10 Rules for Great Flag Design

The Fresh Perspective Podcast - Episode 24

How’s it going everyone? I’m Nick and you are listening to the Fresh Perspective Podcast.

The members of this organization enjoy discussing big ideas that cover hard science, important political issues, and healthy habits. But we are also building a community, one in which you can belong; one in which you can be proud of your membership. Few things strengthen a community more than shared meaningful symbolism. Today, I’d like to take a quick break from our regularly scheduled program to start a creative conversation with consideration to 10 rules of flag design shared by vexillology enthusiasts, experts in design, and historians.

These are the rules we will hope to follow as we design our own flag, an official banner for the Free Thought Initiative that can unite, inspire, and rally free thinkers and truth seekers to our cause. If you would like to volunteer a suggestion or two about how our flag should look, we would love to consider your ideas! In this episode, I would also like to give a shout-out to a group in Utah redesigning the Utah State Flag into one that better matches these guidelines.

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There is something about us humans and our flags. Flags represent something deep in our consciousness and lead us all to focus on the core concepts that make us who we are. They began as identifying markers that allowed sailors to differentiate between enemy and ally ships. They make it easy to identify a friendly trade partner. They allowed similar armies to sort out friend from foe, or classified sub-groups within an army. They denote ownership and a clear statement of leadership.

In some ways, our society may have moved beyond these primitive functions, but I find it interesting that each and every country on the earth today still conforms to this idea of a representative cloth bearing simplified designs. They must be reproducible and identifiable even when flying in a breeze or at a great distance. No matter the political or religious differences among our nations, they all happily agree to comply with a few simple rules of flag design and fly their colors side-by-side with those from other nations. Flags are important icons throughout the world. They symbolize a shared identity. They are flown in victory and are used in the crowning moment of achievement. You see them when Olympic medals are awarded, when planted on mountain tops, and on worlds beyond our own, as if to say, “This moment doesn’t just belong to me, it belongs to my people.”

If you also find flag design fascinating, then you probably already know that many states, provinces, territories, and cities also have their own flags. As with national flags, their patterns, colors, and shapes can be found on shirts, pins, toys, coffee mugs, main-street logos, and more. Great flags are instantly-recognizable, simple, and distinct symbols. They invoke powerful emotional responses and come from an art form that anyone can appreciate.

“That is all well and good,” you may say, “But why should my Free Thought Forum have a flag?”

I’m sure I speak for the other members of the executive board when I say that we want your local group to be a community to which you can always belong. No matter how unpopular your opinions, we believe that everyone should have the chance to join a circle of friends where you can freely share those opinions. With any luck, one day, such communities will be found throughout the United States, and beyond.

I think that such a bold cause deserves its own unique symbolism, a shared icon among all groups, something that generates momentum for our movement. In my opinion, a flag fits that need nicely.

A well-designed flag is timeless and is a meaningful symbol that can be used to unite and rally people behind a powerful idea. As more Free Thought Forums are created, each group may fly our colors to show pride in our organization, dedication to our cause, and unity among our various members and groups.

Perhaps, in the future, all meetings under the Free Thought Initiative, including weekly public discussions, may only be deemed official when and where our flag is displayed. To me, this would make a lot of sense, since our members may be found meeting in coffee shops, public parks, libraries, college campuses, business plazas, and in a number of different locations. This will also give people new to our organization a sign that they have found the correct group. Likewise, whenever our organization is found at festivals, city-wide celebrations, or other public events, we will be accompanied by our flag.

But we don’t want our groups flying just any flag. We want our flag to be well-designed. This has led me to look into flag design, which, thankfully, has entire organizations dedicated to promoting certain artistic principles that the best of flags follow. Perhaps you have heard of the pamphlet “Good Flag Bad Flag” created by the North American Vexillological Association (or “NAVA”). Its subtitle reads, “Use 5 basic principles to create an outstanding flag for your organization, city, tribe, company, family, neighborhood, or even country!” I will be happy to share their five principles. After, I also have five more rules to consider based on the common practices of heraldry and other ideas that are common in the flag-enthusiast community. Along the way, I’d like to bring up Utah’s flag, the flag of my home state, to see how it measures up.

1. KEEP IT SIMPLE

The flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory . . .

One video I saw on the topic recommended that you should be able to draw a version of your flag that is one inch long. If you can still recognize it, then you’ve done a good job. Flags are not meant to be static stamps, but physical objects that droop, bend and warp. Therefore, simple designs are better than complex ones.

Simple flags are also less expensive. Many flags are made by cutting out pieces of cloth and sewing them together. Flags with shapes that have bizarre edges or flags that have too many pieces will make their cost of production rise. Now, with that said, flags can also be digitally printed, so this rule has some flexibility.

Too many symbols are also a problem. It is much like how you can’t have the name of a movie or book be a paragraph long. There is beauty in concise language, just as there is beauty in simple flag design. A flag can’t be all things to all people. Designing a flag by committee is usually a bad idea. No matter what you design, there will always be people who feel like their great ideas aren’t used. If good design is your goal, then you have to leave some ideas on the cutting room floor.

I think great examples of this include the flag of Japan. A red round circle in the center of a white field. That is Japan, and that is something any Japanese child can draw from memory.

How about the flag of Canada? One vertical red stripe on each side and a unique maple leaf in the center. France was one of the first flags that just had three colors in three equal columns, blue, white, and red. It is beautiful and it is simple.

For fun, I will bring up some examples of flags that I find too complex. Spain has a red stripe on the top and a red stripe on the bottom with a thick gold background. But near the hoist (or left edge of the flag) is a detailed coat of arms. You need a magnifying glass to see all of the lines and artwork. You have a crown with tiny pearls, a castle with individual bricks, and a mess of other elements. Moldova and Mexico have similar problems.

2. USE MEANINGFUL SYMBOLISM

The flag’s images, colors, or patterns should relate to what it symbolizes . . .

I think it is fair to say that everything on a flag should be there for a reason. The layout should be intentional. Why are you using vertical stripes and not horizontal ones? The colors shouldn’t just be there to “look nice.” If you have a star, why is it five-pointed and not seven-pointed? Why would you have an eagle instead of an owl? Many flags have one major symbol called the “charge,” and it should be something that calls back to your beliefs, history, landscape, people, and so forth. Good symbols are unique and easy to sketch.

One thing to remember is that maps don’t belong on flags. You shouldn’t stamp the map of the borders of your state or country on a flag. That is too detailed, too hard for a kid to draw, and too much of a problem when your flag is waving or seen from behind.

Another thing to consider is that many symbols carry a common meaning among many flags. If most flags use the color red to represent a bloody revolution or the brave sacrifice of your soldiers, then it may be in poor taste to add red to your flag without a similar reason. It is smart to look up the symbols you want to use to see what they mean on other flags.

I really like the symbolism found on the flag of the Marshall Islands. It is blue, symbolizing the blue Pacific Ocean around the island nation. It has diagonal stripes that call to other similar nations that have gained independence. These stripes are like sun rays that increase in width from the bottom left corner to the upper right. They are orange, symbolizing courage, and white, symbolizing peace. The stripes represent the equator, and above them is a star, showing the Marshall Islands’ physical location just above the equator. The star has 24 points, each point representing an electoral district within the nation.

3. USE 2—3 BASIC COLORS

Limit the number of colors on the flag to three, which contrast well and come from the standard color set . .

These standard colors are red, blue, green, black, yellow, and white. Almost all flags on earth have at least red, white, or blue on them. White is the most common color.

An old rule from Heraldry is that you should never have metals touching metals or colors touching colors. “Colors” mean dark rich colors like red, blue, green, or black. “Metals” are yellow and white. A good flag will not have dark colors touching. Rather, the dark colors are separated by light colors. A great example of this is one of my favorite flags, the flag of Iceland. A red Nordic cross is on a blue background, but the cross has a thick white border, making a gorgeous flag.

A poor example is Bangladesh, which has a dark red sun on a dark green background. If you printed that flag out in greyscale, then it would look like a grey mess. Your flag should still look great and distinct, even in greyscale.

A flag with too many colors tends to look too busy and makes it harder and more expensive to reproduce. If you don’t enjoy looking at your flag for longer than a minute, then you need to go back to the drawing board.

Now a few flags use orange, brown, purple, or grey, so they are still on the table. The thing is, matching the shades of seldom used colors may be tricky during production. With that said, creating something like a purple flag, like Tokyo’s flag, can give you points for uniqueness.

Another thing to consider is that color combinations can say a lot about where your flag fits in the geopolitical landscape. Most Western European flags are red, white, and blue. The Pan-African colors are green, yellow, and red. Arab countries tend to use red, white, black, and green. Red and yellow are commonly found on the flags of communist countries. You can also expect a lot of yellow on the flags of tropical countries.

4. NO LETTERING OR SEALS

Never use writing of any kind or an organization’s seal . . .

The UK has one of the most gorgeous flags on earth, the Union Jack. Can you imagine how terrible it would look if “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” was written in big black letters across the middle of that flag?

Letters and numbers on a flag are a bad idea for a few reasons: One, they can’t be read from far away or on a waving flag. Two, they add complexity to the flag design. Three, they are nonsensical and lose all meaning when seen on the reverse side. Four, they make your flag specific to one language. Five, they compromise the symbolism of the flag.

A flag is a symbol, and if the meaning of a symbol has to be spelled out, your symbol has failed. You shouldn’t have words like “New Jersey, “Honor” or “The Dinosaur State.” It would be far better to have the silhouette of a landmark, a color to represent an idea, or a stylized design. Words disappear when your flag is on a stamp or a pin. They are hard to sew-in. They constitute bad design, and a flag with bad design is one that no one wants to fly.

Many American state flags break this rule. They have small detailed state seals printed in the middle of a solid color background. Flag designers and flag enthusiasts call these “SOB’s” or “seals on bedsheets.” Here is a list of all of the state flags featuring their state seals:

  • Connecticut

  • Delaware

  • Florida

  • Idaho

  • Illinois

  • Kansas

  • Kentucky

  • Louisiana

  • Maine

  • Massachusetts

  • Michigan

  • Minnesota

  • Montana

  • Nebraska

  • Nevada

  • New Hampshire

  • New Jersey

  • New York

  • North Dakota

  • Oklahoma

  • Oregon

  • Pennsylvania

  • South Dakota

  • Vermont

  • Virginia

  • Washington

  • West Virginia

  • Wisconsin

  • And, my home state, Utah

Now, when I was a boy scout, I actually really liked the Utah state flag. Last redesigned in 2011, it has a dark navy-blue background with a yellow circle in its center. Inside the circle is the Utah coat of arms, a detailed bald eagle, a symbol of the United States protecting us, two United States flags, yes, flags within a flag, on either side, representing our commitment, devotion, and loyalty to the United States, our state flower representing peace, and a beehive, a Masonic symbol of industry in the center. In case you didn’t know that the beehive meant industry, the word, “Industry” is right above. The beehive can also be in reference to a story in the Book of Mormon about how people from the tower of Babel built submarines and brought bees to America, but I think that interpretation has fallen out of favor for some reason. In case you didn’t know that this was the seal of Utah, the word “Utah” is right below. Below that is the year my ancestors, the Mormons, first settled the area, but in bigger numbers under that is the year that Utah became an official state under the United States.

Now, the Mormons had a bad PR problem before our statehood, what with a cult-like following of a prophet, polygamy, shooting other settlers, the Utah War, and so on. I find it funny that we overcompensated to the point of putting several American symbols on our flag to represent that we really really want to play nice with the United States, we promise, making our own country called “Deseret” was just a phase, we promise.

But all joking aside, it is a beautiful seal, but a lousy flag. That is why I was glad to find The Organization for a New Utah Flag and their website: www.newutahflag.org. I want to give them a shout-out. They have spent years with teams of professional designers to see if they can come up with a better design for a Utah state flag, and I think they were successful.

Their proposed flag is a gorgeous one and represents an aptitude for flag-design that is sorely lacking in what we have now. This is a flag that inspires pride. This is a flag I would love to see everywhere, and this is a flag I would be happy to call my own.

Allow me to describe it. A yellow beehive is in the center on a white circle with a yellow double-edge. The background is divided into four quadrants creating an “X-shape.” The X represents Utah’s historical place as the “crossroads of the west” and promontory point, where the two ends of the transcontinental railroad met. The quadrant on the top is white, representing our mountains and the best snow on earth. The bottom quadrant is red, representing the red-rocks of many of our state parks to the south. To the left and right of the beehive are blue sections that represent our traditions and the Great Salt Lake. On these sections, the year 1847 is printed in honor of the Mormon Pioneers. Finally, a red star is placed under the Beehive to symbolize when Utah gained its statehood.

The star I think is a nice touch. Wouldn’t it be cool if all state flags contained just one star so that when you put them all together, they make up the fifty stars on the American Flag? Many already do have just one star, and I would be glad to see Utah on that list.

I think that The Organization for a New Utah Flag did a fine job and totally deserve our support. If you think so too, why not write to Salt Lake and let them know how you feel? I am inspired by these kinds of groups that take it upon themselves to replace bad flags. If you live in a different state with an SOB flag, see if you can find a local group that has designed an alternative. Sometimes the best way to help these groups is to simply spread the word about them.

5. BE DISTINCTIVE OR BE RELATED

Avoid duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections . . .

Now back to good flag design rules. I touched on this one a bit when we talked about colors. Symbols also fit into this category. Almost all of the Nordic countries use the Nordic cross. Almost all Muslim-majority countries use the crescent moon. But sometimes, this can go too far. Chad and Romania look almost exactly the same. Samoa and Taiwan only have tiny differences. A ton of countries just throw the Union Jack in their corner, and it is easy to see which countries are big fans of the United States.

If you don’t know where to begin with your flag, why not begin with flags that represent similar things to yours? Paying homage to those flags without copying them directly is a great way to come up with a unique, but related, design.

Before I wrap up this episode, I’d like to add a few more tips I’ve been able to pick up from my research.

6. CREATE THE ILLUSION OF MOVEMENT

You flag should fly, even when it is hanging still . . .

A static flag with boring shapes looks still and lifeless. A good design moves and encourages you to study it for a while. A good example is the flag of Kiribati. It’s blue and white wavy stripes in its lower half dances when you look at it. You can almost see the waves crashing against the beach. Kazakhstan has a flying eagle, with its wings outstretched, not just one that looks like it is pancaked against a brick wall. The rays from North Macedonia’s sun reaches out, and the symbol in the center of South Korea’s flag is spinning.

7. ANIMALS SHOULD LOOK TO THE HOIST

If your flag has a person or creature, they should face upwards and to the left . . .

This is another rule that flags inherited from heraldry. The idea behind this is that if you are marching in a parade or running into battle, you don’t want the animal or person on your flag facing the wrong direction. Sri Lanka’s lion faces the hoist, Dominica’s parrot faces the hoist, and Mexico’s eagle faces the hoist. Now, this isn’t an absolute rule. California’s bear faces down and Bhutan’s dragon is slithering up and to the right, but it is a good thing to keep in mind.

8. CONSIDER USING A COMMON RATIO

Design your flag to fit in a 2:3 ratio unless you have a reason not to . . .

The flag of Switzerland and the flag for Vatican City are both square flags, with a 1:1 ratio or proportion of width to length. A flag with a ratio of 5:8 matches the golden ratio, which is cool. About half of all national flags follow a 2:3 ratio, so most flag production companies will be happy to make your flag follow these dimensions for the most reasonable price. About one-fourth of all national flags are longer with a 1:2 ratio, and flags with a 3:5 ratio are most common among former Dutch or French colonies.

9. YOUR FLAG SHOULD LOOK GOOD WHILE WAVING

A flag is meant to flap in the wind . . .

If the most important elements of your flag are lost as it bends and whips outside, then you’ve failed. If your flag is ruined unless it lies flat against a wall, then you’ve failed. You may want to place the most important symbolism in the canton of the flag (the small rectangle in the top left quarter of it). This will allow it to maintain its distinctiveness when hanging limp on a flag pole. But to retain your most important symbol while the flag is whipped by the wind, then you should place it in the flag’s center, or left-of-center. Larger symbols or patterns will be seen in the curls of the flag better than smaller ones. One reason why the American Flag looks so great in the wind is that its long and skinny red and white stripes maximize even the slightest ripple running through the cloth.

To simulate your flag waving, you can upload it to one of a few websites. This really helps in the creative process. If your design doesn’t look good in the wind, then it isn’t a good design.

10. RULES ARE MEANT TO BE BROKEN

These Rules are more like Guidelines . . .

For every principle of good flag design, there is a great flag that breaks it. Just like with every other art form, straying a little off the path can yield impressive results. Many of these rules are practical, but if you have a big reason to break one or two, then go for it! Portugal’s flag is complicated but aesthetically pleasing. Ukraine’s flag is just two bars, blue and gold, but even those are dripping with meaning. They represent the clear skies, gold wheat fields and a rejection of the forces that once prohibited this design. South Africa’s flag has six colors, but is still one of the best ones in the world!

I hope this conversation has inspired you to look at your own state or national flags in a new light. For those of you who are interested in contributing to the design of the official flag for the Free Thought Initiative, we’d love to hear from you. Send us an email, or join us on Discord.

If you have enjoyed this conversation or have learned something from it, please leave a like, subscribe, and share it with other open-minded people. All of those small things really do make a big difference and help others find our group and our podcast.

That is all I have for you today, but the conversation continues across social media and in the comment sections below. Do you agree with today’s message? Am I mistaken about some detail? How can I better elaborate on this topic in the future? Feel free to share your perspective!

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Written By Nicholas Burk, Executive Board Member © 2019 Free Thought Initiative