Friday, March 14, 2014

Speculative Flag Design for a Post-Scotland UK

O flower of Scotland, when will we see your like again?
That fought and died for your wee bit hill and glen,
And stood against him—proud Edward's army—
And sent him homeward tae think again.

—"Flower of Scotland," Scottish Anthem (Unofficial)

Scotland is gearing up for a referendum on independence from the rest of the United Kingdom. In the unlikely event that Scotland does choose to separate from the UK, the UK will probably need a new flag. That's the thrust of this recent article on the Atlantic, which proposes a variety of possible flags for the new, post-Scotland UK.

The UK's flag is an elegant combination of the national flags of England, Scotland, and Ireland, the evolution of which is depicted by the Atlantic in this image:

Not pictured: anything to do with Wales.

Arguably, if Scotland leaves the Kingdom, it should not be represented on the flag. Removing the blue-and-white cross from the Union Jack would result in a somewhat lackluster design, however, so the Atlantic advocates drawing on flag ideas from a region currently unrepresented on the UK flag: Wales. There is an official Welsh flag, with a sweet-action dragon on it, as well as an unofficial flag that bears the cross of St. David:

The Atlantic shows off several proposals that were submitted to the UK's Flag Institute, but only one of their designs included the dragon at all, and I thought it was a bit silly. (I've since seen some other design proposals that include it, including one that ended up fairly similar to my own, but I didn't see those before I started this project.) A dragon is a gift that ought not to be squandered, I thought, so I set out to create a design that would include it in a more satisfying way.

To start, I refreshed my memory on the basic principles of flag design:
  1. Keep It Simple - the flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory.
  2. Use Meaningful Symbolism - the flag’s images, colors, or patterns should relate to what it symbolizes.
  3. Use 2-3 Basic Colors - limit the number of colors on the flag to three, which contrast well and come from the standard color set.
  4. No Lettering or Seals - never use writing of any kind or an organization’s seal.
  5. Be Distinctive or Be Related - avoid duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections.
I knew I wanted to keep the dragon from the Welsh flag, but principle 1 was going to be a problem—no way a child, or most adults, can draw the Welsh dragon from memory. I figured I'd come back to that later. Principle 2 would be easy, since I already had a host of flags with meaningful symbols to draw on. Principle 3 would take a little thought, since I had five colors to draw on (red, white, yellow, black, and green) and could only use three of them. Principle 4 wouldn't be a problem in this case, though heaven knows the designers of the state flags in our fair country have had some problems with it. And principle 5 wasn't going to be too difficult either—not too many flags have dragons on them!*

I thought about how to represent Wales as a smaller part of a larger whole. I could place it in the center of the flag, over whatever else is included on the flag, but I thought that did a poor job of making Wales included without making it dominant. Instead, I elected to place the dragon in the flag's upper left canton, a place often chosen for distinct elements of flags (like the American flag's field of stars). In order to use all of the resources at my disposal, I also decided to use the black background from the Flag of St. David in my design.

As a visual test for my idea, I took a proposal that substituted black for the blue of Scotland on the UK flag, and I did a quick and dirty cut-and-paste job with the dragon, removing most of the green from the Welsh flag:

Ugh, the resolution on that dragon though.

I decided I liked the idea, but I wasn't crazy about the white fimbration around the red stripes, since in my mind it seemed more connected with the white of the St. Andrew's cross on Scotland's flag than with the white backgrounds of the St. George's cross and St. Patrick's cross from England and Ireland, respectively.

Thus, my next step was to take the St. George and St. Patrick crosses and combine them on a white background:

Then I took the dragon from the Welsh flag and placed it in the upper left, first simplifying it by removing its spiky tongue and erasing most of its black-outlined details:

The dragon was still too complicated to draw from memory, so I tried to simplify it further. All I had at my disposal was Microsoft Paint, so my first attempt turned out kind of weird:

Weird or not, it was still probably too complicated to comply with flag design principle 1, so I decided to create a stylized, angular dragon consisting only of straight lines:

That worked better; I liked the dragon, and felt it was simple enough for my purposes, yet also recognizably derived from the dragon on the Welsh flag. Finally, I knew I wanted the black from St. David's cross, so I filled in the background:

Friends I shared this with were generally positive about the design, but a few raised objections. One friend pointed out a slight but unfortunate resemblance to the flag of Norsefire, the fictional fascist regime in V for Vendetta, and another expressed greater fondness for the version with a white background instead of black. I realized that the white background is probably better because it is doubly symbolic, since it comes from the flags representing both England and Ireland. I came up with two compromise flags that allowed for the white background but that also brought in an additional color from one of the Welsh flags; I was still able to keep the colors down to the required 3:

Another friend expressed sadness that I had removed the dragon's tongue, and requested that I return it, so I did:

Finally, I made a version which included the St. David cross in the canton behind the dragon, because I figured it would look cool. I was not wrong:

Final note: I first heard about flag design in this episode of 99% Invisible, a podcast that investigates and discusses elements of design in the world around us that often go unnoticed.


Looking over these designs almost two years later, I'm still very pleased with them, but I realized that there's one more variation I should have tried, which was to attempt to preserve the full, four-pointed St. Patrick's cross through the canton image. Here's what that ended up looking like:

This one has both colors from the St. David flag:

And here's a variation with the green from the Welsh national flag, which I think also works quite well:

*The only exception I could find (among national flags, anyway) is Bhutan's flag.

The first three images are borrowed for illustrative purposes from the article on the Atlantic that inspired this post. The rest are my own creations. 

1 comment:

  1. These are much better than the suggestions on the BBC website. The simplified dragon is perfect. My favourite is the monochrome black/red one, it looks so badass. Unfortunately it's impossible to have a flag with only black and red without it evoking Nazi or anarchist symbolism, and with the addition of white even more so the former.

    Yellow and red together are McDonalds / hot dog condiment colours so another no. Green and red are Christmas elf colours and "should never be seen". Christmas is already 3 months long, we don't need a reminder of it all year round (how do the Welsh cope?).

    Sigh. Red and white monochrome it is. Damn you Hitler, ruining our speculative future flag.