Over the ages, the world has gotten increasingly “flaggy”, with more and more places choosing to represent themselves with flags. Flags have gradually shifted away from just being used in ceremonies, seafare, and the battlefield by a select few nations and powerful people, to being symbols of all types of things used in all types of places by all types of people. Since the 1960’s, and especially since 2004, there has also been increased awareness of the importance of well-designed flags and flags as symbols to rouse, rally, and represent. Following the 2015 TED talk by the fantastic Roman Mars of 99% Invisible, which explained Ted Kaye’s 2004 pamphlet “Good Flag, Bad Flag”, this awareness hit an all-time high. A wave of flag contests by cities of all shapes and sizes was sparked by the 18 minute video, particularly in the United States. Despite most of America’s worst city flags being ditched in favor of improved designs, we’re only just at the start of what has been dubbed by some vexillologists as the “U.S. Flag Revolution”.
So, if you’re a municipal government looking to partake in this revolution, I congratulate you. I think it’s good that you don’t underestimate how much a good city flag could improve your home. Think about it: a good flag can be merchandised; used as the basis of local designs; serve as a binding local icon; and on top of all of these benefits, it perhaps most importantly gives your city an identifiable brand that connects with people more than a logo or seal. A logo signifies a corporation, and a seal signifies bureaucratic governmental authority; these are things that are cold, soulless, empty, and distant, while a flag is something you can hold in your very own hand and wave with pride—it’s the exact opposite!
However, you can’t just get a great city flag with the snap of your fingers. There needs to be genuine communal interaction, and a whole process to it. This is where many cities fail, leading to deadlocks, embarrassing results, and a whole lot of wasted money. This is why I’m writing this post: to share my ideal flag selection process with anyone interested in adopting a new flag. My process is based on my own opinions on what makes a good flag, as well as the opinions of other vexillologists, but was mostly formulated by looking at the results of different competitions and comparing how they were set up.
Some quick warnings: If you have a good historical flag, or a good flag already used de facto by your residents, I’d recommend adopting it instead of going through all the time and effort of a flag contest. Also, much like flag design itself, there’s no “one size fits all” solution—think of this as simply advice from someone who has participated in multiple flag contests and observed many more.
So, without further ado, on to the first stage:
Your primary goal in this stage is to try to gather as many submissions as possible. There are many ways to do this, so I’d recommend doing your research on other contests for more ideas. The main factor in this stage is naturally publicity; make the flag contest prominent on any relevant official sites, and post it on social media. The latter is an especially good idea due to sharing, which allows the contest to reach a much wider audience.
It’s also always a great idea to use local news as a platform for spreading word of the contest. It could be as simple as an advertisement, or even an outright article or story. You can also put up posters or signs advertising the contest, or make it a creative assignment in schools. With my tips on publicity in mind, you’ll have likely gotten the flag contest into the public consciousness, and are one step closer to maximizing submissions from locals.
When promoting the contest, it’s a good idea to include a list of potential things to represent. This list should be based on the recommendations of local historians, on a survey of locals, and potentially others. Such a list can provide inspiration for potential entrants, especially outsiders, and can be a handy resource for the flag committee later on.
But do not think we’re done yet! There is one more important factor in determining submission count: the actual act of submitting. Too many places make submitting a bit of a hassle, and it should be a top priority to make sure your contest doesn’t have this problem. After all, if it’s frustrating, you won’t just decrease submission count due to people giving up on trying, but you can also leave a lasting negative impression for the contest and the government behind it.
Submitting should be accessible, and only take a few minutes for the average person to do. The best way to submit an entry is through an online form. When it comes to identifiable personal information, the form should only ask for the basics: name, address, age, phone number, and e-mail address, and a parent’s signature if the entrant is a minor. Any personal information should be kept safe—one of the contests I entered made the important personal information of all its entrants available for the whole world to see, which is a flagrant violation of privacy.
I think entrants should be able to send in multiple submissions (up to 3 is my ideal), but this is optional. I’d actually encourage people to send in multiple submissions when possible. The descriptions of submissions shouldn’t be more than 200 words long, in order to be fair and not waste time. Entrants should be able to optionally send in various resources, such as construction sheets and simulations of their proposal flying. A construction sheet could prove important when the new flag is adopted, and various other resources intended to show a proposal’s effectiveness are important for when they’re being voted on.
With all this done, it’s also worth considering whether or not to allow outsiders to submit entries. Allowing outsiders to submit entries results in even more submissions, but these submissions are also typically more hit-and-miss due to their creators not having the connection and intricate knowledge of the city that a local would. Still, if you’re a small town (<10K people), I would certainly recommend it. Commissioning either locals or outsiders is possible if there aren’t enough submissions. When commissioning, though, make sure you ask a heraldist or vexillographer—a graphic designer, architect, or artist isn’t sure to have the necessary knowledge to design a flag.
The amount of time people have to make and send in their submissions varies depending on the size of the city. I’d recommend one month for a city of a few ten thousand. You might also want to consider announcing the contest a little while before it opens, since giving people a little time to prepare can increase both the quality and the quantity of submissions.
Last but not least, it’s crucial to have a clear set of criteria that proposals will be judged on—don’t have vague criteria, and don’t state one set of criteria but not judge proposals on them. For that matter, it’s important to have the flag selection process be as transparent as possible; livestream meetings, have a public plan for the process and stick to it, etc., but I digress. Perhaps the most common set of criteria used by cities in the United States are the 5 Basic Principles of Flag Design from “Good Flag, Bad Flag”. I wouldn’t normally recommend these principles, but they do serve their intended purpose when used in flag contests; they’re a simple, memorable, shareable, and easy-to-understand guide to the basics of flag design.
Another set of criteria, known as the “Ten Commandments”, is commonly used outside of the United States. While they were initially created for heraldry (the study and design of coats of arms), they’re still highly applicable to flags. They touch on many of the same points as “Good Flag, Bad Flag”, but also include some principles not found in it—principles I think are massively important. Though they don’t translate perfectly from heraldry to vexillography, using these principles as criteria is still almost guaranteed to get you a strikingly superb flag.
While these criteria alone may give people base knowledge of flag design, I’d also recommend linking to the Guiding Principles on Flag Design. I don’t think they’re suited for criteria, but they still allow for people to get a deeper knowledge of flag design. Another useful resource is the Dictionary of Vexillology, though it may be a bit unwieldy.
So, to summarize:
- Maximizing publicity and minimizing submission hassle is your number one goal.
- Create a list of things to represent.
- One month to submit with a while to prepare is good for cities of >10K.
- Multiple submissions per entrant, outsider submissions, and commissions are optional, and should or shouldn’t be allowed based on the needs of your city.
- Be transparent in the flag selection process, and respect the privacy of entrants.
- Educate people on flag design, and have a clear set of criteria.
If you’ve followed my tips, you should now have a myriad of submissions. Now to go through them:
This is the part where the flag committee comes in. So many cities’ flag committees are made up of well-meaning politicians with no experience in visual arts of any kind, who are either given the power to choose a shortlist of flags or—God forbid—create their own flag by combining elements of proposals. If this is what you’re thinking of doing, stop right now. You were about to commit a crime against vexillology.
In my eyes, at least a third of the flag committee should be heraldists, with the rest being a mix of community representatives—particularly ones with an artistic background—and vexillologists or vexillographers. Those heraldists, vexillologists, and vexillographers should preferably be local ones, but if there aren’t enough volunteers, outsiders should be allowed.
In order to be more democratic, I think the main role of the flag committee should be to simply review each submission and disqualify some of them. The heraldists should disqualify any entries that are identical or hard to distinguish from other flags, are plagiarized/usurpuous, violate a copyright or trademark, stray too far from the chosen criteria, are considered blatantly offensive or inappropriate, are obvious jokes or political statements, or contain any identifiable information in the image, resources, or description. The entries disqualified for going against the criteria are then presented to the rest of the committee, who can veto a disqualification if a majority are in favor.
And with this, the weakest links of the submitted flags are now gone. Now to let the public share their opinions:
I think flag votes should be split into two parts. The first is an online vote done in a similar way to contests on Reddit. That is to say, people can anonymously upvote and downvote the remaining proposals, which are arranged in a random order. When doing an online flag vote, please take Kanepi as a warning; make sure to have countermeasures to vote brigading and other forms of cheating in place.
Those participating in the online vote should once again be reminded of what makes a good flag, but should be asked to vote based on how attractive, timeless, and representative each proposal is. Just like the voters, the creators of each proposal should be anonymous in order to avoid bias, and the proposals should not have any kind of name.
After two weeks or more of voting, the 2-5 most liked submissions will be declared finalists. The number of finalists is decided based on the number of proposals. The flag committee will break any ties for finalist. When the finalists are all selected, their creators are given appropriate rewards for their work.
And now, the big finale:
One or more graphic designers can be hired to tweak the finalists. They’re only meant to make the flags more professional, attractive, and in-line with the graphic profile of the polity in question; they are not to make any changes to the proposals’ actual designs. Any changes must be approved by the flag committee.
Once the spiffed-up finalists are ready, they’re put on public display. The simplest way to do this is an exhibition, where flags may either be shown as flat images, at rest, or perhaps both. Another way that I think is more effective is to fly the finalists from a government building—this allows people to see the finalists both waving and at rest, while also serving as a striking and vibrant advertisement for the vote. There are many other ways to publicly display them. It’s all up to you.
Promotional material should be made for each finalist. Again, the exact details are up to you. You could make posters and pamphlets, which utilize the proposals’ striking nature and test both their ability to be used as the basis of other designs, and their memorability and shareability. Resources illustrating each proposal’s effectiveness are also recommended to be made, if they haven’t already been made by their creators. Resources that illustrate the finalists’ timelessness are especially important—add the flag to historical images of your city, and perhaps artistic illustrations of its future, and let people see if they still hold up. If it looked good 100 years ago, and looks good today, chances are it’ll look good 100 years from now.
If you would like to make up for the money invested in the flag selection process, I’d recommend selling each finalist. Your city’s denizens can fly their favorite proposals outside their homes, thereby promoting them, the vote, and civic pride.
After enough hype has built up, the vote itself should be in an instant-runoff system, provided there are >2 options. You can have a “current flag” or “no flag” option, which while democratic, would also make the whole process mostly a waste if it wins. Voters are again reminded of principles of flag design, and are asked to rank the options based on attractiveness, timelessness, and representativeness. Whether the vote is done online, through post, or at a polling station is up to you and your own desire for security.
Assuming “no/current flag” didn’t win, the winning finalist is made the new official flag of your city, and its creator is given yet another financial reward. And with that, a fun few months have concluded, and your city has been given a brand new look which will last for generations.
Thanks for reading, and good luck.