The Power and Significance of Flags

I'm a senior graphic designer at Texas AM University and is one of the leads of the Texas AM Design Council. I manage the use of the Texas AM brand across all media. On top of my profession Michael blogs regularly with an emphasis on flags. I believe flags are the height of design, that they take the simplest forms but evoke the strongest emotions. My blog “Branding the Nations” here: https://medium.com/branding-the-nations.
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Admin
13:32, 06 May 20 (edit: 13:33, 13 May 20)
This Taaalk was written on the first version of Taaalk in 2016.
The archive.org version is available here.
Theo Ford
21:20, 07 May 20
How did you first become interested in flags?
Michael Green
21:21, 07 May 20
Hmmm. That's a good question.
When I was little, my father used to do Mystery Shopping work on cruise ships so we were always traveling through the Caribbean. Back at home, I can always remember having a large wall map of the world with all those little flags on the bottom. So I think during that time I started making connections between those words on the map (and their respective flags) to the places I went. As I look back, I think that experience gave me a sense of place. That was the key.
So back home, when my eyes looked at maps (and the little flags on the bottom), they made my mind imagine real far away places with interesting cultures and different people. I was an only child so I had to use my imagination a lot more than most kids I guess. That added sense of place and wonder that I was able to connect to those 150+ simple rectangles of color made them infinitely interesting. At an early age I was fascinated at how abstract visual designs could say much more than words.
So maybe flags kicked off my love for design! I'd never thought about that until now but it makes a lot of sense.
Theo Ford
21:21, 07 May 20
I think the 'sense of place' is interesting, as it frames the flag as something more abstract, than being tied to a fixed location. Delving deeper still, it can also apply to a group of people i.e. gay pride, or religion? (not really sure) Ultimately anything to which people feel a sense of belonging perhaps. What are your thoughts as to kind of situation that a design of a flag would arise? as oppose to say a symbol such as the crucifix or a logo?
btw. one of my favourite things about this experiment so far is that people keep realising things, and there's something quite genuinely moving/exciting about that.
Michael Green
21:21, 07 May 20
You are dead on. 95% of the time flags are found as an aspect of identity.
But what is it about a flag that people easily can so easily attribute a sense of identity as opposed to a logo or a physical object? I think it may have to do with the medium on which the flag's design lives. Cloth has a certain life to it; much more than paper or pixels. As it flies or is waved, it almost has a personality of its own. It can look weak and floppy or strong and confident.
And flags are designed with that in mind. In fact, Because the fly end of a flag is usually more distorted while flapping in the wind, the rule is to never put any symbol (charge) on that end. They should be reserved for the hoist side which is anchored to the pole and distorts less. That is why you see a lot of flags with the more intricate designs in the canton (the upper left hand corner)(eg. the flag of the United States).
On top of that, cloth is accessible. It is one of the most primitive mediums on earth and can be created by just about anyone. It doesn't require intricate printing (well most don't) and all you need to use it is the wind. Because we can identify with cloth, it gives the flag so much power. For instance, burning a piece of paper with a flag on it doesn't have the same emotional response as burning an actual cloth flag. Why? Because cloth has that life, that spark of humanity in it that we empathize and identify with.
A flag can bring out the deepest emotions from within a person. People will die for a flag, or kill because of one. In many places, certain flags are banned because they pose too great of a threat. Just think about that. A simple piece of dyed cloth…BANNED by a government! That should show the immense power that such a simple design can have.
Theo Ford
21:22, 07 May 20
I agree, the power of symbol is huge - also in a commercial domain.
Yet the power of a symbol printed onto cloth, arouses and encapsulates our national and political and social sentiments. As you say, it is amazing that the medium perhaps is the primary contributing diffrentiator, in addition to perhaps habit.
Hence, have you any sense of (this could be an impossible historical quesation), roughly how long ago we started using this combination of medium and symbol?
I imagine its invention arose from a need for political or tribal identification, that was triggered by perhaps technological, agricultural, economic or migratory shifts a long time ago...
Michael Green
21:22, 07 May 20
Well the oldest "flag-like" things were used by the Chinese. There is evidence of them as far back as 1,500 BC. Then of course the Romans had "standards" which were more like identifiers of military groups and that may have morphed into the era of heraldry in Europe. Some modern flags still have heraldic shields and things on them and the rules of tincture are the basis for modern flag color theory.
But the event that most modern flags owe their origin to is the creation of the Dutch Prinsenvlag in 1574. It was a horizontal tri-color that was orange, white and blue from top to bottom. That flag is the basis for most flags we see today. It did away with heraldry and went with simple colors that were identifiable from far away (I assume because of the rise in the Dutch Navy and its need to identify ships at long distances). The Dutch flag is still this design, however the orange was changed to red.
Meanwhile, Czar Peter the Great of Russia actually disguised himself and worked in dutch shipyards learning how to build a navy. He was so influenced by this flag that he went back and used it's design in Russia (though he flipped it upside down to be blue, white, red). This color combo came to be the Pan-Slavic colors and you can see them in the modern flags of Russia, Serbia, Czech Republic, et al. The design also went on to influence the french flag during their revolution and many more. In fact, the flag of New York City is orange white and blue, honoring it's Dutch roots.
So the Prinsenvlag's importance on flag design can not be understated. The move from intricate shields that represented personal heritage to ones that denoted military factions and then to the simplest designs that encompassed a massive amount of people birthed the flags we know today.
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