Economic Development News & Insight


How vexillology can aid in your economic development initiatives

/ April 10, 2016

How vexillology can aid in your economic development initiatives

Close your eyes. Scan your mind. What does your city flag look like? Have you ever noticed it, or ever seen it?

The flag of the city I live in is pretty standard, I thought, and typical of city and county flags. It is brightly coloured, includes the name of the city, its shield or seal, and includes the words “Ontario” and “Canada”. A decent flag as city flags go.

Turns out I am wrong. It is a bad flag, apparently an SOB.

Many city (and town) flags are poorly designed, cluttered, busy, and hard to recognise from a distance according to Roman Mars. Some city flags he says are SOBs – Seals On Bedsheets. City flags “may be the worst-designed thing you’ve never noticed” (TED Talk, March 2015).

So how does this link with economic development?

Think of a city flag as a powerful symbol of the city. (To be clear, a flag is not a brand, it has higher status than that. Brands can change often, such as the three brands in four years at the college at which I work.) A well-designed flag can be, according to Mars, “a rallying point for civic pride”. And, a good symbol does not need words; if it does the symbolism has failed.

Bad flags break the five basic principles of flag design according to the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA). Vexillology is the study of flag history and symbolism.

Good flags should follow these five design principles:

  1. Keep it simple;
  2. Use meaningful symbolism;
  3. Use two to three basic colours;
  4. No lettering or seals; and
  5. Be distinctive or be related [or linked] to an historical foundation.

A good flag will generate immediate recognition of the city, transfer well to promotional products and a range of souvenir items, and is more likely to be flown and displayed throughout the city. A good flag can get into the “civic imagery of a city” according to Ted Kaye (Good Flag, Bad Flag, 2006). It reflects a city’s pride and can make a strong statement about a city’s commitment to good design and excellence.

Think of Canada’s flag, which, by the way, both Mars and Kaye think is a good flag – it is recognised all over the world. It has been used in a great many ways and on a wide range of products. Libya’s is a bad flag. It is simply a solid green flag -nothing else- and is “too simple to represent a country” and does not translate to grayscale (Kaye).

amsterdam flag

City flag of Amsterdam

The “most bad-ass city flag in the world”, states Mars, is that of Amsterdam, which used just one element of the city’s coat of arms in the design. Yup, I agree….very cool and certainly memorable. It allows for a great range of promotional and product applications.

Great flags are re-mixable, adaptable, and powerful (Mars).

Use the process of creating a flag as a community building exercise. Through the process you’ll build a large database of perceptions of the community, too, which can be used in other in other development exercises. But Kaye advises caution: do not “allow a committee to design a flag” but rather “empower individuals to design flags”. A committee can be used to identify a short-list. Just remember the committee that set out to design the horse and ended up with the camel.

Flags are seen from a distance so must be visibly distinct. Remember, flags are not always flying full-out but may be flying limp. Kaye suggests reducing the design to fit on a 1-inch by 1.5-inch rectangle because that is the equivalent of viewing a flag from 100-feet away. If it works at a small scale it will work at full-size. Also, do not use words or seals. After all, if you have to use words then the flag isn’t doing its job. And words and seals can be read from one side only!

A flag design process can be another tool in the economic development toolbox. The final product can be a civic rallying point. A great city flag is a “banner for its people to rally under” (Kaye) and “represents the city to its people, and its people to the world at large” (Mars).

David Clark

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