Vexillology, or the scientific and scholarly study of flags, flew in the Senior School Maths classroom recently as the Year 8s calculated the areas of the shapes on a variety of flags from around the world. There was a plethora of rectangles, triangles, trapezia, circles and rhombuses (or is it rhombi), to analyse and compute.
The simplest of all flag designs has to be the old Libyan standard which is all green. Indonesia and Monaco have the same flag – two equal red and white horizontal stripes, which, if flown upside down on the flag pole becomes Poland’s. Belgium has its own three characteristic horizontal stripes, which should not to be confused with Germany’s vertical version. Scotland’s saltire (the oldest known flag) is the distinctive white diagonal cross on a blue background, or is it four blue triangles on a white surround, while the North American Vexillological Association has its own red, white and blue banner - a chevron divided by three triangles. Japan has the simplest circular shape and of course the sun features in many designs including our own Aboriginal flag. Nepal is unique in having the only non-quadrilateral national flag - it is a combination of two triangular pennants.
Milwaukee’s flag has the dubious distinction of having been voted the worst city flag in the US – it is packed full of paraphernalia related to the city’s development and even has a flag within the flag!
But what makes a good flag design? There are five basic rules to consider although bans on banner blueprints can be difficult to enforce. Firstly, it should be simple so even a child would recognise it. There should be meaningful symbolism, a maximum of three colours, no lettering or seals and above all, it should be distinctive (or related).
New Zealand recently rejected a change in its flag after a two stage referendum. One of the arguments used for the modification was its similarity to the Australian flag and in 1984, Bob Hawke was greeted by New Zealand flags on an official visit to Ottawa. The presence of the blue ensign certainly divided opinion; the connection with Britain seemed out of date in the modern world but the removal of the Union Jack was seen as disrespectful to those who had fought (and died) defending that symbol. The Australian flag seems unlikely to be altered in the near future unless we become a republic; in 2005, 29% of those polled were in favour of a change to the flag with 66% against. The European flag will not be changing on news of the exit of the UK from the European Union, as the 12 stars on the flag do not refer to the number of member states – there are still 27 countries left in the alliance. It is interesting to note, however, that Boris Johnson, Roman scholar and former Londinium Mayor, once likened those 12 stars to the 12 Caesars. Now we all know what happened to the Roman Empire.
When considering a new flag design, it is best to draw it in a rectangle (2cm by 3cm) because when it is high on a flagpole that will be about the magnification you will observe. Square flags are best avoided for practical reasons – rectangular ones can be hemmed when needed, in order to extend their lives when they wear out. Finally, flags are best designed by individuals and selected by committees rather than the other way round which reminds me of the joke about a camel – it is a horse designed by a committee.
Now if you really want to have more fun with flags, you can always join the Antarctic Vexillological Association formed 12 years ago at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. There are no fees, members meet monthly and you don’t even need to visit Antarctica to enlist. Their distinctive flag is shown below.
The blue represents 24 hour summer days and the black the 24 hour winter nights while the white diamond in the middle is formed from an A for Antarctica and a V for Vexillology. It also illustrates the four compass points, although if you were standing at the South Pole there would really only be one direction possible – due North.
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