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Vexillology: The Study of Flags

Hello Planetary Pals,

This week I’ve decided to talk about another one of my hobbies, which is collecting flags. The study of flags is called vexillology and has been a topic I’ve been interested in since I was a kid. I suppose that it stems from my love for geography. I enjoy learning about the history and design of flags, and have even dabbled in designing and redesigning flags (though I’m not very good and not posting any of my own here haha).

The history of flags have been long and complex. Flags have been used since antiquity, and the earliest attestations of flags as we would recognize them (pieces of cloth with colors and symbols representing a polity) emerged out of ancient India. They were used to coordinate military units and battles. With the Muslim conquests of the early-middle medieval period flags were introduced to the militaries of the Middle East and Europe. With the rise of state building and nationalism starting in the Early Modern period, flags became important symbols that burgeoning states and peoples could rally around. By the 19th century and into today, flags became synonymous with states and have begun to become symbols of other organization.

The North American Vexillological Association is one of the foremost groups for curating and studying flags. They profess 5 basic guidelines for making effective and evocative flags. Flags can take a number of forms and need to be recognizable in all of them, no matter if the flag is flapping in the wind or hanging loosely, or if the flag is the size of a pin or a football field.

The first rule in flag design is to keep the flag simple. Essentially, a flag should be simple enough that even a child should be able to draw and recognize it from memory. A good flag should be made of simple colors and shapes and not be overly complicated. The Italian flag is made of three simple colored rectangles and is still instantly recognizable. If I were an Italian child, I would be glad that I drew up drawing this:

instead of this:

The second rule of flag design is to use meaningful symbolism. Symbolism can come in an image or in a color. In general, there should be only one, unifying symbol, rather than multiple symbols. As for color, different colors carry with them different meanings that can also be symbols for a nation or group. The flag of Canada utilizes the simple symbol of the maple leaf effectively. For instance, red typically represents blood, blue the sea and sky, and green nature, agriculture, and religion. In this example, the Haudenosaunee use a simple symbol of a wampum belt with five features for the five tribes of the confederacy.

This can be compared to the flag of the Navajo nation that features tens of different symbols that become distracting and overwhelming.

As well, a flag should be limited to only a few basic and contrasting colors. Colors are symbolic too, and should follow the same rules as the previously discussed rules on symbols. To prevent muddying of the colors, light colors should separate dark colors from other dark colors, and vice versa. Typically only 2-4 colors are found on a good flag. Too many colors makes a flag complicated and expensive to sew and manufacture. Here, the two colors of the EU Flag are simple and symbolic, as compared to the proposed flag of the EU which is an eyesore.

The fourth rule of proper flag design is to never use writing or seals on the flag. After all, why wouldn’t you just write “CANADA” on a flag and call it a day! Lettering is expensive and difficult to sew, and doesn’t work well on small-scale flags. Lettering and seals make flags seem corporate instead of national, as seen in these examples of good and bad French departmental flags:

Lastly, a proper flag should be distinctive and unique. Certainly flags can call upon the ethos and pathos of other regional flags, but they should still remain unique and distinctive from one another. An example of this are the Nordic Cross style flags, which have the same basic design principle but are still mutually distinctive. Flags that are too similar to one another begin to lose their meaning and national appeal. The flag of Australia is notoriously generic for such a well-known nation.

These flag design principles are useful, however they are not totally set in stone. Certainly, there are many flags that break these rules and are still amazing. The Welsh flag and Maryland flag are the opposite of simple and I pity the poor child that needs to draw those flags. However they are still beautiful in their complexity. The California state flag uses writing in a unique and iconic style.

There are also flags that are so bad that they are good, and the flags of the Liberian counties are, in my opinion, amazingly bad.

Ultimately, once human space travel becomes more commonplace, someone is going to be designing the new flags of these planets and moons, and they’ll be likely following these design principles to do so.


Published by Anthony Dicecca

Hello and welcome to my blog. I am Anthony Dicecca, and I am currently pursuing a thesis-based Masters degree in Geology with a Specialization in Planetary Science and Exploration. I am a native of Rochester, New York but moved to London, Ontario to attend the University of Western Ontario. From 2016 to 2020 I worked to complete my undergraduate degree, finishing with a BSc in Physics and a BSc in Geology. During this time I developed a passion for geology, and in particular, planetary science. I've had the pleasure of working with Dr. Gordon Osinski and his team during this time aiding in research ranging from Arctic peri-glaciology to global impact cratering, and from Lunar spectroscopy to Martian mapping. In Autumn 2020 I continued my education at the U.W.O., working towards a MSc in Geology with a Specialization in Planetary Science and Exploration. My research will likely involve insights obtained from the Holuhraun Lava Field in Iceland and their applications to other bodies in the Solar System. This blog serves as an archive of my progression over the next few semesters.

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