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Good Flag Designs

What Makes A Good Flag Design?

Last modified: 2018-02-24 by pete loeser
Keywords: flags | good designs |
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On this page: See also: Other References

Introduction: What makes a good flag design?

     This is a group of flags FOTW members think are quality designs and either meet the generally accepted principles that result in really great flags, or are an effective flag in spite of bending the principles. There are many good flags that can inspire you to create your own flag and help get the best possible flag.

     You can use these five basic principles to create an outstanding flag for your organization, city, tribe, company, family, neighborhood, or even country! (Compiled by Ted Kaye in his Good Flag, Bad Flag pamphlet)

  1. Keep It Simple. The flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory.
  2. Use Meaningful Symbolism. The flag's images, colors, or patterns should relate to what it symbolizes
  3. Use 2 or 3 Basic Colors. Limit the number of colors on the flag to three which contrast well and come from the standard color set
  4. No Lettering or Seals. Never use writing on any kind or an organization's seal
  5. Be Distinctive or Be Related. Avoid duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections

Some Thoughts On Having A Flag Design Page.

     I like the idea over all, but would like to be sure that we help to clearly define what good flag design looks like. Ironically, Vexillology, the "scientific" study of flags can not really be called scientific because of all of the intangibles that go into the study. Competent Vexillography on the other hand, is a very scientific process.
     Art, or what appeals to some ones eye on a flat one dimensional surface does not necessarily translate into good flag design when all factors are taken into account. New Zealand will discover this soon enough if they adopt any one of the new alternatives that are to compete with their current flag. Additionally, one only has to take a look at the tragic samples that are the vast majority of US city and town flags.
     That said, those flags apparently appealed to many people, or they would not have been adopted to begin with.
Clay Moss, 14 November, 2015

I think that if many members highlight the flags in our site that most impress them, it will not only be interesting, but also useful to members and all visitors to the site. I could also be a "place to start" for those curious about flags, but have never really thought much about them until they discover FOTW.
Lee Herold, 13 February 2016

     This is a good idea, of course, but allow me to reply on a tangent: This community didn't begin yesterday: It is 20 years old. Among the millions of exchanged words, many of them were about good flag design - why not dig the list archives and edit on that new page the views and perspectives of meanwhile departed FotWers?
     What are the views about good flag design held by Vincent Morley? Fred Drews? Or Norm Martin, Herman de Wael, Jorge Candeias, Pascal Vagnat, Santiago Dotor, Andries Burgers, Thanh-Tâm Lê, Ned Smith, Blas Delgado, Jarig Bakker, Giuseppe Bottasini, Philippe Bondurand, Ivan Sarajcic, Phil Nelson, José Alegría, Martin Grieve, Uros Žižmund, Joe McMillan, Dov Gutterman, Michael Smuda or so many more of us who were once more or less prolific contributors and who might not hear this call today (because some of them are sadly dead, others are not list members anymore or became lurkers). [See some additional comments]
     It is totally possible, and very worthy, to do this kind of archeology - I did it some times, both for editing FotW-ws and for reporting or discussing on FotW-ml, and I always found more than I was looking for. For example, the Diver down signal flag was created in 2006 using mostly text from 1997 and 1998).
     Some of us have complete FotW-ml records in MBX files that can be readily installed and searched - at least Željko Heimer and Ivan Sache, I think. (And what about putting these online somewhere?)
António Martins-Tuválkin, 14 February 2016


Some Thoughts From Dave Martucci

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.
Taken From my Vexillography! page.
Dave Martucci, January 1998


Seven Guide Rules for Vexillography by Philippe Bondurand

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.
I think that this was 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. I must insist on the fact that these were my opinions and just the reflect my own taste. I would defend them very strongly, but I can very well understand that others will not agree.
Philippe Bondurand, January 1998


Some Favorite Picks by Lee Herold

     I have had occasion to assist people in designing their own flags, as well as cities, counties, etc. I find that looking at a variety of well designed flags really helps people get excited about flags and design, and is a great aid in getting a good result. The good designs are often the stimulus of entirely new designs, and sometimes provide the format or elements people want in their flags.
     NAVA (North American Vexillological Association) has produced "Good Flag, Bad Flag" by Ted Kaye, and in conjunction with the Flag Institute a more detailed listing of generally accepted principles of flag design. These basic rules really help. However, rules are not images and pictures, not art.
     FOTW is a wonderful source for good designs, as well as some that could probably use some work. The trouble is that it is so vast it cannot be scanned by a novice (or hardly anyone) to find the really excellent flags. After a short time, instead of being a help, there are so many flags it just gets confusing.
     My solution is to create a page where members of FOTW list some of their favorite flag designs. Ideal would be to add short comments about what they think makes it such a great flag, or maybe just why they like it.
     I think a page of favorites would really inspire people to create more flags that are the attractive and well liked.
Lee Herold, 14 November, 2015

Here are some examples of favorite flag designs picked by Lee:

   
Image by Tomislav Šipek
   
Image by Tomislav Šipek
1. City of Rabenholz (Germany)

   
2. Jinsekikogen Town (Japan - 神石高原町)

   
3. Tsurui Village (Japan - 鶴居村)

Image by Randy Young
   
Image by Randy Young
   
  Image by Tomislav Šipek
4. City of Avaristan (Russia)

   
5. Internal Intelligence Service (Bophuthatswana)

   
6. City of Moss (Norway)

Comments:

  1. Flag of Rabenholz in Geltinger Bucht, Schleswig, Germany: Image by Klaus Michael Schneider. Good balance, good bright colors, a flag that stands out and would look distinctive when flying.
  2. Flag of Tsurui in Kushiro, Hokkaido Prefecture, Japan: Image by Tomislav Šipek. Stunning elegance, simple two color design that is hard to forget.
  3. Flag of Jinsekikogen in Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan: Image by Tomislav Šipek. Simple colors, very pleasing to look at, clever gentle 3D effect. Seems to tell a story.
  4. Flag of Avaristan, Russia: Image by Chrystian Kretowicz. Bold flag, only two colors, but fills the imagination, easily remembered, looks like a proud symbol.
  5. Flag of the Bophuthatswana Internal Intelligence Service: Image by Jens Patke. This is a fun flag in spite of being an intelligence service, and fires the imagination. Good imagery and good balance of images and color. Who wouldn't love to own and fly this flag.
  6. Flag of Moss, a city in Østfold, Norway: Image by Tomislav Šipek. Love the bold simplicity, yet striking detail on this flag. Just two colors, but very powerful image, draws you in.


Effective Flag Designs by Pete Loeser

     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.
     When choosing 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 to easily hanging the flag upside-down unless one is very knowledgeable and careful.
Pete Loeser, 12 February 2016

Here are some examples of effective flags picked for discussion by Pete:

   
Image by Clay Moss
   
Image by Mark Sensen and António Martins-Tuválkin
1. Flag of Japan 日本国

   
2. State of New Mexico (United States)

   
Image by <em>Željko Heimer
   
Image by Clay Moss
   
Image by Joe McMillan
   
5. State of Colorado (United States)

   

Comments:

  1. The National Flag of Japan: Image by António Martins-Tuválkin. 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: Image by Clay Moss. 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. A weakness in design would be the the small size of the red emblem in proportion to the yellow-gold background.
  3. Flag of the Republic of South Africa: Image by Mark Sensen and António Martins-Tuválkin. 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: Image by Željko Heimer. 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: Image by Clay Moss. 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 and the sun makes this one of the better designs of state flags. It also adds a unique and distinctive look when hung vertically.
  6. The Flag of the United States of America: Image by Joe McMillan. One of the most recognizable flags in the world today, it's design is bold and colorful and based on a simple concept, but not perfect. Horizontally hung it waves flawlessly, but hung vertically, the placement of the canton become a bit problematical.

Obviously these examples have been influenced by my nationality and tastes and I invite discussion. What do you think?


Esteban Rivera - Resources for Good Flag Design

Image by António Martins-Tuválkin, 12 June 2008
Flag of the District of Columbia (Washington D.C., USA)

     Very recently when looking up for further information on the historical flags of the State of New Hampshire, I came across this video on flag design titled "The Worst-Designed Thing You've Never Noticed" by Roman Mars on TED Talks which I think is a good starting point from a designer's point of view which, even though Mars is not a vexillologist.
     Also, last year when Provo (Utah) was updating its flag, the issue of "good design vs. bad design" arose as well. I came across these NAVA articles: Vexillology Wiki's survey, plus the following PDF files: 2001 State/Provincial Flag Survey and The American City Flag Survey of 2004 by Ted Kaye.
     I've had the pleasure of visiting the U.S. state whose flag was named worst in terms of flag design (Georgia), and the U.S. city whose flag design (Washington D.C.) was named best in both NAVA surveys. I never actually got to see the Georgia flag flying that was labeled as the worst flag (Georgia State flag 2001-2003) as it has since been replaced by the current State flag, adopted in 2003. I can only say that Georgia was a very nice State to visit no matter what flag is flying.
     We also must realize that what is thought to be a "good flag" and what is considered a "bad flag", is in many cases a question that most often comes up whenever new designs or new legislation is passed about an established flag. Take, for instance, what happened in Fidji or New Zealand in recent times, or in East Timor when it gained independence and really shook things up a bit.
Esteban Rivera, 12 February 2016


Responses, Comments and Insights: The discussion begins...

Spanish Merchant Ensign Image by Antonio Gutiérrez, 26 May 1999
Merchant/Civil Ensign of the Kingdom of Spain (España)

     Responding to the introduction of FOTW's flag design page, 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.
     That is the scientific fact part of the deal. Please remember that I am a British ensign fanatic, bad badges and all. So, my vexillographic credibility may have just gone out the window. :-)
     Jinsekikogen Town, Japan is the only good flag design in my opinion out of Lee's favorites, and it's not really an optimal design.
     Among Pete's favorites, New Mexico is a bad design, no matter what NAVA says. It needs to be a horizontal or vertical red gold red tri-bar with the Zia sun. When New Mexico's flag is simply hanging from a flag pole without benefit of wind, it is only a warning flag if the sun can not be seen.
Clay Moss, 13 February 2016

     While on the subject of Ted Kaye and the wonderful hand book he wrote, another would be "Current Flag Design Trends" by Don Healy, published in the Flag Bulletin, Vol: XXV, No.6, November-December 1986.
Sekhar Chakrabarti, 15 February 2016

     Interesting observations Clay, on flag designs. And I like António's comments too. I think for a vexillologist, flag design is a basic question and more information is always useful.
     Although an expanded page on flag design principles and even scientific approaches would be good for the website, my thought was to expose the interesting flags that attract members of the list, but are buried in the thousands of flags on the site. Some may not follow the best design guidelines, but just seem to have that something that makes them stand out, even be beautiful. Clay likes British ensigns, others have their own favorites. It could be a form of "best of the list", but only in our own opinions. Or perhaps "best" is wrongly stated, personally attractive?
Lee Herold, 15 February 2016

     Thus, you have the reason I used the term "Effective Flag Designs" rather than "Best Flag Designs."
Pete Loeser, 15 February 2016

  Image from António Martins-Tuválkin, 15 February 2016
Personal Flag of Dave Martucci

     A list like this is never fair or "complete" but somehow was lost in re/over/typing one of the very first named that popped in my head: Dave Martucci. His personal flag alone shows he knows how to design a really great flag!
António Martins-Tuválkin, 15 February 2016

     I thought a link to our "Participating in Flag Committees" and Flag Competitions page might be a good addition to this "Good Flag Design" page. It's mainly about helping a flag design committee pick a winning flag, but naturally there are some tips about specific good flag design elements included.
Clay Moss, 19 April 2016



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