Chicagos Flag Is Best, and Why

Title
Chicagos Flag Is Best
Published
March 5, 2021

Flags are a big part of human history, and since the advent of the nation state they've come to represent great things (and, unfortunately, many terrible things too). But they are banners behind which earth shaking movements rallied. Their design matters and it effects millions.

So this article is just taking those hundreds of years of history - then looking at the Chicago flag pointing at it, and saying it's better.

First - what is Flag Design? Are there rules?

image

Vexillology

The study of flags is called vexillology and it's a proven fact that you can't say it three times fast.

Now that you're finished trying to say it multiple times I want to talk about some rules that are commonly agreed upon by vexillologist's to make a good flag. You can find more details about things vexillologists agree upon here

1. Simplicity:

A flag ought to be comprised of simple elements - so simple a child ought to be able to draw it from memory. Here's an example of a flag that does not follow this adage:

Flag of the City of Milwaukee pre-2016. Children are incapable of drawing this flag (unless they have a knack for illustrator)
Flag of the City of Milwaukee pre-2016. Children are incapable of drawing this flag (unless they have a knack for illustrator)

Above is the flag of Milwaukee - which is a pretty classic case of what I call (just now) 'flag stew'. Flag Stew is when you take every possible symbol, color, landmark, date, and name in your community and try to jam it down your flags throat. As you can see, it comes out quite messy.

Luckily for Milwaukee - their flag went through a lengthy redesign process in 2016 and now looks like this:

New Milwaukee flag - note the simplicity. A child (who probably lives in Milwaukee) could draw this.
New Milwaukee flag - note the simplicity. A child (who probably lives in Milwaukee) could draw this.

The new Milwaukee flag does a fantastic job of taking the 'flag stew' of the old design and condensing it into a far simpler and impactful message.

This is something designers in other fields can take away from and is oft repeated in style guides and manuals - 'less is more'. But sometimes less is tough to achieve.

2. Symbolism:

Because flags are used to represent many different communities symbolism must be used to great effect to represent the totality of people living in the region.

Symbolism can be in every aspect of the flag - its colors, patterns, images, and even the shape of the flag itself. This last point is why I want to highlight a specific flag. Nepal:

Nepal - bearers of the only non quadrilateral flag in the world.
Nepal - bearers of the only non quadrilateral flag in the world.

The Nepalese flag, is the perfect way to talk about deep symbolism. Before even getting into the colors or imagery on the flag itself, you get to talk about the actual shape of the flag. Nepal is the only nation with this shape of flag - and it's that way specifically because Nepal simply kept the tradition of many South Asian states of having a triangular flag. This in and of itself is symbolic in a rejection of the quadrilateral (and very Eurocentric) standard.

But the shape goes further to represent the Himalayan mountain range with the red color denoting bravery and the blue symbolizing peace. The sun and moon symbolize the permanence of the sun and moon while also symbolizing Nepals cold mountains and hot lowlands.

That's a lot of meaning in a small package.

3. Color (less is more, again):

When choosing a flags color - again simplicity and meaning ought to reign supreme. Color in this situation is especially important for it's role in providing contrast. Flags were meant to be seen from far and against a blue sky after all.

The flag of Dominica, very symbolic too many colors.
The flag of Dominica, very symbolic too many colors.

Above is the flag of Dominica and it is full of symbolism - but unfortunately the lack of simplicity and the utilization of so many colors do more harm than good.

Flags are meant to be seen at a distance, so if you're 100 ft away, looking up at a flag pole, chases are you're going to see a yellow-black-white cross but then see a reddish circle with a bunch of stuff that maybe is a bird in it? It loses distinction and the symbolism brought in by Dominicas parrot is lost.

4. No Seals = Good (Also Stop Trying to Write on your Flag)

The USA (my home country) has problems facing it. Way down on that list of problems is the fact that a ton of US states/cities really like just slapping a seal on a flag and calling it a day. Since this post is about flags, that's the issue I'm going to talk about. I'll use my home state of Illinois to illustrate what I'm talking about:

Illinois breaks essentially every rule of making a flag - therefore absolutely no one on the planet can tell you what their flag looks like (even people who live here).
Illinois breaks essentially every rule of making a flag - therefore absolutely no one on the planet can tell you what their flag looks like (even people who live here).

So yea. The flag of Illinois is...not good. The 3 points before this can probably bring attention to why - tons of colors, non simple and hard to remember symbology (which really symbolize more of that Illinois is a state in the US, which everyone already knows than the states actual history and people).

But like many states and cities in the US - this flag is just a seal. Hard to see from far away, and way too complex.

Montana does it.
Montana does it.
And so does Philadelphia
And so does Philadelphia
Aaannnd Vermont.
Aaannnd Vermont.

If you're interested to know the worst US city flag - it's this:

This is the city flag for Pocatello, Idaho from 2001-2017.
This is the city flag for Pocatello, Idaho from 2001-2017.

This flag was voted as the worst flag in the world by the North American Vexillological Association. Mainly because it looks like branding from a mall food court circa 1999. The city responded to this criticism the way anyone should - taking it in and making good changes!

This is their new flag:

Pocatello flag redesign. Simple design, meaningful colors and symbols, and no writing or trademarks to be seen!
Pocatello flag redesign. Simple design, meaningful colors and symbols, and no writing or trademarks to be seen!

Wasn't this supposed to be about Chicago?

Yes! And it is - now that you know all the flag design 'rules and stuff' feast your eyes on what all designers (flag and non-flag) should aspire to, adorned on coffee mugs and as a tattoo on many a hipsters thigh - the Chicago City Flag:

Perfection.
Perfection.

So Chicago is best and here's why (I'm going out of order from the above rules)

  1. Simplicity: Two light blue bars horizontally flanking four 6-sided stars. A child can draw it from memory (especially a child from Chicago as they're typically very intelligent).
  2. Colors: Two simple, yet meaningful colors on white. The red contrasting with the blue and the use of the thick bars means that the flag is easily recognizable against the sky.
  3. No Seals, No Letters: Enough said.
  4. The Symbolism 👌: Is so good. That's why I saved it for last. If you dig into the Chicago flag, you'll see that it was truly designed with a ton of simple, yet deep and intentional symbology.
    1. The Blue Bars: When the flag was made in 1917, the color of the bars was called "the color of water" which is apt because that's exactly what it represents. Water, like it is for most cities, is enormously important to Chicago and here the top blue bar is used the represent Lake Michigan and the North Chicago River. The bottom is the South Chicago River
    2. The White: There are three white bars (I promise) Each representing the North, South, and West sides of the city and their neighborhoods. (There is no East Side because it's a giant lake)
    3. The Stars: This is where it gets historical. First of all 6-pointed stars were used because they weren't used on any flags as of 1917 (when Chicago's was made) and we're unique like that. But THERE'S MORE - each of the stars represents something AND each of their points represents something. Whhhaaaa!
    4. There you have it Chicago did all the flag design stuff right, and while Chicagoans love to complain about the city all the time, insult the flag and they'll be annoyed with you.

      Wait, Nevermind.

      Doing research for this allowed me to find the actual best flag ever. Sorry for misleading everyone :

      The flag of Zheleznogorsk, Russia. It's a bear cracking open an atom. You're welcome
      The flag of Zheleznogorsk, Russia. It's a bear cracking open an atom. You're welcome