Good Flag, Bad Flag

I recently received a 1,019-word email from Friend of IBD Howard Aprill on the subject of flag design. Howard does this sort of thing because he blames us for the fact that he now notices design stuff and reads blogs, and he wants to get back at us for wasting his time.

I received Howard’s email about a month ago and I just finished reading it, so I thought I’d share parts of it with you. Evidently, Howard stumbled across a website for the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA), which I was disappointed to learn has nothing to do with making people angry. Turns out, according to the organization’s website, vexillology is “the scientific and scholarly study of flag history and symbolism.”

NAVA’s website (which, ironically, is a jumbled mess, full of boxes and centered type) links to a pdf of a brochure called “Good Flag, Bad Flag: How to Design a Great Flag.” The brochure contains this sage advice, with Howard’s comments in parentheses:

  1. Keep it simple. (Duh.)
  2. Use meaningful symbolism. (Double duh.)
  3. Use 2–3 basic colors. (Makes sense to me but I’m interested in your thoughts on this.)
  4. No lettering or seals. (Apparently this is the Comic Sans equivalent of the flag world.)
  5. Be distinctive or be related.

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These points are consistent with the advice graphic designers and interpreters offer—essentially, keep it clean, use a defined color palette, and above all be meaningful. (Though I would argue, related to point #4, that it would be okay for an organization devoted to the conservation and understanding of sea mammals to use a seal in its design.)

Even better than NAVA’s five design principles, NAVA’s website features a link to the results of a 2004 survey that ranks the design of flags from 150 U.S. cities. The ratings go from #1, Washington, DC (on the left, above) to #150, Pocatello, Idaho, where they are as proud of their mountains as they are their Microsoft WordArt.

Howard’s hometown of Milwaukee ranks 147th on the list. While he recognizes that the flag, designed in the 1950s, violates all stated and most unwritten rules of design (and a couple international laws related to the Geneva Convention), Howard offers this impassioned defense:

I think it’s a time capsule that captures the essence of post World War II Milwaukee. You notice that it’s busy filled with LOTS of things. Well that’s how folks felt about their town. The gear represents industry (at one time we actually MADE things in this town), the Native American head represents our original inhabitants, the ship represents the busy port, the golden barley stalk on the left represents our beer brewing industry. It even features the old County Stadium for the Milwaukee Braves. You have to understand, the Braves moved here from Boston in 1953 and this town was INSANELY proud to get a big league team.

I told Howard that I hope Milwaukee gets a big-league baseball team again some day.

The NAVA flag brochure says, “All rules have exceptions…but depart from these five principles only with caution and purpose.” The brochure holds up the Colorado state flag (pictured at the top of the post) as an example of a successful departure. It violates the rule of not using type in a flag, but does so elegantly and simply. I’d say that while the folks in Milwaukee departed from the rules with purpose, they also did so with reckless abandon.

Ultimately, flag design and interpretive design have a lot in common, in that they strive to be impactful, accessible, and meaningful. Because he makes the point far better than I could, I leave you with this thought from Howard:

In my opinion the challenges and components of flag design are very related to what we do in interpretation—trying to give relevance and meaning, building connections, tangibles (a piece of cloth) vs. intangibles (love of country, sacrifice, etc). We’ve all seen good flags and bad flags, just like we’ve all seen good interpretive panels and bad interpretive panels. I dare say there are things we can take away from the study of vexillology and apply to interpretation.

13 thoughts on “Good Flag, Bad Flag

  1. Interesting post! I’ve never thought too much about city flags, but it was really neat to scroll through the 150 of them on NAVA’s website. I was happy to see my hometown, Springfield IL at a respectable #41. Looks like it mostly followed the rules except for the lettering.

  2. Vexing. Very vexing.

    I’d argue that for something like a city flag — which doesn’t get a lot of use — it would be important to have something on the flag that clearly identifies the city. I recognized the Washington and Chicago flags, but had a hard time remembering which city they belonged to. Lower down on the list, forget about it.

    I understand the reasoning behind the 2-3 color rule, but think that it might be outdated. Look at how many nations have tricolor flags. The general similarity between Ireland, Italy, France, the Netherlands, etc., makes them hard to place. South Africa used a lot more colors, purposefully but tastefully, and came out with a winner.

    The true test, for me, is how easy it is to sew onto a kite. Stars are a pain in the but to cut out and stitch. Lettering… forget about it. The world’s largest kite features a Kuwaiti flag: four colors, block pattern, visible from a distance, neat and clean as far as sewing goes.

  3. Howard is right that the Milwaukee flag is an excellent time capsule of post-WWII Milwaukee. Why, you can practically hear the singing frog inside that thing. But it’s still a terrible flag, flags and time capsules being entirely different things and all.

    Also, that three-color “Milwaukee” lettering would look great on a baseball uniform.

    There’s been a proposal kicking around to replace Minnesota’s generic state-seal-on-blue flag with one almost as awesome as Colorado’s. (States with seal-on-blue flags might as well just stencil the word “state” onto white sheets.) Minnesota is never going to adopt the new flag, but it’s a great example of how good flag design can communicate big concepts clearly and succinctly.

  4. Don’t forget to consider functionality in design. A flag needs to withstand the weather and folding. It will most likely be seen from a distance flapping in the wind or draped over an object. Beauty and functionality can go hand in hand like a beautiful tea pot. Yet, if you want your flag to last five years what material you are going to print it on is also an important design element to consider.

    Thank you for teaching me a new word today – Vexilology. Did you know someone that loves flags is a vexillolophile?

  5. I like flags. I live in a small rural community town called Cambria in San Luis Obispo County California. We do not have a flag. I have no idea if our county has a flag. The California flag has 4 colors, plus lettering, plus a star plus the California Golden Bear, part of our State Seal. Seems like we have broken many of the flag guidelines here in California.

    I really like flags when watching the opening ceremony of the Olympics when you get to see all the flags marching in with the athletes. Some are pretty cool, some are really ugly, but each has a special meaning to many people around the globe. Sometimes the flag carrier is the only athlete from his country. Do you think that man or woman cares about the colors or a logo? They are just proud to be showing their flag to the world. Probably just as I am of the Red, White and Blue or the Stars & Stripes or of Old Glory or whatever you happen to call the USA flag.

  6. Ooh, ooh, I love when Betty and I think alike!!!! Since I’m also a semi-pro vexillomanufacturer (I make banners. There’s probably not a word for that, so I made one up.), I can tell you all about designing something so that it looks good when the wind is blowing, and when the wind isn’t blowing. And using SolarMax 200 denier nylon to stand up to UV fade. And why the design of 49 of the state flags are guaranteed to suffer wind damage.

    Tonight I’m starting on a new 16′ banner to mark my dog’s place at this year’s kite festivals. (Gotta replace the old 16′ banner, since I replaced the old dog.) To make Paul happy, I’m using only two colors, from opposite sides of the color wheel, with no lettering.

  7. Katie, there’s definitely an element of hometown pride at stake. My native Philadelphia ranked 31, which is actually a little higher than it deserved, objectively speaking.

    Phil, I actually thought about you and your kites as I wrote this post. Is there a similar style guide for designing kites? If not, you need to write one.

    Jeff, I wish you had seized the opportunity to use Betty’s new word in your comment. You’re a vexillolophile!

    Scott, this made me laugh out loud: “But it’s still a terrible flag, flags and time capsules being entirely different things and all.”

  8. Wow Paul, that’s hideous. But at least now I know why the Eagles sometimes wear those turquoise and yellow throwback jerseys.

    Betty, if it were your horse, the banner would be equally as tall, yes? Also, I built the banner to fit a standard size telescoping pole.

    Paul, if there were a style guide for designing kites, I’d probably win more competitions. But as a rule of thumb, it helps to remember that people will be looking at it from at least 100′ away, so any tiny graphics will disappear. Go BIG or stay home. Actually, that same rule applies to a lot of flags, if you consider the height of some flagpoles.

  9. Another very important consideration is how easy the flag is to paint on a face for those very important sporting events and festivals. There are some great examples here. (Aw, no more hotlinking? Sad face. However, it was the right thing to do. Hotlinking is bad.)

    While the image of the Haitian flag on a face is moving, it also makes the mother in me think, “Man, that’s a lot of work.” The Uruguayan flag example is pretty darn cool, if a bit Clockwork Orange-ish.

  10. Effective marketing (mistakenly called FLAGS, but really “Feather Banners”) needs to be eye-catching and immediately action-inspiring… so I agree, LESS IS BEST! In our line of work, between 7 – 10 letters only, an image of a key product, and well-matched colours work really well. K.I.S.S. means that traffic will ACT on a recognisable short-sharp-shiny message and pull in to your store and shop. We’ve proved it works!

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