Did you know that someone who studies flags and the meaning of their shapes, patterns, colours and images is called a vexillographer? Or that someone who designs flags is called a vexillologist?
Whilst most flag designs seem relatively simple, a lot of thought and expertise actually goes into their design. When you think about it, it’s a massive job trying to represent a whole country in one small box!
The North American Vexillological Association suggests five basic principles for good flag design:
- Keep it simple – since they need to be easily recognisable from a distance, or when represented in a small image, the best flags have just a few key elements to their design.
- Use meaningful symbolism – the design should represent the country, community, or organisation in some way and mean something to them, even if it is not (yet) outwardly recognisable.
- Use 2 to 3 basic colours – more than four colours risks the design becoming too ‘busy’ and complicated, whilst dark colours should generally be separated by lighter colours to create a good contrast as well as to display well in greyscale.
- No lettering or seals – a flag is meant to be a graphic symbol and lettering is difficult to read on a moving flag as well as being non-reversible, which means that you would need a double-thickness flag if you wanted the reverse side to make sense, whilst seals are generally designed to be complex and seen up close making them a poor choice for flags.
- Be distinctive or be related – the design should avoid duplicating pre-existing flags or causing confusion (even when reversed or upside-down), but could reflect one’s ‘roots’ or origin, or close connection to other peoples.
The white pattern is called Hiawatha’s Belt, a symbol used since 1600 to represent the five tribes of the confederacy and named after the peacemaker who facilitated the burial of their weapons of war and the start of an era of peace between the tribes. The background colour represents the traditional colour of the wampum shell beads, used by the tribes for official purposes and in religious ceremonies, as well as a way to bind peace between the tribes.
Given it was founded by freed slaves from the United States, Liberia’s flag showcases its connection with the US through the use of the red and white stripes which appears on the US flag. There are 11 stripes, representing the signatories of the Liberian Declaration of Independence, whilst the single star represents Liberia as the first independent western-styled republic in Africa, with the blue square representing the African continent.
The red circle in this flag’s design represents the sun riding over Bengal, and the blood of those who died in the fight for Bangladesh’s independence. The green ‘field’ in the background stands for the lush land of Bangladesh. The first draft of the flag was created by students of Dhaka University in 1970, though the map of Bangladesh which was originally in the centre has since been excluded because of the difficulty of rendering it correctly on both sides of a flag.
In 1974 ex-soldier and gay activist Gilbert Baker met Harvey Milk, an influential gay community leader, and taught himself to sew. Harvey challenged Gilbert to create a symbol of pride for the LGBT+ community, and he came up with the rainbow flag, a symbol which has endured to this day! The coloured stripes, whilst breaking the ‘2 to 3 basic colours’ principle, are based upon a clearly recognisable rainbow design whose symbolism was chosen to represent the diversity of the LGBT+ community.
Now it’s your turn! Design a flag using the principles above to represent you, your family, a community you’re part of, or even your country! Tell us what it looks like in the comments, or draw it and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org for us to upload.