A month or two ago, in the lead-up to the United States Flag Day I made a twitter thread – and what a thread it was. Here’s a link. But Twitter threads break, and they sometimes lose information, and so, in the interest of preservation, here’s that chunk o’content, reproduced on my blog.
This thread got really big and it had some sass and comments, so I’m going to represent the rounds of voting, then the loser’s brackets.
This flag tournament wanted to come down – cleanly – to two flags, duking it out. The way to handle this sort of tournament is to start from a binary number, which fifty is not. If you start with fifty pairings, you cut it in half to twenty five pairings, then twelve and a half pairings? Then things get weird. It’s much tidier if it’s (for example), sixty four pairs, then thirty two pairs, then sixteen, then eight, then four, then two, then a final pair. So that’s what I did.
When you do this kind of thing, you seed the tournament so the number of starters is the same as the nearest larger binary number than your competitors. You thought this was just going to be flag-dorky? No no no. We’re getting math-dorky too. Anyway, this meant that of the starting lineup of 50 states, with their flags, we gave out (at first) 14 byes, and I calculated it from that. Randomly giving out byes, but ensuring that no bye got a bye, thanks to the Random function on Excel, I then got to work on setting up the polls.
Then I noticed that a lot of the US State flags are bad.
Like real bad.
With that realisation I wanted to put some flags that don’t suck, but without going outside of type. With that in mind, I added Puerto Rico and Washington DC, which have great flags and are probably also some of the better places in America, really. Anyway, this means I had 52 flags to start with, and I distributed twelve byes amongst them.This did mean that the first round of voting was a bit smaller – there were 26 pairs, with 12 byes distributed amongst them. Then the next round was sixteen flag pairs, eight, four, and then our final two.
Now that the boring math is out of the way, let’s look at each round based on the losers.
Now, the principles of good, robust flag design are pretty simple, and they’re borne out of the purposes a flag has. A flag wants to be useful for identification, it wants to be useful at a great distance, and it wants to be useful as iconography. The way these ideas bear out is:
- Limited Palette. You want to use as few colours as possible on your flag. Some of the best flags are two or three colours. While more colours are acceptable (like the Rainbow Pride flag), you want your flags to be as simple as possible.
- Meaningful Symbolism. Your flag needs to use icons or symbols that are meaningful to the people involved, that convey something to the members of that flag’s space. Note that the flag can be its own symbolism – the American flag, for example, makes the stars and stripes into a symbol of American-ness, even though most flags use stars or stripes.
- Scalability. Flags are designed to be viewed at a size basically comparable to two side-by-side postage stamps. If your flag has fine detail, like black outlines, it’s going to disappear and that’s a waste. If your flag has text, it will usually be unreadable at distance. If your flag uses a small object or an object with fine detail, then that can be lost at a distance, or can be confused by the movement of a flag.
- Replicable. This is one of the things most of these flags are going to fail at. Your flag needs to be something other people can replicate. A good rule of thumb is if a child can recognisably draw your flag.
With that in mind, there’s another term we need to introduce, which is Seal On A Bedsheet, or SOB. Seals on a bedsheet are flags where the flag is primarily a large blank field of a single colour, with the seal of the people or government involved. Seals are a type of heraldry for a totally different purpose, and they’re meant to do the exact opposite job of a flag – seals are meant to be really hard to reproduce, because their purpose is to an extent one of security and cryptography. A flag that is primarily or almost entirely a seal is just a bad flag.
Now, here’s the first round of flags that got bounced by the voters in the lead-up to Flag Day, and you’re going to see a recurrent problem, and why I had to explain what a Seal on A Bedsheet is.
Wow, that was a bit of a run, wasn’t it?
These flags all have the exact same problem, in summary – they’re all Seals on a Bedsheet. There are lesser crimes amongst them – fine detail across all of them, they all have text, they all use a lot of colours. There is a worst of these flags, but I’m saving it for later. Also check out the Vermont flag.
That flag has gradients in it! How the heck are you meant to pick out that seal’s details?
The worst thing is that if you scale all these flags down, most of them do already cut a reasonably unique profile, and you could make them good flags if you started from just inheriting that profile. But a bunch of them are just confused messes that you can’t meaningfulyl tell apart if not for the bedsheet the seal is upon.
Next, some flags with more specific problems.
What’s so bad about Alabama? Bold colours, nice and easy to replicate, stands out, looks pretty good, right?
Well, this flag is made to replicat the Confederate flag’s design without being the Confederate Flag, and so it’s kind of more like this:
That confederateness plays over into the flag of…
Kinda a decent flag, right? Yeah, but there you have that confederate flag in the corner, and if there’s one thing my body of flag-loving friends dislike, it’s people who like slavery.
Well now this is interesting, isn’t it? Indiana isn’t so bad. There’s only a small amount of fine detail – the inset star under the torch, and the text. It’s also using two clear colours, and the shape of the torch and the stars isn’t too hard to replicate. I have a personal beef with designs that require you to draw circles and arcs differently, but there are worse crimes. So why’d it lose in the first round, when it’s so much better than some of the garbage above?
Well, it got pit against Alaska, which you’ll learn is one of the best flags America has.
Iowa takes a really solid, bold design – blue, white, red stripes, with some sort of bird or freedom iconography in the centre – and just completely balls it up on the execution. Look at all that text! look at that fine lining on the bird!
Oregon’s flag is two-tone, so that’s good! And then you have the seal, the fine detail, and the text. All of that is bad. Still, Oregon has a unique feature amongst American state flags – it has a reverse design. That is, there’s something on the back, and…
Isn’t that a charming little beaver buddy?
Hawaii is the best flag in this round of losers. There is a little bit of a complaint about the distinction between the Union flag in the corner, and the different line-up of the stripes, which isn’t perfect?
The Hawaiian flag, I kind of like, because it sort of holds to the history of Hawaii as a place that’s been handed around between different colonial powers, and it has a sort of hands-up ‘fine, you want us to have a flag, we’ll have a flag, coloniser.’
It also went up against the Texas flag, which is a very good flag, so it sort of was doomed.
Anyway, there is one other loser of this round that I want to kick down the stairs because it was particularly bad:
God, look at this. This flag has almost everything to it that can be bad. The sun, which is made up of dozens of hard-to-replicate line. The three-tone water. The spackles of green in an irregular pattern. The smaller, better flag on this flag. The text! The speech bubbles! The inverted text!