Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Flag Enthusiast Interview

Scott from the Portland Flag Association was kind enough to answer my questions. If you're into flags, geopolitics, or history, you are sure to find his responses fascinating.

1. What aesthetic characteristics should a country’s flag ideally have?
Just in terms of aesthetics, the most important thing for a nation's flag is to look good flying in the wind atop a flag pole, holding its own next to other nations' flags.  This sounds obvious, but in this age of electronic media I think people can get seduced by how a flag looks close up, stationary, on a screen, often in isolation from other flags.  And in the US, we're all very familiar with the current American flag, a complicated affair of at least 64 different elements (50 stars, plus the blue field that they're on, plus 13 stripes).  This familiarity actually has a big influence on our sense of aesthetics.  Psychologists talk in terms of the mere-exposure effect or familiarity principle, which holds that, all other things equal, people will prefer perceptual stimuli they are familiar with, whether it's a melody, or a phrase, or a design.  So I think the beauty we find in the American flag may make us perceive far more simple flags, like the tricolors popular in Europe, say, as relatively boring and lackluster -- even though those tricolors are a lot less visually busy when flying in the wind than the Stars and Stripes.

When it comes to flags, it's probably more helpful to see them as designed objects that have a communicative job to do, "well" or "poorly", rather than simply aesthetic objects that are "beautiful" or "not".  And as designed objects, national flags are for the most part actually quite well designed -- they do their jobs well.  (State flags, city flags, and corporate flags, on the other hand, are a whole other story -- check out Roman Mars' TED talk on city flags to hear a designer tearing into some examples of really bad design.)  Vexillologists (people who study flags) have over many years looked at national flags and other examples of good design, and my friend and fellow member of the Portland Flag Association Ted Kaye compiled their insights into a little pamphlet titled Good Flag, Bad Flag that lays out five basic guidelines:

1. Keep it simple
2. Use meaningful symbolism
3. Use 2 or 3 basic colors
4. No lettering or seals
5. Be distinctive -- or be related

I could go on and on about this subject, as there are many interesting details and exceptions, but I've found Good Flag, Bad Flag to be great starting point.

2. What is an example of a good national flag? Why?
I, like a lot of other flag nerds I think, really admire the Canadian maple leaf flag.  (It just last year celebrated its 50th anniversary.)  It replaced a very complicated "shield on a British Red Ensign" design, and initially the very much simpler maple leaf design was absolutely hated by many Canadians.  It wasn't familiar, and so looked strange, and it signaled a very different message about national identity and autonomy the Canadian government wanted to tell the world, and, to use a cliche, change is hard.  But given a few years, it really grew on people, and now it's hard to imagine the Canada without its bold red and white flag.

Why does it work so well?  Well, in terms of principle 2 (use meaningful symbolism) it picked a single, longstanding symbol of Canada, and went pretty much all-or-nothing in calling attention to it.  Canadian culture is contentiously split between English and French speakers, not to mention its First Nations on one hand, and its thriving immigrant communities from Asia, Africa, and all over the world, but here was a kind of neutral-yet-meaningful symbol that everyone could rally behind.

And aesthetically the red and white looks great against a blue or grey sky. Also there's a geometric trick to the design I never noticed until some vexi-people pointed it out: the red maple leaf is set against a perfectly square area of white, flanked by two half-square rectangles (in heraldry-speak, this is called a "Canadian pale").  This makes the design beautifully balanced. 

3. What country’s flag is in desperate need of a makeover? Why?
Well, everyone used to pick on Libya's when it was just a featureless green rectangle, but when Qaddafi was overthrown they went back to a more interesting earlier flag.  But even that probably wasn't in "a desperate need of a makeover" since it was so distinctive, and it had great meaning to Qaddafi, if not to his people.

This brings up the issue of flags that do a good job of representing a country's rules, vs. are actually embraced by the population.  You could argue if these get too much out of alignment, the flag needs a populist makeover. But who gets to be the judge of this?  And you can find examples of repressive regimes, like North Korea, who through sheer indoctrination and "mere-exposure" have populations who see no mismatch at all, and truly love their flags.

So it's probably best to dodge this question, but for the sake of argument I'll play along and say: Turkmenistan. Like North Korea (but without the nukes) it's a repressive regime ruled by a nepotistic leader at the center of a cult of personality, and so its flag could be argued represents the ruling strongman rather than the Turkmen people as a whole.  And unlike North Korea, which has a bold and simple flag, Turkenistan's is the world's most complicated.  Its designers apparently saw little difference between a flag and a carpet, and so literally placed five different, intricate carpet designs into the illegible reddish vertical stripe near the hoist.  Each design represents a different tribe, so it expresses disunity rather than unity -- though at least each tribe's pattern is equally illegible.  It's a mess.

4. What is the flag-enthusiast community’s take on countries that still have the Union Jack on their flags?
I don't think there's a consensus in the community.  Some absolutely adore the Union Jack for its complex, eye-grabbing design and its ability to propagate itself across the world, thanks to Britain's colonies and former colonies.  There's also a sense that it's a bit of an endangered species, what with major former dependencies like India and Canada having cast it off, and movements afoot in New Zealand, Australia, and Fiji to follow in those footsteps.  There's also the pesky Scots, who would leave a much-less-United Kingdom behind if they eventually secede.  But I think others, myself included, think the world of flags would be a more visually interesting and democratic place if more peoples and flags blossomed as the Union Jack faded a bit more into history.

5. Assuming the United States of America is still around 200 years from now, what do you think it would look like?
Pretty much the same.  It would take a revolution or splitting up of the country to change it.  One could imaging it eventually making sense, democratically, to reduce the number of states (and thus stars) if the great plains continue to depopulate and the coastal areas continue to grow.  And there is also what looks to be massive flooding in the next couple centuries as the ice caps melt, which might change the composition of the states.  But I imagine the system will equilibrate, and basic logic of the flag will persist.

6. The Nazi and Confederate flags are now pretty much relegated to history books and museums. Are there other flags around the world that have met similar fates that we may not be familiar with?
Well, the breakup of the USSR led to a whole bunch of Soviet era flags that are now very much collector's items, but that's a pretty familiar example.  It's a good question for some vexillologist out there to ponder! 
7. What is your take on American flags on everything, from bikinis to beer cozies?
According to the US Flag Code these are all verboten, but the Supreme Court has ruled that enforcing these "anti desecration" rules is unconstitutional as it conflicts with First Amendment rights to freedom of speech.  I've never been a fan of the Flag Code, and think that one of the things that makes the US flag so vibrant and alive is the endless ways it can be appropriated into "speech" of all sorts.  Sure a lot of what you see is tacky, but its a symptom of underlying health I think.

8. Are there any recent trends or controversies in flag design?
I think what happened, and is happening, in New Zealand is fascinating. The government there is spending is 26 million dollars on a series of referendums that it hopes will end up creating a new flag with a public mandate behind it (and, finally, doing away with endless confusion of the NZ flag with the nearly identical flag of its closest neighbor, Australia). It looks highly likely to fail, which raises a really interesting question:  Can it be in the public interest, the public good, to change a national (or regional, or city) flag even if the majority of the population is against it?  I think examples like Canada show that the answer is yes.  But in that case, in the absence of a broad public mandate, what's a fair and prudent (I mean, $26 million?) way of doing this, especially in an age of crowd-sourcing and marginalization of the design professions.  (There wasn't a single design expert appointed to the flag change committee in New Zealand.)

Related to this question of what should replace the crowd-sourcing of designs and democratically-created inertia is the phenomena of flag designs that have mobilized viral internet campaigns behind them.  In New Zealand it took the form of the Red Peak movement, based on a very slick Tumblr site,  The "Red Peak" design made it out of the 10,292 flags submitted for consideration onto the "long list" of 40 flag designs, but not onto the short list of 4 "finalist" designs chosen to spend lots of money polling the public on to decide an a single "challenger" to the current flag.  This failure to make it into the final round really mobilized its advocates into an online campaign to demand that it be added as a 5th option -- and it worked! The Prime Minister agreed to add it to the ballot, which became a choice of 5 options, not 4.  (Well, actually just 4, because 2 of the 5 were essentially the same, but that's another issue.)  Red Peak went on to poll very poorly in the public at large -- it used, after all, the least familiar symbology. But it demonstrated the power of internet organizing.  (Another nice example in the last year was The International Flag of Planet Earth,, a school project by a Swedish design student that went viral on the internet last May based on its slick web presentation.)

9. What’s a flag-related piece of trivia that you think fans of history and geopolitics may not know?
Well, those outside of Brazil may not know that the Brazilian flag shows the stars that were visible above Rio de Janiero on a particular date in history: November 15, 1889, the day the Brazilian Republic was proclaimed.  And that not only are these actual stars (Sirius, Antares, Spica, etc.) but that, unlike on the US flag where individual stars don't correspond to individual states, each of these real stars is assigned to a particular Brazilian state.  

So even though it looks very different, the Brazilian and US flags have this strong similarity. In both countries, adding a state to the republic necessitates changing the flag.  And for a short time the similarity of flags was even greater: from Nov 15-19, 1889, the Brazilian flag used the same stars-and-stripes design as the US, but with gold and green stripes and a smaller blue canton (the numbers of stars and stripes were different, too).

10. Why do you love flags?
It really started in childhood. I grew up outside of Boston, and one time went to visit relatives in New Brunswick.  They gave me a little provincial stick flag with a cool Viking-looking ship on it.  I was bitten with the flag bug at an impressionable age.

Nowadays I love flags because each represents the tip of a historical iceberg, and you can learn a lot about history, politics, and design by delving into them.


Ripituc said...

Súper interesting! I love flags too. And I'm loving these Tamerlane Interviews series!!

Maxichamp said...

@Ripituc: Thank you for introducing me to them on Twitter.