The first principle of effective flag design is: Keep It Simple. Effective flags are meme-like, able to propagate themselves through human perception, memory, and action, and in this simple flags have an advantage.
On the other hand, there are certainly many highly complex flags. As the simplicity principle suggests, these tend to be obscure, expensive, and actually difficult to see should one come across them in use, up a flag pole. This isn’t to say they cannot be quite beautiful, when seen close up. Through the wonders of broadband, online media, and flag image repositories like Wikimedia Commons, we can easily access representations of these flags that let us zoom in and marvel at them.
Here are some examples. (Please do click on them to zoom in!)
Using the standard arguments against change, Secretary of State Jason Gant urged the panel to keep the current flag, which he said represents the state’s history and is recognized by people across South Dakota, and John Moison, an artist and retired state worker, said the current flag should be retained because South Dakota troops have fought under it in all wars since at least World War II.
The flag is used as a bad example in Good Flag, Bad Flag, which notes that it writes the name of the state—twice.
Artist Dick Termes had proposed a new design—which may have been the challenge. A more successful strategy for flag-change might be to achieve consensus that the current flag should be changed, BEFORE offering any new designs.
The topic spurred much discussion on flag-related chat forums.
Working with Michael Rudolf, of Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania, I developed a more simple alternative for a new design (below).
On April 4, 1818 the US Congress enacted the following:
An Act to establish the flag of the United States.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress Assembled, That from and after the fourth day of July next, the flag of the United States be thirteen horizontal stripes, alternate red and white: that the union be twenty stars, white in a blue field.
And be it further enacted, That on the admission of every new state into the Union, one star be added to the union of the flag; and that such addition shall take effect of the fourth day of July then next succeeding such admission.
It established the rationale for every version of the US flag that followed: each new state gets an added star, but the 13 stripes, representing the 13 original states, remain the same. Before this, the last official US flag had been defined in 1795 to represent the new states of Vermont and Kentucky with two new stars — and two new stripes:
As Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio, and Tennessee joined the union, the official flag was unchanged. New states were acknowledged by a variety of unofficial flags that added stars, and sometimes stripes as well (the Zaricor Flag Collection has some of these). But it wasn’t until the 1818 Flag Act that the new states were recognized on the official flag, and a general rule for additions to the flag defined.
PFA member Michael Orelove wondered what would have happened if this Act never happened and instead the flag got a new star and new stripe for each new state. He found some red and white striped fabric and brought this speculative flag to a meeting in 2011:
It’s still recognizable as an American flag, but it demonstrates the wisdom of the Congress in 1818 to rein in over-enthusiasm in the stripe department. We speculated that the field would look pink from a distance, a form of “American Pink Ensign,” and wondered how many other flags had pink fields.
There are thousands of flags representing many different groups of people around the world. The United Nations flag and the Olympic flag are the most inclusive. But there is, I believe, a need for a flag that represents each and every one of us, as a member of the human species, and so I have designed a flag with that in mind.
People are divided by race, religion, nationality, and many other factors large or small. Recent developments in science, and concerns for the ecological stability of our planet, have brought some people together and pushed others apart. We need to be reminded of our common humanity and our home.
Flags appear regularly in the news as emblems of our various interests and alliances, and are surely a very important means of communication and representation. This is one reason why I have chosen to express my feelings and my understanding of some of this extremely complex set of factors with a flag.
The specific design is representative of earth, air, fire, and water (elements found in many historic, religious, and early scientific contexts), as well as the sun—the ultimate source of power for our world. The colors express these: earth—black, air—white, fire—red, water—blue, and the sun—yellow. In addition to the extremes of black and white are added the three primary colors.
The particular graphic way in which I have brought these together in the form a flag are simply my own sense of design.
The quality of the entries was stunning—hundreds of them would have made a successful state flag. While professional graphic artists participated and submitted spectacular designs, so did amateurs and schoolchildren.
Mike Hale and Ted Kaye helped with an initial culling process. In two weekend sessions of 2-3 hours each, they selected about 240 entries for further consideration by the flag jury.
After that jury selected the 10 finalists, newspaper readers gave Randall’s beaver design top votes. However, without a legislative plan and no support from the governor, the effort to update the official flag went nowhere.
The Oregonian described Randall’s design process: “Always interested in flags and design, Gray was unimpressed with the front of the Oregon flag. But the back, with the beaver, was another matter. ‘The backside is the start of something good.’” The meaning: “Blue and gold for the state colors with green to represent trees and wilderness Oregon was blessed with. White contrasts between the dark blue and green. The beaver from the current flag links us with the past. The star represents Oregon’s place in the Union.”
Elmer’s Flag and Banner generously made up the flag, using the beaver image from another entrant, Tom Lincoln. It is likely the only such flag extant in that design!
Contest update from November 2008 by Joan Carlin on the Oregonian blog. Reminds readers that the intent is not to replace the state flag, but to provide an alternative:
Sure, we’ve heard from about 100 people who don’t want to give up on the current flag. They told us to go back to California! But actually, we don’t want to give up on the current flag, even though its history is not all that storied. Reporter Michael Milstein wrote about how the design was whipped up in a hurry by the Legislature in 1925 without any community input. And not to put Michael back into the crosshairs of people who like the flag just as it is, but the contest was his notion. He wanted an event, to help launch the 150th anniversary of statehood in February, that would knit together the community. That’s exactly what happened. And, we’ve gotten some very cool, innovative flag designs from readers that reflect our iconic landscape.
Oregonian Hates Oregon State (Flag) by “mko” on the Oregon State University Admissions Blog, October 22, 2008. The posting and its 26 responses give a good sense of the controversy the Oregonian had unwittingly set off.
So I’ve been ignoring badflags for a long time, and a bunch of people have been telling me how lame that is, so after another hiatus, I’m back with something special. I live in Columbus, Ohio, and I really love this city. I love it so much that it’s a little hard to tell Columbus that its flag is terrible. But it really is. Not the worst I’ve seen, and not even in the bottom quintile of flags, but it’s just plain ugly. So with the inevitable takedown, I’ve offered a suggestion for a new, much better flag.
The current flag of Columbus is not quite a travesty, but it’s pretty bad. It’s a fairly boring tricolor with a ton of crap in the middle. The Santa Maria in in there, inside an American shield, a semi circle of some plants and a semi circle of stars surround an eagle…
The mysterious, prolific, and insightful Burrito Justice published this piece about his hometown’s flag way back in 2013. And as a kind of sequel, check out his flag celebrating SF asshattery from 2014.
1849: Dec 24
1850: May 4
1850: Jun 14
1850: Sep 17
1851: May 3
1851: Jun 22
While I love the IDEA of our flag, I don’t actually LOVE our flag. It’s kind of… meh, to be honest. And apparently I am not the only one. The all-powerful and knowledgeable Roman Mars noted the same when he moved to Chicago from SF. (A worthy podcast.)
So when I moved back to San Francisco in 2008, I researched its flag because I’d never seen it before in the previous eight years that I’d lived here. And I found it … I’m sorry to say, sadly lacking.
He even interviewed a vexillologicist, Ted Kaye, on what makes a…
The flag of Provo, Utah ranked extremely low (143rd out of 150) in the flag designs evaluated in NAVA’s 2004 American City Flags Survey, eventually leading to an effort in 2013 by Mayor John Curtis to create and adopt a new flag for Utah’s third-largest city.
The effort got bogged down in a long, drawn-out process. Reporting on a Municipal Council work session in September 2014, the Provo Daily Herald noted that even after a “full year-and-a-half […], many discussions, resident comments, blogs and more vetting… the municipal council has yet to figure out just what long-term symbol could represent Provo on the city’s flagpole.” Indeed, within the three-person committee tasked with recommending a design, a dispute had arisen between “Provo’s resident vexillologist, Jason Bates” and graphic designer, city councilman, and designer of the flag to be replaced Stephen Hales. (The position of the third committee member, former councilwoman Sherrie Hall Everett, isn’t mentioned.)
It’s important to come up with a good flag design. A good city flag design can become more than just a logo.
Stephen Hales, on the other hand, didn’t “seem to be as caught up in flag tradition as his team member Bates,” saying:
Have the flag with a circle in the middle with the city’s logo. It doesn’t need classic flag elements. It needs something that extends the city’s identity.
In an effort to move forward the mayor’s office offered two designs to be considered, each referencing elements from the city’s logo but not including it in its entirety:
The work session adjourned without reaching a decision. By the next month, the committee had made a decision. Current and former council members Hales and Everett outvoted vexillologist Bates, 2 against 1, and Hales presented a design based on his own suggestion from the previous session (having passed over both of the mayor’s office proposals). Hales’ new design went on to be approved on January 6, 2015 as Provo’s new flag, replacing Hales’ old design:
What happened to Bates’ and the mayor’s office proposals? Anyone interested in the politics of municipal flag design will find this video record of the Provo Municipal Council work session of October 21, 2014 to be most informative:
What happened at the work session provides a number of lessons for flag designers and vexillonaires:
(1) Hales asserted that his design was consistent with NAVA’s professed principles of good flag design by referencing highly-rated municipal flags in the 2004 American City Flag Survey that included circular logos (like Phoenix, ranked 4th) or what he interpreted as circular logos (like St Louis, ranked 5th).
(2) Flag design principles themselves were deemed more or less irrelevant. We are told that they might have been historically important for military flags, but what has this got to do with modern day municipal flags like Provo’s? Such principles might be important for a flag lasting 50 or 100 years, but this is outweighed by the needs of the immediate present; it’s much more important, we are told, that the flag be immediately recognizable without any effort by current residents. They might be important for flags that are embraced by a population and flown by many private citizens; but the flag to be designed has no such lofty ambitions — if it’s only flown from flag poles the city owns, it will be a complete success. (In other words, the flag is not for the people of Provo, but for the government of Provo — it’s a service provided to them, nothing more.)
(3) Related to the above, it is clear from this video that the flag was seen as properly subordinate to a larger effort to brand the city: a larger, expensive, professionally designed marketing effort. Seen in this light, it makes perfect sense to defer to the judgement of an advertising professional (not an amateur vexillologist) and to put a great deal of weight in evaluating a design the degree to which it leverages the city’s substantial investment in a logo (and not the degree to which it draws upon more enduring symbols than logos).
(4) The discipline of flag design isn’t doing itself any favors, in these political contexts, by branding itself with arcane, hard-to-pronounce, and apparently hard to spell terms like vexillology.
(5) Good design by committee, if not impossible, is very hard! In the case of Provo, as in many others (e.g., see the case of Toronto in Vexilloid Tabloid #47), it often comes down to a single person vigorously promoting their own design.
At the end of the day and after tiring effort and controversy, Provo has a new flag, one that is almost certainly better than the one it is replacing. It’s possible that the people of Provo will come to love this logo-based flag, and to adopt it as their own, not just as city hall’s. It’s a shame, however, that this populist criteria for defining what makes an enduring, embraceable “good flag” was unable to carry the day against more marketing-based, short-term competitors.
Carlos Fort Garcia is a “graphic designer and graphic activist” living in Barcelona, and author of a highly imaginative and playful vexillolographic project entitled Las Banderas de Nuestros Hijos: Deconstruvendo Banderas (The Flags of Our Children: Deconstructing Flags).
The project text is in Spanish, and my Spanish, alas, is very rusty, so I am sure I am missing some subtleties. But it is also highly visual, and well worth investigating even by the Spanish-illiterate, either in its online form at lasbanderasdenuestroshijos.com or its 80-page booklet format (published by Play Attitude, ISBN-13: 978-84-15149-49-1, first printing May 2014) if you can get your hands on a copy. (Full disclosure: I was one of the project’s crowdfunding supporters.)
The gist of the project, I think, is this: In an increasingly interconnected world, national flags too often serve more to divide than to unify, even while peoples’ identities often do not fit nicely within a single nation’s cultural borders. A person may feel equal parts American and Japanese, for example, or Catalonian and British. So Fort Garcia has produced playful mash-ups of national flags to create hybrid forms to better represent such shared allegiances, or at least call strict boundaries into question. Hybrids are created by first deconstructing two national flags into basic graphic ideas, and then recombining these elements into something the looks pleasing or at least inviting of attention.
I think it’s telling that the recombinations aren’t presented formally as strict rectangular flags, but rather with rounded corners as something like large graphic icons — actual hybrid flags might be seen as sacrilegious to patriots of either source nation, but by showing these to be flag-like (vexilloid!) creations but not literally flags, perhaps this goes a little way to begging forgiveness of such critics.
In the most politically-charged chapter, entitled Confluencias, Fort Garcia imagines uniting warring (or at least oppositional) countries. These matter-antimatter collisions may be utopian, but they are certainly visually and conceptually provocative. They also feel more natural or legible than the other pairings — enemies, after are, are in a salient preexisting relationship, and so perhaps their flags already want to interact, at least in our imaginations.
Whereas the book is beautifully rendered and visually stunning, it doesn’t seem to be available currently for purchase. The much more accessible online version, unfortunately, just shows a relatively small number of examples. Perhaps with added interest, there will be added development of the project. Even so, it’s a nice contribution to the vexillology of the imagination and the art of flags.