Think about the Connecticut state flag. Could you draw it from memory? What does it mean? Did you know that the three grapevines in the seal represent the state's three oldest settlements?
Vexillology is the scientific field dedicated to asking and answering these kinds of questions about flags. It probably isn't a field you've heard of, but it's important since flags can act as symbols of our culture and values. For example, the recent controversy over the meaning of the Confederate flag proves that the history and symbolism of flags is worth a deeper look.
The study of flags isn't limited to what they mean, however. It includes how they look. A guide published by the North American Vexillological Association outlined five key principles of good flag design:
- Keep it simple.
- Use meaningful symbolism.
- Use two to three basic colors.
- No lettering or seals.
- Be distinctive or be related.
A quick glance at the flags of most states makes it clear that these guidelines are frequently ignored.
Thirty-nine of them have some form of lettering or a state seal -- a direct violation of rule four of the NAVA guidelines.
In 2001, NAVA ranked 72 state and regional flags from the United States and Canada. The flags that fared worst were those with lots of detailed lettering and seals. Worst of all were the flags that vexillologists call "seal on a bedsheet" flags, which feature only a seal in a solid colored field -- just like Connecticut's flag.
A number of groups have proposed redesigns for the state flags that adhere a bit more closely to these recommendations. Below you can see the flags of several states along with reimagined versions by the design firm Bresslergroup. Drag the arrow at the bottom of the images to switch between the original versions and the proposed redesigns.
In a recent TED talk, designer and podcast host Roman Mars explained how the quality of flag design tends to decrease as you move from national to state to local level. He said country flags tend to be good. "They're on the international stage," he explained in his talk. "But city, state, and regional flags are another story."
Watch the TED talk below:
To learn more about flags, listen to WNPR's Colin McEnroe Show Wednesday at 1:00 pm.
You can also try putting these flag design principles into action by designing your own flag.
Charlie Smart is an intern at WNPR.