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Opinion: Calling all designers to raise their flags

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I’m calling all designers to know their flags. But more so, to know the strategy behind flag design.

Sounds silly, I know. I thought so too, until I heard a TED Talk.

Never before had flags and design standards collided in my mind. So what do flags have to do with good design? A lot. Just ask the North American Vexillological Association. That’s a real thing. Vexillology is the study of flags. Plenty of people take flags seriously, and for good reason.

Roman Mars is one. He’s the host of radio show/podcast “99 percent Invisible,” and gave the flag design TED Talk. Let’s start with Mars’ definition and philosophy of design.

“When you decode the world with design intent in mind, the world becomes kind of magical,” he says. “Instead of seeing the broken things, you see all the little bits of genius that anonymous designers sweated over to make our lives better.”

That’s pensive, yes, but it’s exactly what good design should do. And it’s rather basic.

Flag expert Ted Kaye boils it down to five design principles in his 16-page pamphlet, “Good Flag, Bad Flag.”

1. Keep it simple. Can a child draw it? No, really; that simple.

2. Use meaningful symbolism. Ultimately, you want to evoke civic pride.

3. Use two or three basic colors.

4. No lettering or seals. Never. The blatant way Kaye puts it: “If you need to write the name of what you’re representing on your flag, your symbolism has failed.”

5. Be distinctive (or be related).

So where does Springfield’s city flag stand?

It passes in simplicity and minimal use of color. It fails in using lettering (“Springfield Missouri” runs across two lines in the center) and meaningful symbolism (unless the four stars, one in each corner, represent something). I can’t say it’s distinctive; it’s repetitive of the U.S. flag and a plain copycat of the Missouri flag (red stripe on top, white across the middle and a blue band at the bottom).

Some flags are laughable. Springfield’s is not. It’s safe. Maybe there’s the meaningful symbolism.

But the intention is that it should delve deep into the civic imagery of a city, state or country, i.e. Chicago, Portland, Ore., Amsterdam, Washington, D.C., and Canada’s maple leaf flag, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year.

“For every bad flag, there is a good flag trying to get out,” Kaye says.

City flags that draw the ire of designers include San Francisco, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Milwaukee, Wis., what Mars calls “a vexillological train wreck” in its attempt to cobble together maybe a dozen design submissions.

“There is a scourge of bad flags, and they must be stopped,” Mars says.

The solution to this problem is small. Here’s the vexillologist’s trick: Start by drawing a 1-1.5 inch rectangle and sketch the design inside it. Why? Think about distance. The traditional 3-by-5-foot flags waive in the air usually at least 100 feet from the nearest pair of eyes. Fewer elements designed larger are more easily recognized and produce memory recall.

Is all this frivolous?

Australia and New Zealand tell us it’s not. Changing a country flag is a big deal. Australia’s Stars and Crosses flag is over 100 years old. But for decades, there’s been an undercurrent of redesign to something truly Aussie. Both countries have initiated competitions eliciting flag designs by the thousands, and New Zealand has narrowed its selection to four.

The thing is people own municipal flags. We own Springfield’s flag. Could you even describe it without Googling it? Do you like it? Do you want to change it? We can.

And we can use smart design to create a flag that represents the city past and future.

I know designers in this city are capable. Just look at some of the simplistically effective brand logos around town: Brick & Mortar Coffee, Mother’s Brewing Co., Five Pound Apparel, Convoy of Hope and Askinosie Chocolate.

It’s currently a mediocre flag, which means there’s room for improvement.

Mars provides some big-picture inspiration: “The city flag could become not just a symbol of that city as a place but also a symbol of how that city considers design itself. A well-designed flag can be seen as an indicator of how a city considers all of its design systems – its public transit, its parks, its signage.”

Let’s take a second look at our city flag. And designers, think big – but remember to start small.

Springfield Business Journal Editor Eric Olson can be reached at eolson@sbj.net.

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