Flags imbue the modern graphic design ethos even though their origins date to
antiquity. Less is usually more. Simplicity and economy are paramount to
functionality, and symbolism is their primary function. The Stars and Stripes,
after all, is the most evocative example of pictorial modernism coming from the
tradition-bound United States, and it was designed in the late eighteenth century.
With the most effective flags, color and shape are dominant components—and
they tell stories without the need for other narrative devices. When symbolic
images are employed, they must be efficiently minimalist and immediately
identifiable. Every graphic component of a flag must be charged with significance.
After its white apartheid government collapsed and South Africa was returned to
black leadership, the new national flag was carefully designed to symbolize the
intersection (and integration) of many African tribes; each color has a unique
designation, but the abstract result is nonetheless perfectly comprehensible.
A flag (the term is a fifteenth- or sixteenth-century Teutonic word meaning
“a piece of cloth displaying a sign or insignia”) is a rousing object that triggers all
kinds of emotion. Originally, flags were used during warfare as an identifier or
credential. Originally known as a
vexillum (or Roman battle flag), the flag became
one of the most universally recognized design objects. When unfurled, these
otherwise austere pieces of fabric communicate ideas about patriotism and
nationalism more directly than other designed objects; they are also loaded with
so much history that they are ready-made tools for propaganda.
Icaro Doria, a Brazilian artist and designer for the Lisbon-based magazine
Grande Reportagem, uses common national flags to graph social issues. “We
started to research relevant, global, and current facts and, thus, came up with
the idea to put new meanings to the colors of the flags,” he explains on the
website Brazilianartists.net. Based on accurate data from the websites of
Amnesty International and the United Nations Office, the flags are a vivid device
for showing how key social issues affect particular nations and their populations.
The campaign (coproduced with Luis Silva Dias, João Roque, and Andrea Vallenti),
which has been running in Portugal since January 2005, includes eight flags that
illuminate current topics like the division of opinions about the war in Iraq in the
United States, violence against women in Africa, social inequality in Brazil, drug
trafficking in Colombia, AIDS and malaria in Angola, and more. The images are
distributed around the globe via email chain letters.
The idea is deceivingly simple: Each flag represents a theme (e.g., Brazil is
an examination of base family incomes, while Angola is people infected by disease
and denied access to medical care), and the colors on each flag represent specific
demographics (e.g., Brazil green: “live on less than $10 a month,” white: “live on
$100,000 a month”; Angola red: “people with HIV,” yellow: “people with access to
medical care”). One of the most startling ratios is China’s chart for working
teenagers (red: “working fourteen-year-olds,” yellow: “studying fourteen-year-olds”).
While this is a novel means of conveying critical information, the
conceptual transformation of flags recurs in graphic design. In the 1960s, Earth
Day proponents substituted the stars in the American flag with the ecology
symbol; similarly, antiwar activists replaced the stars with a peace sign. More
Adbusters included corporate logos in the star field. But the U.S. flag is
not the only one to come under such scrutiny.
During the 1980s and 1990s, information graphics received a goose in
newspapers and magazines when graphic designers used both conventional and
unconventional means of exhibiting and explaining raw data, often in humorous
ways. These flags fit neatly into this tradition as well.
Meet the World
Designer: Icaro Doria
2004 Meet the World, ad campaign
cd: Luis Silva Dias, Duarte Pinheiro de Melo ad: João Roque d,cw: Icaro Doria
s: FCB Portugal c: Grande Reponbagem
Icaro Doria, a Brazilian artist and designer for the Lisbon-based magazine Grande
Reportagem, uses common national flags to graph social issues.
Historical development of flags
Having “fun” with flags
Unusual charts

Get Anatomy of Design now with O’Reilly online learning.

O’Reilly members experience live online training, plus books, videos, and digital content from 200+ publishers.