On Flags

Don’t be the flag of Provo. Nobody wants to be the flag of Provo.

Some of my readers are well aware I don’t care much for vexillology. While they do make some valid points (like “putting words on flags is stupid” or “there are too many US flags that just have their state seals on a blue background”), the movement originated out of visual design, and flags aren’t just about visual design. They’re also about symbology, and using a banner to create a sense of shared identity.

Take, for example, this City Lab article, and what they say about Bhutan’s flag:

Kaye’s first principle of flag design is to keep it simple—so simple that a child could recreate it from memory. “The idea of a flag is that it’s a piece of fabric to be seen at a distance, on both sides, while it’s flapping,” he says. “By making a flag complex, it’s more expensive, and that expense is wasted because you can’t see [the detail] at a distance.”

But flags that stray from that principle aren’t all bad. Kaye points to the flag of Bhutan, which falls under the “impossible” category in the infographic. It features a highly detailed dragon against a yellow and orange background. “It’s a very simple field division between the yellow and orange, and very distinctive; no other flag is yellow and orange,” he says. “And you can see that it’s a dragon in the middle.”

One of the vexillologist’s precepts is that a flag must be simple enough that a child can draw it from memory. They go on to use this to slam flags with seals in them, as seals are almost always complex and intricate to draw. But here’s the flag of Bhutan, with a fucking dragon on a background of red and gold. Do you know how many flags have fucking dragons on them? As far as I’m aware, there’s just one other. Pretty memorable, no?

And this brings me to the heart of my biggest critique about putative mainstream vexillology — it has deeply conflicted goals at its heart. They want to create flags that are both simple and memorable. But often enough, elements that make flags memorable — elements that cut to a national identity’s quick — elements like Y Ddraig Goch or an eagle eating a snake on a cactus — are not simple. Simple to draw, that is.

But that’s exactly the point. A good national symbol packs a lot of mental complexity into a short saying, or a mental image. An eagle eating a snake on a cactus is resonant with the founding myth of the Aztec, and how they came to found the city of Tenochtitlán, and cuts to the quick of Mexican identity, because, in a sense, Mexico is a post-Spanish continuance of the Aztec national tradition. Is it easy to draw? No. But it is easy to visualize, and the visualization is shared across every member of the culture, and that is exactly the point.

It’s the same thing with our Stars and Stripes. When we ask a five-year-old to draw our own flag, are they going to produce exactly fifty stars and thirteen stripes? No? Yet, when we think about patriotic identity — whether it’s in the testosterone-poisoned America Fuck Yeah mode or even somebody flying the flag of a country they’re proud of from their house, what do we think of? The Stars and Stripes are the most potent national symbol of America — and notice, again, how the phrase we use to refer to the flag, our shared visualization of the flag, is more important than the flag itself.

The flag of Mexico is a masterpiece. It’s a perfect balance of simplicity and complexity, and its central element is the most powerful symbol of Mexican national identity there is. In short, it has an enormous amount of symbolic value packed into a convenient banner-shaped form.

We can see this in other flags that have a lot of national identity tied to them: the Union Jack, le tricolore, the Maple Leaf and Nordic cross and Y Ddraig Goch and so on. Heck, the Japanese flag is potent precisely because it’s a reference to the rising sun. And you will quickly notice that this — let’s call it the symbolic value of a flag — is not at all tied to the raw complexity of the flag itself.

This is why the graphic design-approach of conventional vexillology ultimately fails. Sure, the idea that a flag “ought to be” simple enough that a five-year-old can reproduce it sounds great … until you realize that isn’t at all what flags are about. It also means that the usual vexillological critique of U.S. state flags completely misses the mark. State flags fail because they do not say anything meaningful about state identities. In this sense, kvetching about the flag being difficult to draw is complaining about the wrong thing. The right thing to do would be to ask: what is a meaningful symbol of identity?

Whether or not it’s easy to draw is utterly irrelevant. The Aztec eagle will never be easy to draw, or the Habsburg double-headed eagle, or the Ojibwe bird totem, yet in each case, the image communicates tremendous and enduring symbolic value. We can see that what is important is that it takes up shared mental space, that it’s the symbol that the citizens of the nation or state want to project to the outside world. In that sense, then, quibbling about the ease or difficulty of drawing a flag misses the point completely, because the point of the flag is saying something about the nation that produced it.

And that’s why Bhutan has an excellent flag while the Central African Republic’s — despite being exactly the sort of flag that vexillologists would love — is quite literally entirely forgettable.

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