Rob Bowes, head of agency operations at the U.K. interdisciplinary creative agency GLOCK, is a self-professed vexillologist. No, not a ventriloquist, but a scholar of flags and their design. His love started during geography lessons at school, and he’s since learned each and every world flag (in alphabetical order). But it’s not just their aesthetics that have drawn him in—it’s their history, unification and roots in culture. Flags are a simple communication tool, doing so without the barriers of written or spoken language—but they’re simultaneously open to extreme differences in interpretation, depending on context. Being interested in the power of how color, shape and form can influence people, I asked Bowes to share some of his insights.
In many countries, the school day begins with the requisite pledge to the flag. Where does this fealty to a colored piece of cloth come from? And why is it such an essential part of a national liturgy?
Humans have a natural instinct to connect to one another, and there is security that comes with being part of a like-minded group—flags are an easy way for people to access that security. They give people something to stand underneath, through the prescribed values and—by association—the things they have in common with each other.
As a Brit, a ritual pledge to the flag is quite an alien concept; any flag ceremony is usually reserved for state occasions and sporting occasions. But for a country as expansive, young and diverse as the United States, with its separate states, cultures and constitutions, a universal binder like its stars and stripes make sense as a unifier for its people. Flags have, throughout history, been used as a tool to focus and shift perceptions of a collective, for better or worse.
I became seduced by flags when I was a kid walking by the United Nations building in New York, where they are designed to wrap around the grounds. Although there are so many of them, they appear to suggest unity. Would you agree that unity is a function of modern flag design?
Flags are never designed to divide. Division may be a consequence of a flag’s nature, but it is almost always looking to unite a group of people through the values it seeks to portray.
Ironically, displays of this kind are often undercut by political squabbling. Take NATO, for example. What was originally intended as a showcase of global unity quickly devolved into disagreements around the order the flags were displayed, with the likes of the Netherlands objecting to being referred to in English to move its position. To this day, the flags are still moved one position at midnight every Sunday.
While I agree that flags are vessels for unification, a sentiment the UN and NATO are undoubtedly trying to replicate, our humanity makes this easier said than done.
What would you say, from a design point of view, is the most modern(ist) flag?
South Africa’s national flag is one that jumps out to me. While most contain two, three, maybe four colors, the (aptly nicknamed) “rainbow nation” opted for six distinctly bold colors to represent itself—the first national flag to do so.
Although South Africa was the first to push this boundary, it does so in a way that is entirely self-referential and true to the country’s flag history. Three of the six colors are pulled from the flag of the South African Republic (red, white and blue), while the remainder were drawn from the flag of the African National Congress (black, green and yellow). A synopsis of flags past, you may say.
For its time, the South African flag had the confidence to broach uncharted flag territory in a way that felt distinctively different from its previous iterations, but entirely in keeping with the country’s rich history.
National flags are designed differently than those festooned with symbolic effluvia. How did the flag evolve into a brand that is pregnant with symbolism, but with designs that are so minimal? We rarely see any imagery or text on flags, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Of course there are some exceptions, like the Californian state flag or Saudi Arabia, but even those retain a sense of minimalism—though California, in my view, would certainly be better off without the text.
In their most rudimentary form, flags are tools of communication, and their longstanding success in this role is down to their ability to transcend language. You need to be able to get off a flight, see a flag and know exactly where you are, even if you can’t read any signage. The white flag was first mentioned as a tool of surrender all the way back in the Eastern Han dynasty, AD 25–220, and is arguably the most minimal flag that could exist.
Even Denmark’s flag, one of the earliest national flags still in use, is incredibly pared back—drawing its symbolism from religious iconography and colors from the most readily available dyes at the time.
For these reasons, I’d argue that minimalism isn’t a new evolution for flags, but that simple design can be the most impactful and enduring.
As with the most brilliantly designed, iconic and successful brands—the design that looks simplest is often the result of iterative work over many years and is, in fact, incredibly difficult to get right.
What are your favorite flag designs?
Japan takes the top spot for me. It’s one of the most stripped back, with that simple red circle (the hinomaru), but it manages—in my very subjective opinion—to communicate the country’s natural attributes and a vision of what its culture is like.
Its history was a tumultuous one, and with the outlawing of the previous Rising Sun flag in 1945, Japan technically had no national flag until 1999, when a streamlined version was appointed. This was more than just a facelift, as the hinomaru looked to shed the country’s associations with militarism and fascism raised during the second World War.
From a design perspective, creating a symbol that is so stripped back is surprisingly insidious. It’s an incredibly difficult tightrope to walk, but when it works, it really works. And for me, Japan has hit the nail on the head.
Would you agree that flags should be designed for the ages?
Flags themselves can be symbols of ages. Some, like the Rising Sun flag previously mentioned, will evoke associations with specific periods of history. As a territory evolves, it makes sense that the flag should also have the scope to evolve in tandem.
There are parallels with designing a brand here. While the goal of most brands should be to create a long-term identity from which to build brand equity that will give the foundations of future success, sometimes a rebrand is a necessary step to keep the brand relevant with changing times.
However, change cannot happen too often. A change that is too stark, too quick or too frequent can risk throwing this all away, and the same can be said for flags. It must be slow, considered, and with a very good reason behind it.
Evolution is necessary, often unavoidable, but longevity in our designs should also be front of mind. It takes time for people to emotionally connect to brands and flags alike, so nurturing this connection is a priority before any significant changes are made.