While we believe everyone should offer up their design ideas, we also know that these ideas need to be weighed up against good flag design principles. To help you out, we have collated some basic design tips to consider when weighing up flags or creating your own.
It is also important to note that the Government has certain standards for when submitting an official design, as well as some other guidelines to consider. You can find these here.
What is a Flag?
A flag’s purpose is to represent a place, organisation, or person, generally on a rectangular piece of cloth, to be seen at a distance, often moving, and reproduced in quantity and in many sizes. The five principles of good flag design will lead to a successful flag that accomplishes that purpose. Flags began thousands of years ago, first used for military purposes on land and then as identifying signals at sea. They evolved to represent royal houses, then countries and other levels of government, businesses, military ranks and units, sport teams, and political parties. Flags grew out of heraldry —the practice of designing coats of arms— and follow many of the same design principles.
Anatomy of a Flag
Keep it Simple
A flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory.
Flags flap. Flags drape. Flags must be seen from a distance and from their opposite side. Under these circumstances, only simple designs make effective flags. Furthermore, complicated flags cost more to make, which often can limit how widely they are used. Most poor designs have the elements of a great flag in them—simplify them by focusing on a single symbol, a few colours, large shapes, and no lettering. Avoid the temptation to include a symbol for everybody. Ideally the design will be reversible or at least recognizable from either side. Don’t put a different design on the back.
Flag of the Republic of Congo
Flag of West Virginia
Images, colours, or patterns within the flag should relate to what it symbolises.
Symbolism can be in the form of the “charge” or main graphic element, in the colours used, or sometimes even in the shapes or layout of the parts of the flag. Usually a single primary symbol is best—avoid those that are less likely to be representative or unique. Colours often carry meanings: red for blood or sacrifice, white for purity, blue for water or sky. Diagonal stripes are often used by former colonies as an alternative to the generally horizontal and vertical stripes of European countries.
Flag of Ukraine
Flag of Navajo Nation
Limit the number of colours on the flag to three, which contrast well.
The basic flag colours are red, blue, green, black, yellow, and white. They can range from dark to light. Occasionally other colours are also used, such as purple, gray, and orange, but they are seldom needed in a good design. Separate dark colours with a light colour, and light colours with a dark colour, to help them create effective contrast. A good flag should also reproduce well in “grayscale”, that is, in black and white shades. More than four colours are hard to distinguish and make the flag unnecessarily complicated and expensive. Flag fabric comes in a relatively limited number of colours—another reason to stick to the basics.
Flag of Amsterdam
Flag of Chinese Admiral (1882)
No Lettering or Seals
Never use writing of any kind or an organisation’s seal.
Words defeat the purpose: why not just write “U.S.A.” on a flag? A flag is a graphic symbol. Lettering is nearly impossible to read from a distance, hard to sew, and difficult to reduce to lapelpin size. Words are not reversible; this forces double or triple thickness fabric. Don’t confuse a flag with a banner, such as what is carried in front of a marching band in a parade, or draped behind a speaker’s platform—such banners don’t flap, they are seen from only one side, and they’re usually seen closerup. Seals were designed for placement on paper to be read at close range. Very few are effective on flags—too detailed. Better to use some element from the seal as a symbol. Some logos work; most don’t.
Australian Aborigional Flag
Flag of South Dakota
Be Distinctive or Be Related
Avoid duplicating other flags, but use the similarities to show connection.
This is perhaps the most difficult principle, but it is very important. Sometimes the good designs are already “taken”. However, a flag’s symbols, colours, and shapes can recall other flags—a powerful way to show heritage, solidarity, or connectedness. This requires knowledge of other flags. Often the best way to start the design process can be looking to one’s “roots” in flags—by country, tribe, or religion.
Flag of Ghana
Flag of Indonesia
A rectangle is the standard flag shape. While flags can be other shapes (e.g. a triangle), national flags representing countries normally come in one of two rectangular shapes: the Golden Rectangle, where the ratio of the short side to the long side is approximately 1 : 1.618, and the ratio of 1:2, where the long side is two times the length of the short side. This is the shape of the current New Zealand Flag. Abandon such rectangles only when meaningful.
Flags wear. By retaining a rectangular shape and avoiding symbols at the fly end, a flag can be hemmed repeatedly and given a longer life. The point of honor is the “canton” area—the upperleft corner. This corresponds to the part of the flag that is seen when it hangs limp from a flagpole. The center or leftofcenter position is the most visible spot for a symbol when the flag is flying.
Consider the fabrication methods. Curved lines add to the cost of sewn flags. Holes or “negative space” hurt a flag’s flyability and wearability. “Swallow–tail” shapes fray more easily. All rules have exceptions. Colourado’s “C” is a stunning graphic element. Maryland’s complicated heraldic quarters produce a memorable and distinctive flag. But depart from these five principles only with caution and purpose.
Flag of Colourado