Not too long ago I heard a radio piece about a city flag. Curiosity led me down the path to our state flags. I was immediately bothered by how discordant they are as a group, and I wasn’t surprised to learn they break just about every rule of flag design. (More on the official rules of flag design later.) When you look at them all together, there’s no indication they come from the same nation.
Unfortunately this is an accurate representation of where we are right now as a country. We can’t seem to get anything done. But we used to. As a tribute to the collective creativity that brought us this far — and, truth be told, to the “united-ness” I hope we adopt in the future — I embarked on a project to redesign all fifty state flags.
GOOD FLAG DESIGN (OFFICIALLY)
Flags originated to guide military coordination on battlefields. Because of this association with battle and war, they naturally took on powerful resonance. Aesthetically they had to be easy to spot from a distance, with identifiable colors and symbols. In 1969 the International Federation of Vexillological Association (FIAV) evolved to dictate the principles of flag design. Here are their five basic rules, paraphrased and with notes in parentheses on how our state flags violate them:
A MESSAGE OF UNITY
To begin to create a cohesive group of flags I first stripped away everything (like Civil War symbols) that reminded me of a divided nation. I removed the numbers that indicated a state’s induction into the union. It might sound silly, but I aimed to get rid of anything that could point to rivalry, i.e. who came first.
Some flags required a complete overhaul so I created my own symbolism, choosing ones that are decidedly American. The main symbols are the star and the stripe; the secondary symbols are the eagle, olive branch, shield, and Lady Liberty.
Since I wanted the symbolism to be meaningful to each state, I also pulled from unique geography, historical and famous events, and state mottos and symbols. As the design evolved, I noticed a visual language starting to emerge. The color blue represents water or sky. A sideways triangle represents hill and valleys. A standard triangle represents mountains, a sunburst is the sun, and stars became place holders for the states themselves.
GROUNDING THE VISUAL BRAND LANGUAGE
I used color as my unifying branding element. Color is commonly used to signify brand identity — even more than form, color can unite a product with its family. I brightened up the red, white, and blue. (I was okay with the colors being more reminiscent of the French flag than Great Britain’s.)
My second unifying element is proportion. The official American flag is 1 by 1.9. Since we’re a nation made of states, I thought the state flag should be slightly smaller. I chose 1 by 1.5 because of its visually pleasing proportion — it is close to the golden ratio, but standard enough to produce easily.
THE NEW FLAGS
MAKING THE FLAGS
With my flag project complete and all fifty state flags united under one design, I decided to take them from two-dimensional to three-dimensional. As a product designer I’m used to working with physical objects and I know that anything you make that’s graphic needs to be able to live in the physical world, in space and in context. I was curious to see if the intended brand elements shone through.
Since I live in Philadelphia I had to make a Pennsylvania flag and take it around the city. At Independence Hall some tourists seemed to recognize it or at least want to interact with it. The Independence Hall guards were bit suspicious.
Flag Stickers and Posters
Though the emblems themselves are different, they all seem to hold together as a family because they have the same colors, proportion, and brand elements. I think the visual language telegraphs a more united America.
I love the idea that we can argue and fight with each other and that we have the freedom to redesign potent, historic symbols. Freedom of expression— of speech and ideas — is what makes this nation great. But lately it feels like we’re off balance. I believe design can be used as a tool to challenge our current beliefs — in this case, to make people think about what we represent, what image we want to project, and how it will look when we’re all working together.
(UPDATE: See #ReFlag, our redesign of the Philadelphia city flag for DesignPhiladelphia 2013, that grew from United We Stand.)
Ed challenges himself to bring ideas from other disciplines into his industrial design practice. He relishes Bresslergroup's multidisciplinary approach, which has him working closely with engineers to fine-tune designs for production.