October 07, 2015

Horse 2001 - A Flag Odyssey

One one forum that I find quite entertaining, there was a link to and organisation called "Flag For Liverpool" which, not surprisingly, wants to give the City of Liverpool a flag because they currently don't have one.
I thought that the question of what the flag of Liverpool should be was more or less a fait accompli and so I submitted a design which I thought was so obvious that even Blind Freddie could see it - and that design was this:

Intriguingly, the reply I got back was a rejection. Immediately I felt like like a certain famous beagle who got told by various publishers that his manuscript did not suit their present needs. That rejection email is below:

Dear Andrew,
Thank you for submitting a design to Flag For Liverpool. We have reviewed it, and although it is a technically acceptable design we  cannot include it on the site for the following reasons:
1. It is too similar to the flag for the City of London https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flag_of_the_City_of_London
2. We are looking for a flag where all of the design elements represent Liverpool, your design is the flag of England with only a  small part of the design representing Liverpool.
We will be happy to welcome and review any other designs you may have.
 - flagforliverpool.org, 3rd Oct 2015

This rejection email cuts straight to the quick when it comes to flag design. Flag design is one of those thing which has a few design rules as well. The organisation called Ausflag which would like to change the flag of Australia has helpfully "borrowed" the short leaflet from the North American Vexillological Association; which lists the five principles of good flag design¹. They are as follows:
1. Keep it simple
2. Use meaningful symbolism
3. Use two to three basic colors
4. No lettering or seals of any kind.
5. Be distinctive

Flag For Liverpool has rejected my flag on the basis of Point 5 "Be distinctive" in that it is too similar to the flag for the City of London.
I think that there should be a sixth rule similar that of George Orwell's 5 Rules for Effective Writing in his 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language"; which is:
6. Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous².

Equally, there should be some catch-all rule of flag design which allows you to break the rules of flag design because if you are trying to create a cohesive set of things, be they flags, motor cars, appliances, furniture, anything where you want the things to sit together, I think that they should share a common design language.

Consider the set of United States' State Flags³. Although there are some excellent individual efforts such as Arizona, Alaska, New Mexico, Texas, Ohio and the flag which is so shockingly horrible that it crosses the line twice for Maryland, taken together they are an incoherent mess. Some are horrible seals on blue fields, they're different aspect ratios and even the good ones bear no relationship to each other.

Now consider the flags of Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. They all use what is known as a Nordic Cross* for their flags and although they are similar, they all fit together as a group. Likewise if you look at the set of Australian state flags, because they are all a circular seal which defaces the British Blue Ensign**, they all fit together and look like they belong together. I also think that for this reason, whilst a common argument is that Australia and New Zealand's flags are too similar, I think that they both work because even though Australia thinks that New Zealand is a little annoying brother and New Zealand thinks that Australia  is a big stupid brother with a massive backyard, the two countries have cultural ties which go back more than a century.

I will readily admit that the flag of London is a defaced cross of St George but I think that it should be; as should all of Britain's principle cities. The flags of Manchester, Liverpool, York, Birmingham, Leeds, London et al, would look better if they shared a common design language.

London's flag currently looks like this:

It would make sense if Lancaster, which is the ceremonial county city of Lancashire had a flag like this:

Likewise, the city of Manchester has on it's coat of arms a ship which celebrates the Manchester Ship Canal. So important is this to the cultural identity of the city that it is also commemorated on the logos of both of Manchester's great football clubs:

Of course they look similar. That is the very point. A flag is about conveying a message as quickly as you possibly can via the medium of a waving bit of fabric.

If the first four rules of keeping a flag simple, meaningful, retaining only a few colours and not using lettering or seals are followed, then it makes perfect sense that the flags of major English cities should look English. It also makes sense that the flags of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Derbyshire are all saint's crosses because they fit together as a set.

The thing that bothers me is this line from the email that Flag For Liverpool sent me: "We are looking for a flag where all of the design elements represent Liverpool." When ever you hear "all of the design elements" you just know that something hideous is going to spew forth like the flag of Milwaukee because of compromises and the need to include everyone's opinions. It leads to a horrorshow like this:

The fact of the matter is that the use of the Liver Bird dates well before the 1350s. It's on the coat of arms of Liverpool, both of the towers of the Royal Liver Building, it's on practically all of the dustbins in the city and of most of the drains and bollards as well as on the stationery of the Liverpool City Council which was one the great corporations reformed by the Municipal Corporations Act 1835 and Liverpool gained city status in 1880, which was a whole 12 years before it was used by the famous football club. I would wager that the Liver Bird is the only design element that a flag needs; coupled with the cross of St George, it needs nought else; if Flag For Liverpool think it does, then maybe they're off their trolleys or some such.

If Flag for Liverpool looks for various design elements, they very quickly run into the possibility that to keep everyone happy, they surrender the principles of good design in the first place; if that happens, then they'll violate Rule 1: Keep it simple. 


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