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5 Simple Flag Design Principles Every Designer Should Know

by Shane Mehling
art & design, featured

Flag Design Principles

Flag design can teach us a lot.

Flag designers are the unsung heroes whose work has inspired, angered, and directed billions of people for millennia. Designing with a strong personal voice is highly prized (especially these days), and the more invisible crafts are easily forgotten.

Maybe it’s because they’ve been around for so long, or because they’re so ubiquitous, but good flags remain one of the most influential instances of design we find today. And they are deceptively simple, as is evidenced by this 22-point PDF on the Guiding Principles of Flag Design. Written by a panel from the North American Vexillogical* Association, or NAVA, it shows how many factors have to be weighed when creating a truly eye-catching, timeless flag.

While you can read the PDF or listen to this fascinating podcast on flags by 99% Invisible, here are some basic tips on flag making that may help you create iconic designs, even if they’re not being flown over your own country.  We think you’ll find plenty of applications for these principles beyond the realm of flag design.

1. Be Everything to Everyone

Flag Design Principles

A flag usually represents something large that contains many smaller, diverse things. That means it needs to go for more universal imagery, to encompass everything. While there may be certain things you want to focus on, be careful that your designs aren’t coming off too select or niche. The more all-inclusive the design, the bigger it seems.

2. Keep it Simple

Flag Design Principles

No words, no complex designs, nothing that gets muddled when its small. Remember that most flags are not seen up close, which ends up being like many designs. The majority of people who see something you make are not going to be scrutinizing it inches away from a computer screen. Shrink down your work and see if it still has the same effect. 

3. Don’t be Bound by Realism

Flag Design Principles

Flags are not photographs. If a flag contains symbols, they should be general representations, not literal recreations. Good design doesn’t contain insider information or details for an educated populace – this is why it’s so important to know what’s come before you. Instead it should be objects boiled down to their barest essentials that even a child can identify.

4. Have a Contingency Plan

Flag Design Principles

That perfect flag may look good on the drawing board, but it doesn’t often stay that way on a flagpole. It often riffles in the wind or droops down. Your design may not also end up being featured in perfect spots. Pull your design away from the perfect environment and see how it reacts to less than perfect situations.  

5. Stay Relevant

750px-Flag_of_Edward_England.svg

Everything added to a flag that isn’t clearly related risks diluting the overall design. This is no different than anything you work on — there may be something that you think looks so cool, stands on its own so well, that you can’t help adding it. But if it doesn’t mesh perfectly with everything else, it has to go.

*Vexillology is the study of flags

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Shane Mehling

Shane Mehling is a freelance writer and editor who plays in noiserock bands.