by | Aug 15, 2018 | Graphic Design

For thousands of years, flags have been used for military purposes on land and sea, and have evolved to represent royal houses, countries, government, businesses, sports teams, political parties, cities, states, and more. Designing an effective flag follows the same rules of creating great design.

According the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA), there are five basic principles of good design that leads to a successful flag that can be seen from a distance, often while moving, and in various sizes. Most important of all, a flag, like any good design (check out our blog post about designing Great Logos for more on this topic), needs to be attractive and balanced to the viewer and accurately represent the place, organization, or person it is intended to represent. So, what are the rules?

Keep it Simple

“A flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory”

Because flags need to be seen from a distance under a lot of different circumstances, keeping the design simple means the flag is effective, cost less, and can be widely used.

Good: Italy

Tricolor flags are classic and simple. Inspired by the French model of 1790, the Italian flag could be recognized miles away. The green represents the plains and hills of Italy, the white represents the snow-capped alps, and the red symbolizes the blood split during the Italian Wars of Independence and Unification.

Bad: Navajo Nation

This flag is so full of graphics and symbolism, you don’t even know where to start looking. It becomes overwhelming, especially when it is flying in the air and you can’t get a good look at it. Simplify, so that the elements that are included can be easily seen. There is an awesome flag hidden in all this chaos.

Use Meaningful Symbolism

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

Symbolism can be found in the graphic elements, the colors, the shapes, and the layout of the flag. Colors often carry meaning: red for blood, white for purity, or blue for water, so make meaningful choices about what you use to accurately represent the organization.

Good: New Mexico

The red and yellow evokes the flag of Spain. The sun in the middle is a Tribal Zia symbol (Native American Tribe from New Mexico) representing the four points of a compass, the four seasons, the four parts of the day (morning, noon, evening, night), the four phases of life (childhood, youth, middle years, and old age), and the four obligations (strong body, clear mind, pure spirt, and devotion to others).

Bad: The Organization of American States

This flag depicts the flags of all the member countries in this organization and must be changed when one joins, drops out, or changes their own flag. That seems like a lot of effort for something that is not visible on a flagpole or a tiny lapel pin. The symbolism is lost in all the detail.

Use 2-3 Basic Colors

“Limit the number of colors on the flag to three, which contrast well and comes from the standard color set”

The basic colors used for flags are red, blue, green, black, white, and yellow ranging from dark to light. Contrast is very important, so place lighter colors next to darker colors to create separation. If a flag can be reproduced in greyscale and maintain the distinction between colors, you are on the right track.

Good: Amsterdam

This flag is directly derived from the escutcheon in the coat of arms of Amsterdam. It is simple, but still really awesome! The black stripe represents the River Amstel and the three crosses are either St. Andrew’s crosses or a link to the Persijn Nobel Family.

Bad: Dominica

This flag contains six colors and an excessive amount of detail. Unless you are part robot and can zoom-in your vision, there is no way you will see the detail in the parrot. The design feels disjointed and the colors only create visual tension. It results in unnecessary complexity and excessive cost.

No Lettering or Seals

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

Words defeat the purpose of using the flag as a graphic symbol. It is impossible to read and words are not reversible… so the backside might look like a real mess unless the flag is double or triple thickness. Furthermore, when the flag is scaled down to lapel-pin size the text and seals are illegible.

Good: Côtes d’Armor

Rather than using logos or seals like other French departments, Côtes d’Armor’s flag uses a stylized seagull that also mimics their coastline. It is evocative and reminiscent of the place it represents, while still being strikingly visible. The blue symbolizes the sea, the green represents the land.

Bad: Virginia

There are 18 different colors in this flag’s official specifications. Let me know if you can distinguish each one of them with your microscope. Not only does it make it hard to see, but it drives up manufacturing costs. The seal is too complex to see even on my computer, let alone seeing it while it’s on the flagpole. Additionally, a majority of state flags are exactly the same blue field with a seal in the middle, not necessarily that distinct.

*BONUS* My favorite rule breaker: Maryland

For more on this topic, check out this awesome Ted Talk by Roman Mars.

Why city flags may be the worst-designed thing you’ve never noticed.

Do you have a favorite flag or one you think could use a redesign? Comment below!
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