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Good Flag Bad Flag

Roman Mars, the host of 99% Invisible (a fantastic podcast) is particularly passionate about flags. He even gave a TED Talk on the subject in 2015. Mars argues that although flag design might sound frivolous, vexillology (the study of flags) is a worthy pursuit. These tiny flying banners symbolize entire cultures and can unite people under common ideals. Country flags get a lot of air time (pun intended), but sports teams, social clubs, cities and villages also have their own sheets of flapping symbolism. And why not - a flag can be a great way to show pride in your little corner of the world.

But a flag's design can make or break its success. This is where the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA) comes in. NAVA is a group of flag enthusiasts and scholars from around the world, and their pamphlet titled “Good Flag, Bad Flag” outlines five key principles to flag design. Many country flags successfully adhere to these principles. City flags - not so much. Odds are your city has a flag and it's less than iconic. When these five principles are applied, you get glorious flags like the ones for Amsterdam, Chicago and Pegius First Nation in Canada:

Unfortunately, a handful of city officials didn’t get the pamphlet. But before we name-and-shame the offenders, let’s look at NAVA’s five key principles:

  1. Keep it simple. Don’t throw everything at it - a child should be able to draw it from memory.

  2. Use meaningful symbolism. Pretty colors and swirls are great, but the design should have meaning to the city.

  3. Use two or three basic colors. Colors from the standard color set - red, blue, green, black, yellow and white - work particularly well.

  4. No lettering or seals. As tempting as it may be to write the city’s name across the front, don’t. No one will be able to read it as it flaps in the wind 100ft away. No one.

  5. Be distinctive or be related. You should steer clear of plagiarism, but feel free to give a small nod to designs you like - especially if the two flags are connected in some way. 

The above examples might not be your favorite flags, but you can hopefully appreciate the power of their design. To highlight their success, let’s look at some truly horrific examples:

I mean… wtf. Ever since Roman Mars pointed out San Francisco's flag on his podcast there have been endless talks to change it. This is true of many city flags that have been publicly shamed for their clunky designs. The good news is that you can do something about it. If your city flag is in need of a facelift, you may be able to petition for a redesign. Even better: you can design it yourself. Stick to those five key principles and you’ll be on your way to a flapping masterpiece.

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