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June 07, 2007

Symbolizing States

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Ever design a flag?

I suppose I must have when I was a child, and it would have been an easy task in those days. Easy because I wasn't carrying burdens of design theory, color theory, history, knowledge of symbolism, political pressures and bureaucratic inertia, just to mention a few factors an adult designer might have to deal with.

One problem with flag-designing is that a lot of the best designs have already been taken: consider the French tricolor and the 18th century British Union Flag (the one without the red St. Andrew's type cross). As a result, some pretty awful examples can be found: consider the current flag of South Africa with its awkward design and too many colors.

South Africa flag

Since flags can assume an infinite number of guises depending upon atmospheric conditions (amount of wind, time of day, etc.), I'm inclined to favor designs that are bold, simple or both. Real-world conditions such as those cited above can make my ideal hard to meet.

In general, most flags of U.S. states aren't terrible, design-wise. Most are mediocre, but a few are rather nice.

Perhaps that's because they were created in simpler times, with fewer interest groups yapping at the heels of the committee in change of flag design. Nowadays, matters seem worse, if the state quarter (25 cent coin) program is any indicator. Most state quarter designs are disappointing in one way or another, in my opinion: only one is top-notch.

Coin design is difficult for a host of reasons. One has to do with the circular shape. Another has to do with the fact that the image is normally in the form of a raised relief (though I suppose sunken patterns are possible). Perhaps the trickiest problem is related to the small size of the coin. For the state quarter project, perhaps the worst problem is that of having to crowd in too many images, often enough a map of the state along with one or more theme items.

Let's take a look.



Oregon's flag is pretty typical in that it has one dominant color along with a centered state crest or seal. The Oregon design clarifies which state's flag it is by adding some words to the ensemble.

The Texas flag is both simple and bold, which I like. The red-white-blue color scheme and star-on-a-blue-field lead me to deduct a point or two on the distinctiveness scale.

I like the Maryland flag a lot, even though one might argue that four colors is edging towards excess. Still, it's bright, bold and distinctive. The diagonal pattern in the black-gold quarters is interesting because it doesn't create a simple checkerboard.

New Mexico
I'm inclined to think that New Mexico's flag is best of all. The colors are distinctive and the design is simple. It's weakness might be in the boldness department.


The Florida quarter is a case of symbolic overkill. Too many interest groups (probably) "winning" by getting their pet symbol squeezed onto the tiny available real estate. We see a Spanish gallion, a space shuttle and what seems to be a Florica Key.

Even though Connecticut's was one of the first in the state quarters series, its design is still the champ, I contend: outstanding. In the first place, there is only one symbol -- the Charter Oak -- and this keeps the design focused. Second, and just as important, the shape of the tree works well in the circular context of the coin.

Flags and coins are large, interesting fields from a design standpoint, and I might do more blogging about them in the future. But for now, I'm interested in learning what you think works -- or doesn't -- design-wise.



posted by Donald at June 7, 2007


The Japanese flag is perfect. The WWII era Japanese flag was even more perfect.

Posted by: Hamilton on June 8, 2007 12:50 AM

The worst flags are found in American territories and possessions like Guam and Northern Marianas. They look like they were designed on a PC XT with a 1985 clip art package.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on June 8, 2007 2:36 AM

Erm, isn't the Maryland flag just plain ugly?

Agree with the other comments though. The Spanish Galleon with a better design might've made a fine quarter. Every ten year old boy would be angling to get a Florida quarter.

Posted by: A Guest on June 8, 2007 3:43 AM

I like the other side of the two sided Oregon flag with the Beaver. I really like New Mexico, which I agree is the best, and Alaska (designed by a 13 year old). South Carolina and Wyoming (would be better without the seal) are alright. I don't like the flags with the state seals and I'm not fond of written words on flags either. California's for example would be better without "California Republic."

Posted by: AP on June 8, 2007 5:17 AM

The NY State flag is great, Ever Upward! and the VA quarter and the Montana quarter with the cow skull.

Posted by: Matt on June 8, 2007 8:20 AM

You left off Arizona! Love that sunset. Or is it sunrise? Beautiful flag in any case.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on June 8, 2007 8:21 AM

How wise of your Founding Fathers just to crib the old flag of The East India Company.

Posted by: dearieme on June 8, 2007 8:26 AM

Though out of date, this site is still a favorite: it grades the flags of the world esthetically, marking them down for eyewatering color combinations, weapons, graven images, plagiarism, and so on.

By the way, I don't know whether the Texas flag plagiarizes Chile's or vice versa, but they are nearly identical.

Posted by: Dr. Weevil on June 8, 2007 8:58 AM

I can't figure out why several of the state quarter designs include outlines of the states. What's the purpose?

I'd have to say that Oregon's quarter design is my favorite, with Crater Lake.

Posted by: Peter on June 8, 2007 9:29 AM

What, no mention of Tennessee's elegant banner?


Posted by: Narr on June 8, 2007 9:30 AM

Charlton -- Arizona's flag is nice too, and almost made the cut. Tennessee was in the running as well.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on June 8, 2007 9:44 AM

I was just wondering why I couldn't distinctly remember the flags of most of the states I've lived in, including Minnesota, Virginia, New York, and New Jersey. (Senility?) When I looked them up, the answer was obvious: they are all too busy, none create a clear visual impression, and all are curiously similar to the flag of my current place of residence (Wisconsin). All these defects are the inevitable result of placing the state seal on the flag.

Posted by: Lester Hunt on June 8, 2007 10:20 AM

The problem with Arizona's flag in my opinion is the star's color clashes with the upper part of the flag.

Posted by: AP on June 8, 2007 10:40 AM

Considering that most were selected by committees, I like quite a few of the quarter designs -- especially the Plains states of Kansas, Nebraska, and North Dakota (gotta love the bison), and the Western states of Washington and California.

Single-concept quarters are the best -- like you, I dislike the ones that try to patch together the top three things about the state. I also agree with Peter that including the outline of the state is pointless.

Posted by: Steve on June 8, 2007 11:23 AM

Flags and coins *are* very interesting from a design p-o-v, tks for pointing that out. I wonder why the art-critic establishment doesn't pay the field a little more mind ... Anyway, I had a fine-art painter friend who loved flags so much that he spent a few years painting them -- or rather making on-canvas paintings that were of flag-patterns. Look close and they were painty, and from far away they were splendid as design. Like less-ambitious early Jasper Johns, I guess.

Your cracks about the Florida coin are hilarious. It does just scream "interest groups," doesn't it?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 8, 2007 11:25 AM

Re: the Japanese Flag --

It's worth noting that the various prefectures of Japan all have their own flags and seals (mon) too. Most of them look like bad graphic arts work, but some of them are okay.

Posted by: Taeyoung on June 8, 2007 11:48 AM

Although it may boor the heck out of design-type people, symmetry is still the best way to go: e.g. the New Mexico flag, the Connecticut (near symmetrical) coin. My fave flag, symmetrical of course, is Brazil's, which also boasts a color combination - green, yellow, deep blue - that you'd think wouldn't work but does, mahvelously.

I don't think the design of the South African flag is half bad; quite forceful, actually. Problem, as Donald points out, is too many colors. Black, green and yellow would have worked nicely.

Posted by: ricpic on June 8, 2007 2:40 PM

By the way, Oregon's flag is the only two-sided flag out of all fifty. There is a beaver on the reverse.

Posted by: Robert R Owen on June 8, 2007 3:22 PM

Check out the Montana state flag. You can google it. It's gorgeous, and gets right down to business with the motto, Oro y Plata.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on June 8, 2007 6:44 PM

I think the Delaware quarter has the most elegant design, not to mention the most erudite.

[Caesar] Rodney served in the Continental Congress along with Thomas McKean and George Read from 1774 through 1776. Rodney was in Dover attending to Loyalist activity in Sussex County when he received word from Thomas McKean that he and George Read were deadlocked on the vote for independence. To break that deadlock, Rodney rode eighty miles through a thunderstorm on the night of July 1, 1776, dramatically arriving in Philadelphia "in his boots and spurs" just as the voting was beginning. He voted with McKean and thereby caused Delaware to join eleven other states voting in favor of the Declaration of Independence.

I kinda like Texas too.

Posted by: Brian on June 8, 2007 9:29 PM

I liked the design of the last guilder ever, which shows a lion drawn by an 11-year old.

And not a lot of flags beat the centuries old design of the Frisian flag.

Posted by: ijsbrand on June 9, 2007 8:50 AM

If one has aesthetic objections to South Africa's flag, even better (or worse) is the flag of Mozambique. Same Pan-African colors (which I actually like, by the way) but also a complicated set of symbols including an AK-47.

Posted by: Kirk Larsen on June 9, 2007 12:15 PM

Dr. Weevil's site recommendation is cool. I of course went to the flags with failing grades first - and the sense of humor hits my funny bone! Check out the remarks on that page and also the idiosyncratic manner of grading.

Posted by: Michael Motta on June 9, 2007 10:23 PM

Pondering Donald's comments, and thinking back to the argument about the London Olympics logo, I wonder if flags aren't just a container for your impressions of a country.

For example, Brazil's flag gets a bad score from Dr Weevil's link. And it is amazingly bad from a design standpoint. And yet I'm fond of the flag because I'm fond of Brazil; I associate that clashing yellow-blue-green scheme with happy imaginative people who are always late, with sunshine and music and... well, toucans and stuff. You get the picture.

Maybe if I had a similar affection for Florida (never been there, so I don't know), I would also like its crap coin.

Just thought I'd flag that up.

Posted by: David on June 10, 2007 9:07 AM

Check out the US Virgin Islands flag. Possibly the worst flag ever.

Posted by: Scott Wickstein on June 11, 2007 5:20 AM

I voted for this design when California was still picking which one to go for. Striking, elegant and, as you say, fits the circular space of a coin very nicely. The one they went with is clunky, with absolutely no thought to design aesthetics.

As for flags, you don't get much more distinctive than the Jolly Roger.

Posted by: the patriarch on June 11, 2007 10:24 AM

Oh c'mon, everyone knows Rhode Island has the best state flag. And that goes to show that you can't judge a state by the graphic quality of its flag.

For example, Norway has a great flag even though it's populated by herring-eating petroleum pumpers. And dare we admit that the German flag circa 1939 has a certain excitement and flair about it?

Posted by: Murphy on June 11, 2007 11:26 AM


The cross of St. Andrew is a white saltire cross on a blue background. It is the national flag of Scotland. The red saltire cross on a white background is the cross of St. Patrick, which represents Ireland. This is the element which was added to the "Union Jack" in 1801, when Ireland was added to the "United Kingdom".

"The flag of Maryland consists of the heraldic banners of the family of George Calvert, 1st Baron Baltimore." The quarters are the arms of the Calvert family (1 & 4) and the Crossland family (2 & 3), George's maternal line.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on June 11, 2007 11:30 PM

Dear Donald Pittenger

If you knew anything at all about South Africa, its political history or its people (not to mention design) you would eat your words!!!! PS who the fuck crits country flag designs anyways??!?! A bit bored there you wanker!!!!

Posted by: Greek on June 18, 2007 4:11 AM

Greek -- I assure you that I am familiar with South African history, having been a teaching assistant for a college class that dealt considerably with the matter.

Please try to be civil in future comments. Your contributions would be better appreciated if you would explain why it's wrong to discuss the aesthetics of flags: this is a blog written by arts buffs, after all.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on June 18, 2007 11:30 AM

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