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What Makes a Good Flag?

Last modified: 2017-11-11 by rob raeside
Keywords: design | vexillology |
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What makes a good flag design? This question was posed by Jorge Candeias (27 January 1998). Some responses below:

From Dave Martucci:

From my Vexillography! page

Good design for flags is a matter of combining the basic shapes, proportions and design elements into a pleasing, usually simple, striking pattern that contains the necessary symbolism. Each design element -- shape, colors, emblem -- can have any of a number of symbolic interpretations, many of which are purely of a personal type. Although there are "standard" symbolic meanings, many other "non-standard" symbolisms are possible.

There are a few basic tenants of "good vexillography":

  • A design should be simple and striking (a rule of thumb is that a child ought to be able to draw it and know what it represents);
  • The design should be symmetrical to a degree;
  • The elements of the design should not be overly complicated or impossible to recognize when displayed on the reverse of the flag (for this reason lettering is considered in bad taste);
  • Traditional or avant garde symbols should be recognizable.

From Philippe Bondurand:

I think that this is a very good question. So good that I decided to include my answer as a new web page on my site. I will amend it if someone adds something that convinces me from this answer. Before I answer I must insist on the fact that my opinion is just the reflect of my own taste. I would defend it very rashly, but I can very well understand that others do not agree.

I offer seven guide rules for vexillography. Each one has to be followed so long as it is not contrary to the preceding ones; for example the six last rules may not forbid one to adopt the flag he likes most! In my opinion, the order is very important.

  • The first quality of a flag (personal, regional, national etc...) is that it must please the people represented. It may looks bizarre to place it first but what's the idea of a perfect flag if no one dares to support it?
  • The second is that it must be unmistakable. If you desire your flag to look like another, do it on purpose (Colombia and Ecuador). Not by accident (Rumania and Chad).
  • The third is visibility. Flags have to be recognized flying in the wind from a distance. The designer has to keep that in mind all the time he is drawing.
  • The fourth is understandability. Good flags have a meaning, the choice of colors and/or the things that are placed on them must be on purpose. They have to tell a story, represent hopes or history. They may also proclaim a faith.
  • The fifth is balance. If a charge is present it must be either full size in the middle of the flag or small size at top hoist. If there are many small charges, they must be placed evenly, not to unbalance the design. Some flags are unbalanced on purpose (Scandinavian cross, Bangla Desh...), but always placing things nearer to the hoist as to appear balanced when the flag is seen flying on a mild wind.
  • The sixth is an adaptation of heraldic rule : No metal on metal, no smalt on smalt. As flags can adopt more colours then shields, its translate as no pale color near another pale color, no dark alongside dark. This rule may be (and has been) transgressed - it's just a guideline to avoid the worst errors.
  • The seventh is that lettering (except for company flags) should be used with much care. Writing is a language, flag is another. Writing is the last resource when a designer has not been able to represent correctly what he intends without words. But remember that this rule has to be followed AFTER the six others. In personal flags (see my persoflags page), stylized initial letters are often used. A beautiful monogram on simple field can be a striking design.

From Lee Herold:

When giving in-services on flag lore and history I am often asked what makes an effective flag design. I usually point out that what makes a good flag or an attractive flag design is strongly influenced by individual tastes, color preferences, and their sense of proportion and balance. Not all people will like the same thing.

However, when pressed, I usually say that I feel a good flag design should be practical and make the flag easily recognizable no matter how displayed. By this I mean it should be recognizable from a distance, hopefully not easily confused with other flags, and have the ability to be displayed either horizontally or vertically while retaining its same visual identity.

Many flags fail to be easily recognizable because their design are too complex and try to incorporate too many elements in the design. American state and governmental flags, or those displaying a state or organizational shield or coat-of-arms would be examples of this. Quite frankly, they all look alike and it is hard to determine which one you are viewing without close observation. Also common horizontal and vertical striped flags that simply change the colors of their stripes become easily confused with others using the same design element. Flags need to be unique to stand out.

I also believe the necessity of putting text on a flag means one of two things: the designers are not confident that their flag's design is recognizable by itself, or that the flag looks like other similar flags. This screams bad design to me. Also to be considered is that the text will not be as effective when the flag is hung vertically.

These would be examples of what I feel are good flag designs:

1. The National Flag of Japan. This would be a perfect example of a good flag to me. Simple and elegant design, bright recognizable colors, easy to recognize from a distance and can be displayed either horizontally or vertically.

2. The flag of New Mexico, United States of America.  A simple two color design that is recognizable at a glance, and can be can be displayed either horizontally or vertically without changing the insignia.

3. Flag of the Republic of South Africa.  Although this flag breaks some of the rules (6 colors) it certainly is distinctive and easily recognizable. It can be can be displayed either horizontally or vertically without changing its impact, and is unique.

4. The national flag of Barbados.  An attractive flag, with its simple vertical stripes, and distinctive shape of the trident centered on the gold stripe makes it easily recognizable. It's only weakness is when displayed vertically the trident doesn't face upward.

5. The state flag of Colorado, United States of America.  A bold design and easily recognizable. Although one can say this flag has text, it is cleverly incorporated into it's design. The "C" for Colorado with the sun inserted makes this one of the better designs of the state flags. It also adds a unique and distinctive look when hung vertically.

6. The Flag of the United States of America.  One of the most recognizable flags in the world today, its design is bold, colorful, distinctive, and based on a simple concept. However, horizontally hung it waves flawlessly, but hung vertically, the placement of the canton become a bit problematical.

When choosing these flags to use as examples of effective designs, I was tempted to use the Union Jack for one of my examples. It is recognizable from a distance, colorful and bold, but it has one very serious flaw. Its design lends itself too easily being hung upside-down unless one is very knowledgeable and careful.

Lee Herold
, 12 February 2016

From Clay Moss:

The very best flags are incredibly simple, and any good flag design should start there. The beauty of vexillography is that we can actually non-debatably determine what constitutes good flag design. It will almost always come down to colors, bars, and how they are aligned in accordance with one another. Now, it stands to reason that not all flags are going to simply be colored bars or stripes. But those are naturally the best designs. When defacements become a part of vexillography, they too should be very simple if they are to be truly functional.

Our school’s science department put together a flag design study when I was in Malaysia maybe 10 years ago or so. Our hypothesis starting out was that the very best flag design would be the flag most recognizable under the most natural and artificial circumstances. We knew going in based on research in human optometry that the final flag product would probably have an inordinate amount of red and yellow in it, as red and yellow are the colors most clearly seen by the human eye. We chose the worlds international flags and ensigns as our experiment pieces.

Sure enough, when all was said and done, the Spanish merchant flag/ensign ended up being the most identifiable flag/ensign. Horizontally, red, yellow, red. So, from our scientific standpoint, the Spanish merchant ensign is the best designed national flag or ensign.

Obviously, not everyone’s flag can be red and yellow, but everyone’s flag can be simple and straight forward.
Clay Moss, 13 February 2016

See also: Vexillology