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5 principle to design a flag

flag design

WHAT IS A FLAG? — A flag’s purpose is to represent a place, organization, or person, generally on a rectangular piece of cloth, to be seen at a distance, often moving, and reproduced in quantity and in many sizes.

Use 5 basic principles to create an outstanding custom flag for your organization, city, tribe, company, family, neighborhood, or even country! 

The 5 principles of good flag design will lead to a successful flag that accomplishes that purpose. Flags began thousands of years ago, first used for military purposes on land and then as identifying signals at sea. They evolved to represent royal houses, then countries and other levels of government, businesses, military ranks and units, sport teams, and political parties. Flags grew out of heraldry — the practice of designing coats of arms — and follow many of the same design principles. 

Following this guide will help any person or group produce a great flag. A flag should be simple, readily made, and capable of being made up in bunting; it should be different from the flag of any other country, place or people; it should be significant; it should be readily distinguishable at a distance; the colors should be well contrasted and durable; and lastly, and not the least important point, it should be effective and handsome. National Flag Committee of the Confederate States of America, 1861

Anatomy of a Flag

THE 5 BASIC PRINCIPLES OF FLAG DESIGN
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 2–3 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 of any kind or an organization’s seal…
5. Be Distinctive or Be Related — Avoid duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections…

1. KEEP IT SIMPLE
The flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory… Flags flap. Flags drape. Flags must be seen from a distance. Under these circumstances, only simple designs make effective flags. Furthermore, complicated flags cost more to make, which often can limit how widely they are used. Most poor designs have the elements of a great flag in them — simplify them by focusing on a single symbol, a few colors, large shapes, and no lettering. Avoid the temptation to include a symbol for everybody. Ideally the design will be reversible or at least recognizable from either side. Don’t put a different design on the back.


The flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory… Flags flap. Flags drape. Flags must be seen from a distance. Under these circumstances, only simple designs make effective flags. Furthermore, complicated flags cost more to make, which often can limit how widely they are used. Most poor designs have the elements of a great flag in them — simplify them by focusing on a single symbol, a few colors, large shapes, and no lettering. Avoid the temptation to include a symbol for everybody. Ideally the design will be reversible or at least recognizable from either side. Don’t put a different design on the back.

Good Example

Congo

Congo West Virginia (USA)With bold, contrasting colors, large shapes, and parallel lines, this flag is also easily recognized when reversed.The seal itself is complex, the white background is boring, and the overall design differs from most other state flags only in its blue border.

Alaska (USA)

Alaska State Flag,The stars, a standard U.S. symbol, form the “Big Dipper” constellation and the North Star, representing the northernmost U.S. state.

Bad Example

Turkmenistan

This very complicated rug contains 5 traditional patterns! Better to leave it off and keep the moon and stars.

Bey of Tunisia

Replete with stars, crescents, and the Sword of Ali, this 19th-century design’s overwhelming complexity defeats its purpose.

2. USE MEANINGFUL SYMBOLISM
The flag’s images, colors, or patterns should relate to what it symbolizes… Symbolism can be in the form of the “charge” or main graphic element, in the colors used, or sometimes even in the shapes or layout of the parts of the flag. Usually a single primary symbol is best — avoid those that are less likely to be representative or unique. 

Colors often carry meanings: Red for blood or sacrifice, White for purity, Blue for water or sky. Diagonal stripes are often used by former colonies as an alternative to the generally horizontal and vertical stripes of European countries.

Good Example

Iroquois Confederacy (USA)

“Hiawatha’s Belt”, a symbol for five tribes since before 1600, appears on the traditional blue of wampum shell beads.

Italy

Based on the revolutionary flag of France, the vertical orientation of Italy’s stripes represented a challenge to the typical horizontal stripes of the ruling kingdoms of Europe.

Bad Example

Navajo Nation (USA)

Over 20 graphic elements overwhelm the viewer and none are large enough to be seen easily.

Akita (Japan)

This symbol is distinctive but lacks universal meaning. A stylized Katakana character “A”, only Japanese can recognize it, and it is not reversible.

3. USE 2–3 BASIC COLORS
Limit the number of colors on the flag to three, which contrast well and come from the standard color set… The basic flag colors are Red, Blue, Green, Black, Yellow, and White. They can range from dark to light. 

Occasionally other colors are also used, such as Purple, Gray, and Orange, but they are seldom needed in a good design. Separate dark colors with a light color, and light colors with a dark color, to help them create effective contrast. 

A good flag should also reproduce well in “gray-scale”, that is, in black & white shades. More than four colors are hard to distinguish and make the flag unnecessarily complicated and expensive. Flag fabric comes in a relatively limited number of colors — another reason to stick to the basics.

Good Example

Amsterdam (Netherlands)

These colors contrast well, even though the red and black are not separated by a light color.

New Mexico (USA)

Red and yellow recall the state’s Spanish heritage, while the sun symbol comes from the Zia Indians. This design was voted the best U.S. state flag by NAVA members.

Bad Example


Chinese Admiral (1882)

Too many colors! At the least, the yellow and white should be separating the dark colors. While the dragon is in the position of honor, it is very hard to distinguish.

Dominica

By using ALL six basic flag colors, this flag creates unnecessary cost and complexity. Who can see the parrot’s red and black eye?

4. NO LETTERING OR SEALS
Never use writing of any kind or an organization’s seal… Words defeat the purpose: why not just write “U.S.A.” on a flag? A flag is a graphic symbol. Lettering is nearly impossible to read from a distance, hard to sew, and difficult to reduce to lapel-pin size. 

Words are not reversible — this forces double- or triple-thickness fabric. Don’t confuse a flag with a banner, such as what is carried in front of a marching band in a parade, or draped behind a speaker’s platform — such banners don’t flap, they are seen from only one side, and they’re usually seen closer-up. 

Seals were designed for placement on paper to be read at close range. Very few are effective on flags — too detailed. Better to use some element from the seal as a symbol. Some logos work; most don’t.

Good Example

South Carolina (USA)

The palmetto tree represents “Palmetto State” far better than the state’s seal could. The crescent moon is in the position of honor.

Côtes d’Armor (France)

Rather than the logo style frequently used by French departments and regions, Côtes d’Armor uses a stylized seagull in the shape of its coastline.

Bad Example

South Dakota (USA)

This flag uses a seal AND lettering! The name of the state actually appears twice.

Loir-et-Cher (France)

All those words, plus an indistinguishable gray shape… Better to have used the stylized dragon on a more interesting background color.

5. BE DISTINCTIVE OR BE RELATED
Avoid duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections… This is perhaps the most difficult principle, but it is very important. Sometimes the good designs are already “taken.” 

However, a flag’s symbols, colors, and shapes can recall other flags — a powerful way to show heritage, solidarity, or connectedness. This requires knowledge of other flags. Often the best way to start the design process can be looking to one’s “roots” in flags — by country, tribe, or religion.

Good Example

Ghana

Using the same colors used by many countries in Africa, this flag shows a strong connection to its neighbors’ flags.

Liberia

Founded by freed slaves from the U.S., Liberia reflects that heritage with a similar yet distinctive flag.

Bad Example

Indonesia

Except for its proportions, this flag is exactly the same as Monaco’s (which had it first), but there is no connection between the two countries. Upside-down it is the same as Poland or as Cantabria, Spain!

Manitoba (Canada)

While the British “Red Ensign” signifies connectedness within the Commonwealth, the distinguishing feature is the small seal. Better to have used the bison as the main flag symbol.

This video will explain some rules when designing a flag

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS
A rectangle is the standard flag shape. Keep the width-to-length proportions between 1:1.5 and 1:2. Canadian flags are usually 1:2; U.S. flags are usually 1:1.5 or 1:1.67. 

Square flags are unusual in North America. Abandon such rectangles only when meaningful. Flags wear. By retaining a rectangular shape and avoiding symbols at the fly end, a flag can be hemmed repeatedly and given a longer life. 

The point of honor is the “canton” area — the upper-left corner. This corresponds to the part of the flag that is seen when it hangs limp from a flagpole. 

The center or left-of-center position is the most visible spot for a symbol when the flag is flying. Consider the fabrication methods. Curved lines add to the cost of sewn flags. Holes or “negative space” hurt a flag’s fly-ability and wear-ability. “Swallow-tail” shapes fray more easily.

Colorado (USA)Maryland (USA)

Colorado (USA)

All rules have exceptions. Colorado’s “C” is a stunning graphic element. Maryland’s complicated heraldic quarters produce a memorable and distinctive flag. 

Maryland (USA)

But depart from these five principles only with caution and purpose. Don’t allow a committee to design a flag. Instead, empower individuals to design flags, and use a committee to select among them. An old rule of heraldry has images of animals look toward the hoist. And most of all, design a flag that looks attractive and balanced to the viewer and to the place, organization, or person it represents! 

PS: The North American Vexillological Association (NAVA) is dedicated to the study of flag history and symbolism. For more information about its activities, publications, and membership, visit its web site at www.nava.org 

This guide was created by Ted Kaye, managing editor of RAVEN, a Journal of Vexillology (published annually by NAVA). Another resource to help with flag design, identification, and history: www.fotw.net These principles of good flag design distill the wisdom of many people who have written on the subject, including: Philippe Bondurand, Frederick Brownell, William Crampton, Michael Faul, Jim Ferrigan, Richard Gideon, Kevin Harrington, Lee Herold, Ralph Kelly, Rich Kenny, David Martucci, Clay Moss, Peter Orenski, Whitney Smith, Steve Tyson, Henry Untermeyer, and Alfred Znamierowski. © 2001 North American Vexillological Association

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