I came across a TED Talk by Roman Mars on YouTube the other day called Why City Flags May Be the Worst-Designed Thing You’ve Ever Noticed. It caught my attention because I hadn’t ever thought about the design of flags, especially municipal flags. I watched all 18:18 of it (because it’s rather random, and, well because I’m rather random). And now I’ll give you my trivial two cents right here on this blog. Because let’s face it, who feels like something serious as we gear down into the festive season anyway? Plus, the more I listened, the more I began to appreciate the value of design when it comes to our nations’ and our cities’ flags; and the more I began to appreciate the merit of even the simplest, but certainly thought-out, designs created by graphic designers.
Roman Mars delivers his talk (filmed in March 2015) while sitting down and speaking into a microphone, as he would on his radio show, “99% Invisible”. Mars tells radio stories about design. His mission is to get people to engage with designs that they care about so that they start paying attention to all forms of design. He says that when you decode the world with design-intent in mind, you start to see all the little bits of genius that anonymous designers have sweated over to make our lives better, and in doing so, created a little more joy to go around.
Apparently, few things give Mars greater joy than a well-designed flag. He admits he’s kind of obsessed. He says that even though you might not know it, 100% of people care about flags. Right? I guess so! Flags work on our emotions. We are passionate about them because they evoke all sorts of memories and associated feelings.
The same can be said for brands and their logos. Brands evoke something within us. In fact, I think the feel-good factor that brands elicit, and aim to elicit, is the driving force behind our purchasing intent and behaviour. Whether we purchase goods or services for purely functional or purely hedonistic reasons, our purchasing decision is always linked to the expectation of a resulting satisfaction, relief or utility – and this is the feel-good factor that brands represent and that which causes us to buy into certain brands and become loyal. Just as flags represent nations’ or cities’ patriotism, brands represent a market’s loyalty.
The primary motivation for our purchasing choices when it comes to buying branded goods for the physical products or actual services they deliver, as opposed to buying brands for the intellectual property and thus for their representation of an aspect of our personalities, is largely undefined and somewhat of a grey area. Perhaps that’s a bigger discussion on consumer behaviour and psychology for another blog post, another time. However, it would not be unreasonable to conclude that an elegant CI (Corporate Identity) and a well-designed logo goes a long way toward helping us make our choices – just look around you at some of the global favourites and their simple yet standout identities: Apple, Facebook, Nike, Samsung, Google, Coca-Cola etc.
Back to flags as a form of CI (or one could say – Country/City Identity). The study of flags is called vexillology. Try saying that 10 times, fast! Ted Kaye (another guy obsessed with flags), author of Good Flag, Bad Flag – How to Design a Great Flag, outlines five rules for designing a good flag:
- Keep it simple – so simple a child should be able to draw it by memory.
- Use meaningful symbolism – colours, shapes.
- Use 2 to 3 basic colours – from the standard colour-set – red, white, blue, yellow, green and black.
- No lettering or seals – never use writing of any kind.
- Be distinctive (or be related).
Let’s explore these rules further with respect to some of the American examples that Mars refers to, as well as some South African flag examples that I’ll add here, to see if we agree on the 5 rules and where the exceptions to the rules still make for something great.
1. Keep it simple
Take the City of Chicago flag for our first example: this flag gets it right with its two distinct blue stripes and four red pointed stars on white field.
2. Use meaningful symbolism
Lately there has been a change to the City of Cape Town’s flag (logo used in flag form). This is the old City of Cape Town flag, designed by Ogilvy Cape Town in 2003:
Graphic design experts will tell you a lot more about the kerning and balance of it (I’m just an Account Manager), but the basic design elements – a stylised Table Mountain and the rainbow nation colours that the city serves – are no stretch for the imagination. Nevertheless, the flag delivers on the meaningful front.
This is the new City of Cape Town flag:
A little more imagination is needed now. The striking design certainly catches the eye. Table Mountain is represented by the patterned rings, which consist of repeated Table Mountains, joined together. If one were to get very deep and meaningful, perhaps one could also see a protea, the cogs of local industry, or the cluster of a people on road bikes riding the Argus Cycle Tour? The ringed pattern could also be a kind of kaleidoscope – an idea for a city filled with dynamic diversity, shifting, turning, and moving with the times.
Some folks would say that the colours are typical of the city of Cape Town – the colourful painted houses of the Bo Kaap, the vibrant minstrel uniforms you see at New Year, the Christmas lights of Adderley Street, the blue waters of Clifton, the array of fynbos unique to the region, the loving feeling of gay pride, and the kaleidoscope of characters that give the city its vibrant personality. It captures the essence of the city, and uses meaningful symbolism to do so. But it breaks rule number 3.
3. Use 2 to 3 basic colours
The jury is still out on this rule. Chicago’s flag uses 3 standard colour-set colours – red, white and blue. This isn’t to say that Cape Town’s flag, with its 6 colours (and only white from the standard colour-set), falls flat in terms of its design or reason for being. I’ll leave that to you to decide.
One thing is for sure: The flags of cities like Chicago and Amsterdam, with their 3 colours from the standard colour set, have captured the attention and hearts of fervent locals and tourists alike. The designs of these flags have complete buy-in with the bio of the cities – they are seen throughout the cities, in shop windows, displayed in private homes, flown by every municipal building, displayed on all sorts of paraphernalia. These flags are distinct symbols of their cities’ pride – they are adaptable and re-mixable, and are deeply entrenched in the civic imagery of their cities.
I’m proud to be Dutch because it’s my heritage. But I feel even cooler because I’m associated with this badass flag of Amsterdam:
4. No lettering or seals
This is another reason why the City of Amsterdam got its flag right – it took the key elements from the shield of the Amsterdam Coat of Arms and turned it into one of the most distinctive, hardcore flags in the world!
This is the Amsterdam Coat of Arms:
See how they did that!?
San Francisco’s flag and, I hate to say it, the City of Johannesburg’s flag both miss the boat on this front. San Francisco displays its city name on its flag – the most obvious faux pas and a definite failure in symbolism!
And the city of Johannesburg loses points for creativity for lazily adding the city’s Coat of Arms to the centre of the flag on a background of national flag colours.
The reason one should never use writing and seals on flags is because they cannot be read from a distance. Makes sense, right? One certainly needs to think about design in context or in situ.
An example that immediately comes to my marketing / advertising mind is that of designing a billboard. Billboard design (traditional or digital) needs to take the audience’s environment and situation into consideration i.e. are people driving past the billboard at speed? Are people rushing past on escalators? Approximately how far away from the billboard is the target audience? Etc.
Kaye gives us a good rule of thumb to go by when designing flags, but I think this is also a pretty good guideline when it comes to designing billboards and any sort of advertisement that might be viewed from a distance:
For a final product approximately 1m x 1.5m (or there about) and seen from approximately 30m away, fit your design into a 2.5cm x 4cm rectangle as seen from screen to eye.
5. Be distinctive
We’ve learnt that writing and seals on flags makes for poor flag design. But what makes a flag distinctive or memorable? We’d all agree that this re-design of the San Francisco flag by Neil Mussett makes for a more distinctive flag, right?
I’d have to say that when designing a distinctive flag, all four of the rules above come into play. However, good flag design also comes down to creative flair and general artistic ability. Good design is sometimes a matter of taste. And sometimes it isn’t. The same goes for brands and their logos. What makes one brand or logo more distinctive than another is largely subjective. However, when it comes to brands, market share and other brand performance indicators can give us a better idea of the distinctiveness of brands in the market. It’s not as easy to measure the attractiveness of flags to a nation. Well, we’re still having fun being flag critics, aren’t we? There’s no harm in reviewing some of these examples to follow.
I’m sure we’d all agree that the Milwaukee Wisconsin flag is not a good design:
This flag breaks all the rules, and has so many design elements on it; it’s hardly memorable… apart from being distinguishable as one of the most poorly designed flags out there! It even has a flag illustrated on it – a flag on a flag!
Here are some other shocking city flags – all American, all forgettable:
Thankfully, there are designers and flags out there that give us hope, like the City flags of Hong Kong, Portland and Trondheim.
… And the Country flags of South Africa, Japan, Turkey, Israel, Somalia and Gambia.
To conclude, Mars makes an emotional appeal to all designers to join in the effort to change the bad city flags out there. It might seem frivolous but he assures us that it is not – design awareness is at an all-time high and people are more design aware than ever before. We all like beautiful-looking things and are brand conscious. Flags appeal to the public to rally for the cities and countries they represent, just as brands appeal to the markets to support them with a monetary vote of confidence.
We own our flags just as we own our brands – they are an open source of publicly owned design language that inspires a following. When flags are done well, they are re-mixable, adaptable and powerful. A flag and brand, when designed well, is a beautiful connection to a community.
Watch the video here.