This is an article version of a presentation I gave to NAVA (North American Vexillological Association) on 12 December 2020.
Introduction: Beyond Good Flag, Bad Flag
Dear fellow vexillologists, welcome to my presentation. My name is Brian Cham and I’m a vexillologist speaking to you from New Zealand. As NAVA members, a lot of us are involved in flag design. We’re either designing flags or we’re evaluating the flag designs of others, so it’s vital for us to know about good flag design. You probably already know about the five principles of good flag design in NAVA’s world-famous booklet Good Flag, Bad Flag: Keep it simple, use meaningful symbolism, use 2-3 basic colours, no lettering or seals and be distinctive or related. Today I’m going to go beyond these basic principles and talk to you about six little-known deal-breakers of bad flag design.
First, let me explain where these deal-breakers come from. If you remember back to 2015, New Zealand had an official competition to redesign its flag and there were about ten thousand designs submitted, each with its own set of public commentary both for and against on social media, publications, websites, forums and more. I and another vexillologist did a very exhaustive survey of every single one of these comments, to find out the common factors that were positively and negatively associated with public acceptance, in order to inform our own design efforts.
So what did we find from the analysis? Some of it just confirmed the basic principles that we already know from Good Flag, Bad Flag, but it also revealed some lesser known principles that weren’t commonly acknowledged before. These principles are the six deal-breakers that I’ll talk about in my presentation. I explained where these came from to point out that these are not just my opinion, these essentially came from the sum of an entire nation’s vexillological commentary across a whole year, so it’s completely in touch with public opinion. In the end, New Zealand’s official competition and referendum failed and this is partly because the judges were not aware of these deal-breakers, the finalists all contained these significant flaws and the public rejected them strongly.
The six deal-breakers
Deal-breaker 1: Looks like a logo, not a flag
This was by far the most common criticism. There are other variations too. “Looks like a modern art piece, not a flag”. “Looks like corporate branding, not a flag”. “Looks like a website graphic, not a flag”. The point is that doesn’t look like a flag. The public has a stylistic expectation of what a flag looks like, which is a simple, timeless, classic style that fits in well with other flags if you imagine it actually flying on a flagpole and not just a flat image. They will reject any design that looks too ephemeral, flashy and trendy.
This example is actually the main official proposal that went head to head against the national flag and lost. The main criticism is that it looks too much like slick contemporary branding that a marketing department made in the 21st century with computer software, rather than a flag that follows classic conventions and standards. In vexillological terms, I think the main issue is that the division of the field is usually a vertical, horizontal or diagonal stripe whereas this design uses the silver fern as both a massive charge and a division of the field at the same time which breaks this unspoken rule. Whatever the reason, the public clearly figured that this looks really off-putting if you imagine it flying on a pole as an actual flag and not just a flat image.
And of course there was the comparison to Kiwi Party Plates.
Deal-breaker 2: Looks like a souvenir, not a flag
This one is similar to the first deal-breaker. Designs can evoke a feeling of cringe and contempt if they look too offbeat, informal or “un-flag-like”. Every designer has to keep in mind that even when symbols and colours are meaningful to a culture, they exist on a spectrum from formal to informal. Relying too much on the informal iconography makes the design seem cheesy or just for tourists.
This example was another official finalist that we got to vote on and it’s literally just the logo of our tourism department put into a rectangle.
This design is also used on the Qualmark logo, which is the tourism department’s official certification scheme so this design is very strongly associated with tourism and souvenirs, which makes the flag look really tacky even if the symbolism is relevant.
Deal-breaker 3: Mystery symbolism
The famous film critic Roger Ebert once declared, “If you have to ask what it symbolizes, it didn’t.” He was talking about film-making but it applies to lots of other areas as well. It’s a problem when designers think of flags as if they’re conceptual art projects and try to invent imagery with lofty ideals which require explanations. It’s a problem even if the explanation has relevance to the location. It just doesn’t work that way because the designer doesn’t have the luxury of explaining the symbolism to every single person and they shouldn’t need it either. Instead of conceptual art, flag design is more like advertising, which is forced to use the shared visual language already existing in a society to intuitively resonate with the audience at first glance. It’s not enough for symbolism to be meaningful, it also has to be recognisable.
This design was supported by a vocal minority in the public but it bombed when presented in the referendum. Everyone agreed that while it’s simple and has good symbolism, it only makes sense after it’s explained. If you present it to people before you explain it, there is just no resonance. At first glance, the symbolism is actually as unrecognisable to us New Zealanders as it is to you Americans, so if you’re looking at this and you’re not sure what it’s supposed to mean, that’s exactly how we felt as well.
Deal-breaker 4: Designing for yourself
Some designers made the mistake of designing for only their own preferences, not for the general public. They act like a flag is a personal statement or personal art project. These designers feel like they don’t need the result to be in touch with society at large or they only need to be in touch with one sector of society. It’s a common misconception to treat society like a monolith and simply say “they all like these colours” or “they all like these symbols”, or even worse, “they should all like these colours” or “they should all like these symbols”. Actually, in any society, different themes of identity will appeal to different people and they have different preferences for colours and symbols. Some designers actually deliberately made judgements on which themes are legitimate and relevant and which ones aren’t. Focusing on only one theme will exclude all other preferences and people, which makes the symbolism too narrow and is essentially self-sabotage.
This example is inspired by nature and primarily contains green and the koru, a symbol from the Māori culture, the indigenous people of New Zealand. The problem is that there are multiple personas and preferences in society. This design appeals only to people who are both quite strong nature lovers and those who like Māori culture, while ignoring everyone else, like the conservative types who prefer to keep some familiar symbolism from the current flag, or the colloquial types who prefer the silver fern. In real life, I’ve only ever seen this flag supported by the hippie types while everyone else thinks it just looks like a hippie’s personal art project.
Deal-breaker 5: Too radical
Some designers wipe the slate clean and deliberately aim for a revolutionary design with no familiar or established symbolism. They say “well, if we’re designing a new flag, then we’re designing a new flag, no need for weak-minded half-measures or sitting on the fence”. They don’t value familiarity and reject all previous flags and symbolism as irrelevant. They aim to prescribe a group’s identity rather than express it, which is the exact opposite of how a flag should work. Flags should have a wide appeal to the society it represents, so attempting something entirely radical excludes the people who prefer the familiar imagery that is already embedded in their collective unconscious, and this is also self-sabotage.
This example depicts matariki, which is a constellation that is important in the Māori culture. The problem is that the idea of matariki as a visual symbol is extremely obscure even amongst the Māori. I’ve personally never seen it on any logo or graphic, and I would say over ninety-five percent of the population would never even be able to recognise or draw this constellation if prompted. While the constellation itself obviously exists, the idea of using it as a national symbol does not exist, has no precedent and is essentially a complete invention that exists only in flag concepts like this, especially when all established visual symbolism in the current flag get thrown out the window in the process.
Deal-breaker 6: It’s boring, but it works
This is a really little-known deal-breaker because most guides to good flag design emphasise simplicity. Flags should be simple, simple, simple. But there is such a thing as being too simple! Flags should resonate with the public and that means they should be eye-catching, inspirational and memorable. A flag that’s too dull or weak will be forgettable and the public will not support it.
This example was proposed by a former prime minister. She said that if we want a flag that looks less colonial and more independent, we should just remove the Union Jack and be done with it. The problem is, the result contains just the stars and a lot of empty space. Everyone criticised this design as a super boring, watered-down compromise that nobody would ever feel proud to fly.
Redesigning the American flag badly (Illustrative examples)
So those are the six deal-breakers. I’ve illustrated those with examples from the context of New Zealand which is where they came from. Just for you all, I’ve designed some artificial examples to illustrate these in a more familiar American context. Just like the New Zealand flag, I’ve taken the liberty to redesign the American flag itself as an example of how not to design a flag. I’ve intentionally contrived some extreme designs to fall into these deal-breakers so if you have any feelings of revulsion when you see these, that’s completely deliberate.
Illustrative example 1
So here’s the first example, and your thoughts are probably, “what am I looking at and what does this have to do with America”?
Well, this design is supposed to be based on the unofficial anthem America the Beautiful which describes some of its landscape – spacious skies, amber waves of grain, purple mountain majesties and fruited plain. It’s inspired by some other striped flags that represent the country’s landscape, like Estonia, Rwanda and Ukraine, which is actually featured as an example of a good flag in the Good Flag, Bad Flag guide for precisely this reason. This is not to criticise Good Flag, Bad Flag, but rather to point out that a flag could be well designed from a technical point of view, but it could still be rejected by the public for other reasons.
Superficially, this design satisfies the five principles of good flag design:
- ✓ It’s simple.
- ✓ The symbolism has relevant meaning.
- ✓ It has only a few colours.
- ✓ It has no lettering or seals.
- ✓ The colour scheme makes it distinctive.
Technically speaking, there’s nothing wrong with the way it’s constructed. Yet this clearly would never be accepted by society, and we can look to the deal-breakers to explain why.
- ❌ Mystery symbolism —Until I explain what this flag represents, it’s totally incomprehensible and nobody would connect it to America.
- ❌ Designing for yourself – I designed this by choosing one theme and deliberately ignoring what anyone else thinks, as if a flag is a personal art project.
- ❌ Too radical —It contains absolutely no familiar or established visual iconography.
- ❌ It’s boring, but it works – Tricolour designs are too simple by today’s standards.
Illustrative example 2
Here’s the second example I made which is more straightforward. The symbolism is recognisable, but it also would never be accepted, and it demonstrates the other two deal-breakers:
- ❌ Looks like a logo, not a flag
- ❌ Looks like a souvenir, not a flag
Which are pretty self-explanatory in this case.
Just a side note, I designed this to be the direct American equivalent of the official New Zealand finalist flag which should give you a good idea of why it was poorly received by so many people and why the referendum failed.
Avoiding rejection and embarrassment: How to avoid the deal-breakers
So now that I’ve explained and illustrated the six deal-breakers, I’ll explain how to avoid these. The main thing is to recognise how important they are. I called them “deal-breakers” rather than just “traps” or “pitfalls” because they really do make or break a design. In the New Zealand context, I never saw anyone say something like “that design is a 5/10, it looks too much like a logo, but if that problem were fixed, I might give it a 7/10 and I might accept it”. Instead, they just said “that looks like a logo, so it sucks and I reject it completely”. It’s really all or nothing if the public detects any of these problems.
If you’re designing a flag, you will want to avoid these deal-breakers to make sure the design resonates with the public. If you’re evaluating flags for a competition, you will want to avoid these deal-breakers to avoid any embarrassment if the public starts to reject the designs because of them. You could also use them as tie-breakers for flag designs that might seem equally good on the surface but are hiding other problems. To prevent these deal-breakers, you can aim for the opposite and ask some rhetorical questions to put things into perspective and detect these problems.
For “looks like a logo, not a flag” and “looks like a souvenir, not a flag”, try aiming for the opposite, “actually looks like a flag”. You can ask the question, “does it look good flying on a pole?” Most of us see flags as flat images on paper or screens, so imagining it actually flying helps to decide if it looks good as a flag and not just a flat graphic. Another question is, “if someone claimed that this flag was not a recent invention and was actually rediscovered in an archive from fifty years ago, would you believe it?” If the answer is no, that might be a warning sign that the style is too contemporary and flashy. If the answer is yes, it’s a good sign that it has a classic and timeless look.
For “mystery symbolism” and “too radical”, try aiming for the opposite, “intuitive, recognisable and familiar”. You can ask the question, “would a randomly selected member of the public be able to identify what the design is and what it represents without any explanation or context?” Obviously it’s not always possible for everything in a flag to be understood at first glance, but if there’s nothing to latch onto or it’s clear that the average person wouldn’t be able to even identify that a design is supposed to be a flag for their location, that’s a warning sign that it’s not intuitive.
For “designing for yourself”, try aiming for the opposite, “wide appeal”. You can ask, “are there any preferences in the public that we’re ignoring?” This forces you to stop using the aesthetic part of your brain and start using the sympathy part. You can think of some typical personas in society and what each one prefers. Obviously, it won’t be possible to please everybody and you shouldn’t aim for that, but if you at least consider the other personas, you can detect if a design is too single-minded and has only narrow appeal.
For “it’s boring, but it works”, try aiming for the opposite, “memorable”. You can go back to the scenario where I said, “would a randomly selected member of the public be able to identify what the design is and what it represents without any explanation or context?” You can then ask, “if you got back to that person 24 hours after you showed them the design and told them it was a secret memory test, would they recall the design?” If the answer is no, then that’s a warning sign that the design is too simple and boring to be remembered. This one is not just a hypothetical question as secret memory tests can actually be tried out during evaluation of flag designs and I’ve done this myself. This may not be a scientific process but it can still give some useful and surprising results.
Counter-example: Blue Sky flag
As a counter-example, the other vexillologist and I designed our own flag for New Zealand directly based on the investigation, aiming for the polar opposite of these deal-breakers and passing all the tests that the other proposals failed.
- ✓ It satisfies NAVA’s five basic principles of good flag design but it goes well beyond these.
- ✓ It actually looks like a flag because we stuck to the basics of flag design. It is timeless, classic, elegant and flag-like. It doesn’t feel like a logo or souvenir like all the other proposals.
- ✓ It’s intuitive, recognisable and familiar because it’s immediately obvious what it symbolises and how it’s related to New Zealand at first glance without the need for any explanation at all. The best symbolism is that which doesn’t need to be explained.
- ✓ It has wide appeal because it’s designed to objectively maximise public resonance based on our compiled evidence of what symbolism resonates with the public, what divides the public and what the different preferences are.
- ✓ It’s memorable because we actually did memory testing to evaluate this design. It stood out when people saw it among other designs and it stood out when they were secretly asked to recall it days later, so it strikes the perfect balance between simple and interesting.
In conclusion, comprehensive analysis of the public comments around the New Zealand flag competition revealed six deal-breakers that can make or break a flag design in the public consciousness. Even if a flag is technically a good design, the public will still reject it if it looks like a logo or souvenir, if the symbolism is not recognisable, if the symbolism has narrow appeal, if it doesn’t contain enough familiarity or if it’s just too boring. We should recognise the importance of these deal-breakers and prevent them by aiming for their polar opposites and detecting them when they arise.
On my website I have more details about the Blue Sky flag and I’ll also post an article version of this presentation. I’ll make sure the links get in the next Vexinews e-mail if you’re interested in seeing these again or sharing them.
Thanks for listening to my presentation. Any questions?
Afterwards, there was some more questions and commentary from members about the silver fern, the American flag, the Laser Kiwi flag and comparing New Zealand’s flag change campaign to Australia’s. Secretary Ted Kaye mentioned that he recognised these deal-breakers from the dozens of American city flag design campaigns he has been involved with. He also talked about his experiences being interviewed as an expert during the New Zealand flag referendum. He mentioned the “bicycle race test”: When you are watching a bicycle race on TV and the participants are listed, the flag icons are tiny. Some flags like Japan and Canada instantly jump out in this list but New Zealand’s current flag takes some effort to distinguish.
Joe Gorman pitched in with this comparison: “Deal breaker #3 feels like it also applies to Halloween costumes: If they have to ask what you are dressed as, you have already lost.”
Here were the written comments from NAVA members about my presentation afterwards: