City Flag Design. The good, the bad, the ugly

6 min read

Flags are one of the original elements of Place Branding, besides of course the actual… place. The best flags are simple and iconic and just like the best logos, the meaning and value aren’t there on day one but rather poured into them over time. They can eventually become symbols of pride. They fly over buildings and ships, are hung on walls, waved at parades and games, and made into tattoos and swimsuits. They can also become symbols of hate. That is because just like branding and logo design, it is about the day-to-day actions of living the brand and fulfilling that brand promise on a daily basis. That creates the connection and symbolism over time.

Have you heard of the term VEXILLOLOGY? It’s the scientific study of the history, symbolism, and usage of flags, or any interest in flags in general. There is an entire organization that you can join called NAVA, the North American Vexillology Association.

NAVA just released the results of their survey that rated the designs of 312 new city flags. If you look at the most loved flags in the world, you will see that the top flags are all simple, bold, and don’t include words. If you look at the bottom 25 flags (and it is no surprise), those are mostly just city logos tossed on a flag.

Top-rated new city flag designs

Lowest-rated new city flag designs

There is a pretty famous Ted Talk, with nearly 7 million views, by Roman Mars, called “Why City Flags May Be The Worst Designed Thing You’ve Ever Noticed.” Quite a headline and often pretty true but only when designers ignore the principles of good flag design and instead just throw a city logo onto a sheet like many of the lowest-rated flags above.

The NAVA website has a 16-page book called “Good Flag, Bad Flag” which has become a classic resource for those wishing to design or re-design a flag. It’s a short and simple reference guide and you can get a PDF of it here. Their site also contains some good case studies on cities and states that have redesigned their flags.

Controversy and debate over flag designs

Like most things that involve change, there is often a lot of debate and even some controversy with flag redesigns. One of the main reasons is people simply don’t like change and the internet and social media have made it extremely easy for anyone to leave their comments and dump on a new logo or new flag even if they have little to no understanding of design best practices, implementation, or the process it went through. It takes bold leadership to spearhead and push forward on any design or branding project knowing that you went about it the right way and accepting that you’ll get some Facebook haters.

Because of this, there have been many great flags that never officially become adopted because they can’t pass the scrutiny of the political process. Many of these flags are beloved and end up becoming unofficial flags.

One great example is “The People’s Flag” in Milwaukee. Professional designers and facilitators engaged hundreds of students in workshops across the city. Months of social media communications invited amateurs and professionals alike to enter their flag designs. The result was over 1,000 entries. Five expert judges gathered on April 23, 2016 and narrowed down the entries to 45 semifinalists and five finalists. Following the announcement of the five finalists at City Hall on May 14, 2016, Milwaukeeans rated each on a 0–10 scale to determine the highest-rated entry. However, after much debate, the flag has still not become the official flag and they are still campaigning to encourage city officials to make it official.

Another fun one is the Orca Face flag in Seattle designed by Chet Clapper which came from a design contest run by the local news website The Stranger. You can even buy a bunch of fun Orca Face merch!


In conclusion

Here at CivicBrand, we love a good flag design. We love having the opportunity to design them along with city branding projects and are big believers that they shouldn’t just be your city logo on a flag. We’d love to work with your community and design a strategy and process for developing a new flag so reach out if you are a city leader looking to up your flag game. We’ll leave you with some higher-resolution images of the top-rate flags from NAVA’s recent poll for some inspiration!








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