that has this property: the Czech Republic’s.
But there are more examples. For one thing, any bicolor flag has this property:
(The flags of Monaco and Indonesia, basically the same design, also contain copies of each other in themselves.)
Seychelles’ flag, though far more complex (five colors!), is also self-similar.
That’s it for national flags. Looking farther afield, there are many other bicolors and a few other tricolors of the Czech type. Single-color flags, like that of Qaddafi’s Libya, are self-similar, of course — uninteresting so.
Here’s a self-similar flag of four colors:
And, finally, there are the many heraldic gyronny flags. Here are two examples:
Are there other kinds of self-similar flags not covered here?
“Transforming Transnational Flags” by Vexillographer, published 11 March 2012. 30 national flags. Produced in Microsoft PowerPoint.
“Construction Paper World Flags” by Vexillographer, published 16 February 2015. 22 national flags. A mistake: “You might notice a failed attempt at Gabon’s flag near the end, which I messed up by getting the order of the colors wrong. Oops.”
BTW, construction paper cutouts are an excellent medium for prototyping flag designs. Unlike pen and paper, or pointer and software, they resist attempts at over-complicated designs. Doug Lynch, designer of the Portland flag, was a strong proponent of this.
Jonathan Parsons is a British artist who works in the medium of flags (as well as sculpture, painting, and others). One of his most colorful creations was a new flag for London (2003):
I decided that a flag for the new city state should be very colourful to reflect the city’s huge diversity. ‘Flag for London’, in a couple of important ways, is a traditional flag design. In the spirit of the new independent state, it subverts the old state flag (the Union Flag) and echoes the flag of a country that, through revolution, has previously gained independence of that state (the USA). In the layout of its colours, however, it is an entirely new national flag. The canton is ‘gyronny’ — ie it is divided in half in both directions diagonally as well as vertically and horizontally — and is coloured with the cycle of eight spectral hues. The field is divided into eight horizontal stribes that are a gradating tonal arrangement of the two sets of primary colours plus black and white. The way it is divided up, when hung vertically, can be seen to spell out the word ‘LONDON’. The striped field represents a capital letter L, while the gyronny canton contains squared versions of O, N and D. It literally has ‘London’ in it. Or, as a friend of mine said, ‘It’s London innit?’. (Parsons quoted in Time Out London.)
To celebrate the 750th anniversary of the Montfort Parliament, the UK Parliament is hosting a nation-wide flag design project for British schoolchildren (ages 7-11). The children are given a brief primer on flag design (including a video) developed by flag artist Jonathan Parsons, and then asked to create a flag to represent their local community. Although students are asked to start by drawing a sketch of their flag, they finish by constructing their design out of colored (or, as they say, coloured) paper in 14 permitted shades. Fitting the UK’s reputation for excellence in design, the Parliament Flag Project provides — to adults as well as children — a beautifully made online resource for good flag design.
Designs will be added throughout the year to an online gallery, and selected designs will be turned into actual cloth flags to be used at events. Here are some early examples:
Michael Green is a designer, self-proclaimed Flag Geek, and author of the excellent Branding the Nations blog on Medium.com. In his posting on (the sad state of) US state flags, The Good, the “Meh” and the Ugly, he asks a fundamental question that is too often taken for granted in discussions, debates, and contests about flag design: “What is the point of a state flag anyway?” His answer: state pride.
Flag design isn’t where state pride is born, but it’s where it can live and grow.
This claim is not uncontroversial. One can imagine other purposes for state flags: to mark official government buildings, or to allow the state to participate in flags-of-all-states displays. On Medium, it produced this exchange in the comments section:
Do we really need people rallying around their states, a kind of scaled down nationalism (which easily turns into unproductive competitiveness and even resentments)? [Comment by Norman Dale]
It’s a good question and it is worth exploring. I definitely see the resentment a lot living in Texas. But I personally think the good outweighs the bad. [Reply by Michael Green]
Competition brings progress, and trying to out-do other states can only add to our productivity as a nation. I love looking at this seldom approached topic. [Reply by Jon Sauder]
But instilling pride is certainly important, especially when it comes to adoption of a flag by a populace. In his essay, Green relates state pride into a “proper hierarchy of pride”:
This hierarchy can manifest itself in symbols at one level referencing symbols at a higher one, as when sports teams incorporate their state flags into their logos.
But poor state flag design inverts this hierarchy, and results in a kind of synechdoche — using a part to represent the whole:
But in states where they have no decent visual branding in the form of a flag, state sports teams (with their superior logos, traditions and colors) usually take over the visual branding of a state. Citizens then funnel what state pride they have into their respective team. This creates more “team pride” than “state pride” and can segment state pride when you have more than one dominant team.
This is an excellent point, certainly born out in Oregon, where the logos and flags of the Oregon State University Beavers and the University of Oregon Ducks are seen way more often than the meh-is-putting-it-kindly Oregon state flag. And in this rivalry of visual branding, the Ducks have an advantage, as they use not just professionally designed graphics but in fact one of the most famous global brands — they use Disney Corporation’s Donald Duck to be the Oregon Duck.
Passions around Ducks vs. Beavers run high and reach their boiling point in an annual “Civil War” game. As Green points out, these “segment” symbols do a poor job of representing pride in the state as a whole, however. Without a decent state flag, Oregon pride is most clearly shown in the domain of bumper stickers.
Green’s pride hierarchy also provides a way to think about the relationship between the “visual branding” of the Major League Soccer Portland Timbers and the city of Portland. When the Timbers were promoted from minor league to major league status in 2011, the Portland city flag was seldom seen — in the city, or at their games. It flew in the city at city hall and in the main public square, and at a few other sites. It flew at Timbers games from a stadium flagpole, and the fanatical Timbers Army waved some in the stands, but not as much as they waved Timbers logo flags, Cascadia flags, and even green-and-white Nigerian flags.
As its use at Timbers games increased, Portland residents became more used to seeing their flag (and learning that their city had a flag), and its use outside of Timbers games increased — and it became a more important part of the city’s official branding, as in 2014 Portland Fire and Rescue was instructed to fly it at all of their stations throughout the city.
In terms of Green’s hierachy then, the Timbers/Portland flag example shows how — in the context of there being no compelling visual branding at the state level — a team can make use of a well-designed but underused city flag, and begin a positive feedback loop between the “team” and “city” levels, strengthening the branding (and pride) of both.