Flying Colors: The Best and Worst of Flag Design

Bonne Bastille! I am a laggard this year on celebrating July 14, but  a no less ardent one. I’ve always been a particular fan of this dashing-to-smashing holiday—dashing until the smashing came along, that is. It puts me in mind of all things patriotic, particularly that ultimate piece of local branding: the flag.

Flag of Chicago

The Flag of Chicago, designed by Wallace Rice in 1917. The original version had just two stars, but two more have been added since. (Image: Knowyourflag.com)

This is the flag of Chicago. It’s simply everywhere—and simply great. Two pale-blue stripes ride alongside white, with four red stars in the middle. These stars—which, you’ll be delighted to learn, are known in heraldic circles as “mullets”—stand for four milestones in Chicago’s history: the city’s founding at Ft. Dearborn in 1803; the Great Fire of 1871 that razed the city; the 1893 World’s Fair that put Chi-town back on the world map in a big way; and the frankly less newsworthy “Century of Progress” Exposition in 1933.

Chicagoans celebrate their flag with gusto: on messenger bags and soap (see below), in innumerable tattoos, and in sharp poster designs from folks like Know Your Flag. Plus, there are public campaigns like the Do It For Chicago Hunger Walk, and even porcelain magnetstiles, and flatwear (below). And then we get into NSFW (but quite witty) territory: I give you Cooking for Strippers’ variation on the City of Big…ah, Shoulders flag.

Chicago Flag Soap Bar, $7

Chicago Flag Soap Bar, $7

3-piece plate setting in Chicago flag theme, $120, from Etsy

Three-piece plate setting in Chicago flag theme, $120 on Etsy

Of course, Chicago flag T-shirts abound—too many to celebrate, although this meta-explainer T-shirt helps decode the flag’s symbology:

From Ware You Fit In, $28

From Ware You Fit In, $28

I’ve only lived in one other city with such a strong (and beloved) flag-as-logo: Berlin’s bear iconography is similarly rampant.

Flag of Berlin, from Wikimedia Commons

Flag of Berlin (This and all subsequent flag images: Wikimedia Commons)

It’s no surprise that my other erstwhile hometown, New York City, has embraced Milton Glaser’s I ♥ NY as its quasi-official emblem. Because, yikes—behold the design-by-committee actual flag of the design capital of the world:

Flag of New York City, from Wikimedia Commons

Flag of New York City

After seeing that, I spent some time pawing through the Internet for more treasures of good and bad flag design. Here are my more fantastic finds:

If vexillologists (flag-fans) could design their personal flags, how might they look? This stupendous and witty collection of personal flags shows you.

More than any brand identity, maybe, flags can polarize. The best flags make you feel like the country deserves more play on the world’s stage, so enticing is their national look. Not-so-great flags bear either the confusing hallmarks of group-think design or just a weird and ill-considered choice of symbols. Thanks to the blogs Cracked and The Archnemesis, I give you a selection of the most and least inspiring flags below.

Sicily’s flag tops my personal worst list—although an odd byproduct of terrible design is a certain awful fascination. I’m sure these symbols hold deeper, perhaps overly considered meanings. But take it at face value: what do hairy spinning legs, unmentionably sprouting wheat, and a poker-faced acorn say today about Sicily right now?

Flag of Sicily, from Wikimedia Commons

Flag of Sicily

On the other hand, I’m with The Archnemesis in finding the flags of Nepal and its neighbor Bhutan innovative, differentiating, strong, and beautiful—precisely the qualities flags are meant to convey.

Flag of Nepal, from Wikimedia Commons

Flag of Nepal

Flag of Bhutan, from Wikimedia Commons

Flag of Bhutan

My personal favorite, though, is Seychelles, a tiny island nation off the east coast of Africa. Its bold diagonal stripes express the country’s looking towards the future—and, indeed, the entire design is suffused, simply and grandly, with that idea. It’s lovely to see a newer flag capture a whiff of actual hopefulness, not just a canned saying.

Flag of Seychelles, from Wikimedia Commons

Flag of Seychelles

 

Designers working with color should be sure to pick up the revised edition of Jim Krause’s Color Index, now on sale at MyDesignShop.com. Also available: Leatrice Eiseman’s audio presentation on tracking color trends.

8 thoughts on “Flying Colors: The Best and Worst of Flag Design

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  2. Nora O

    Hi Jude,
    Welcome to the flag blog community! There are quite a few of us on tumblr who talk about the sorts of things you’re talking about here quite a bit – if you ever want to give us a professional designer’s perspective, I’m sure we’d all be happy to hear about it. On my own blog, my co-blogger and I have talked about all the flags you list above, except Nepal and NYC (though we’ll get there, I promise!).
    Check us out for some pithy flag commentary at flaghagz.tumblr.com – I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised!

  3. Jude Stewart Post author

    To many Chicagoans them’s fighting words, Steve. But I’m a level-headed carpetbagger to the Third Coast, so I can freely admit: DC’s flag is pretty awesome – #1 according to a 2004 survey by the North American Vexillologists Association, with Chi a close second:
    http://www.nava.org/Flag%20Design/City%20Survey%202004/acf_press_release.htm
    I have to admit: finding awful flag designs is my new latest pastime. Check out NAVA’s worst-ranked flag, of Pocatello, Idaho. http://www.crwflags.com/fotw/flags/us-id-po.html
    It prompts me to wonder aloud: what are the rules of engagement for awful or awesome flag design? Making committee-think design manifestly clear on your flag seems to be Pocatello’s biggest sin.
     

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