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Documenting flags: Part 1

Last modified: 2011-12-23 by rob raeside
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I realize this is probably a pretty flexible and evolving issue. None the less - Are there rules, conventions that are generally accepted to describe a given flag? It seems that a Heraladic based set of rules and terminology is pretty archaic and not used in anything contemporary. The terminology seems too rarified for contemporary use. So...

For example, should a description always start with the flag shape, aspect ratio & size? Are 'they' stripes or bands? Do they separate or divide? Charges or blazons?

Now, I'm not suggesting, I'm asking. I'd like to know what the hypothetical publication manual might say about how to handle this in, say, a scholarly research article.
Mark Rogacki, 16 May 2005

I have a simple rule of thumb - 'what do I need to know in order to draw a flag accurately, and is what I have written readily understood?' I am open to correction here, but I do not believe that the order in which we place the required information actually matters, only that we use the recognized terminology for the relevant parts of a flag, and that we include all the necessary information?

There may be for example, a distinction between "stripes" and "bands" of which I am unaware, but to me they are interchangeable terms, In the case of a simple tricolour I need to know the sequence of colours, whether it is vertical, horizontal or diagonal, whether those stripes are of even width and the flag's proportions. Thus I might describe the National Flag of Italy as: "A green-white-red vertical tricolour of even stripes in proportions of 2:3, or the Civil/Naval Ensign of France as: "Ratio 2:3, a blue, white and red vertical tricolour with stripes in proportions of 30-33-37" (or in the case of this last when writing to the list "le tricolore for use at sea").
Christopher Southworth, 16 May 2005

Indeed, I would agree with Chris. The heritage of the heraldry tends to drive us to formalization over here, but I do not think that there is any inherent quality to be gained from uniform description - even more so because in some flags different things are of the greater importance and would therefore be told first, while others might be omitted altogether.

For example - the flags of Turkey or Norway have very precise geometric shapes that should be maintained both in regard to the overall ratio and in the elements of the design. They need relatively lengthy descriptions of these elements and flags that do not follow the constructions are plainly wrong (and if not recognized wrong by a foreigner they would often be pointed out as at least incorrect by a slightly more then average vexillologically aware countrymen).

Other flags, e.g. that of the Red Cross (while we are at the crosses and crescents) are not determined in details and blazon-like description would do.

Vexillology is much more "fond" of construction sheets and precise determination of geometrical shapes that are intrinsic parts of flags much (much) more then heraldry. This may be because of the modernity, but one should also note that the modern heraldry suffers from the same "disease" in a way. Apart from the "scholar heralds" that are aware of unimportance of the precise copied artistic depiction of the "approved" design, the heraldry fo today considers in most cases, I think, that the prescribed pattern is the only acceptable and the artistic variations are more exceptions then the rule. As I said, that may not be the viewpoint of the heraldic experts, but it is, I think, the viewpoint of the users of the coat of arms.

E.g. I believe that I have seen the construction sheets for the only acceptable usage patterns of the coat or arms of New Brunswick somewhere on the net. The government of NB uses it in the only one (or just a few) approved patters, just like it would be a logo or a trade mark, and there is I guess no examples where this would be used in accordance with the heraldic artistic freedom, except maybe in some instances when a heraldic expert would know exactly what he is doing (I would suppose such a case may be a heraldic ornament in a church or something of the sort I may envision). The modern (national, subnational) coats of arms are, as a rule, prone to unification of a single pattern for each and are more and more considered as artistically unchangeable, just in opposition to the traditional heraldry. (Well, I hope you see what I want to say, so I'll quit here.) Such heraldry does not satisfy itself with the blazons and must often let other way of description to jump in.

I am saying that we should not look for "vexillological blazon" since the times of such descriptions have passed. Maybe once was enough to describe a flag as "red with a white cross" and that was enough (for flags of Genoa, Malta or Denmark) and any (most) of interpretations of this would do equally well. Indeed, at one time this was apparently enough and the flag makers did not have to bother themselves with more details. Even more so, the flag maker would have been able to add an additional element or design to "enhance" flag flag for esthetics or for some significance without changing its essence and usefulness for identification.

Vexillology thrives to get exact construction of flags (as is often seen on this list) and sometimes even we go too far trying to define things that are just not defined anywhere by the flag legislator (but we try to get then what's considered appropriate or most often). This effort may sometimes seem to go over the edge of reason, and maybe sometimes we do cross it.

Or in other words, as someone might say, the best flag description is an EPS file.

This all only for description of the modern "idealized" flag (i.e. flags and concepts), not flags as real objects. The real object flags are a different issue - an old flag in a museum (or a modern flag in use somewhere for that matter) is an artifact that should best be described according to the rules archival or similar. With this we come to the distinction between a flag as an idea and a flag as an artifact and this is an other interesting and important area of (theoretical?) vexillology that we should visit some day, but not right now.
Željko Heimer, 16 May 2005

Functionally, who cares that there is no 'Rule Book? After all, a certain logic is intuitive in describing a flag anyway (i.e. -left to right from the hoist, larger features (shape, ratio) talked about first, details on, say, crests toward the end...). This seems to serve well enough for the tons of informative and insightful dialog on just this site alone!

That being said, you (again) answer my implication that the new discipline being developed here might benefit from a little more consistency/precision in (especially) terminology. Friendly, clear and contemporary definition and language usage would assist in more objective categorizing, comparative studies and dissemination of the knowledge to other disciplines. Being a modern effort, the lack of archaic "authority of tradition" may be an advantage...
Mark Rogacki, 16 May 2005

There is no standardized description for flags, partly for the reasons Chris and Željko give. Some vexillologists do use heraldic terminology, simply because it is a recognized standard for description of a closely related subject. But - due to the needs of modern flag design - this can only ever be an approximate measure. Even with "traditional" flag design there are places where heraldic blazonry is unable to describe a flag precisely, and we have to fall back on other methods.

This is particularly the case in regards to divisions and colours of a flag not found in heraldry, and several pseudo-heraldic terms have been used for the former (Canadian Pale, Spanish Fess and the like) and we have to resort to pantone or CMYK for the latter (France, Romania and Honduras all have azure on their flags, but they are different azures!).

With modern flags incorporating elements more often found on company logos than shields, and elements from non-European tradition more evident, there are large numbers of cases where heraldic blazonry cannot cope at all. However, no system has yet emerged to take its place. This is, after all, still a fairly young science, no matter how old the tradition of using flags is.

To cut a long story short, if flag design had kept to traditional heraldic construction, I'm sure heraldic blazonry would have been retained as a method of describing them, albeit maybe updated to more modern language. Since flag design has outstripped traditional heraldry, this has not been possible, and no one system has replaced it.
James Dignan, 16 May 2005

Two or three different reasons to describe a flag

A) Flag description (capital F) - instructions on how to make 'er. Say a legislation or the personal flag designers description. "Official requirements". Analogous to a Blueprint

B) The discussion that allows for the art of the flag to surface. Symbolism (almost by definition) must allow for this approach - at least at a design stage and maybe always for a certain type of flag! Cool and fun to read. And respectful to the artist as well.

C) A flag can be described for comparative purposes. Maybe used to describe Confederate flags - one issued and a bunch completely handmade with variations in stars & bars and sizes. Tracking the differences over time or regionally might be a legit scientific endeavor. This is really the type of description I addressed initially. Far beyond but for the same basic reasons as figuring out the percentages of flags that use what colors.

Does it seems like I'm looking for the right tool for the right job a bit before the job needs to get done?
Mark Rogacki, 16 May 2005

My take on it is that whatever the specific details of how we should standardize flag description (if a standardization is ever agreed upon), it should include four parameters:

  1. Flag shape: 1:1, 2:3, triangular, etc.
  2. Flag divisions: plain, triband, etc.
  3. Flag colors: whether in general perceived colors (b, b+, v, r, w...), or in a detailed system such as Pantone and/or RGB.
  4. External symbols used on the flag and its placement on the flag (shield, logo, seal, other emblem).

That's all I could think of.
Luc Baronian, 17 May 2005

I would disagree in general with the prominence given to ratio in this discussion. Perhaps it's because I come from a country where ratio doesn't really matter, but in many countries where the ratio is theoretically sacrosanct, there are variants of the flag that don't match the ratio, not to mention long banners intended for vertical hoisting that have no official status but are still recognized and respected as national flags.

I think there is a difference between a description and a specification. The former must be sufficient to enable the reader or hearer to recognize the flag on sight. The latter must be sufficient for a flag maker (or artist) to make or represent the flag in accordance with whatever official standards exist. The description usually does not need a statement of ratio, Pantone color equivalencies, and construction details; the latter does.

I think the only really important aspect of technical language for describing flags is basically the use of hoist and fly rather than left and right, noting whether diagonal divisions run UH to LF or LH to UF, a couple of specialized terms like canton, and an understanding that vertical and horizontal as applied to bicolors and tribands refers to the direction of the dividing lines, not to the sequence of the colors. (A non-initiate might think that a vertical RWR triband is one in which the colors are arranged vertically red, white, and red--Austria--rather than one in which the dividing lines are vertical--Peru.)
Joe McMillan, 17 May 2005

I whole-heartedly agree! Notice that my (1) was not flag proportions, but rather flag *shape* and that the only two proportions I wrote down were 1:1 (square) and 2:3. I should probably have formulated it as "square, non-square-rectangular, triangular, Ohio-like, Nepal-like, etc.

In fact, I think that all four parameters I mentioned should have a general perceptual description (the kind that non-specialist would give) and a technical description as so:

  1. Flag shape
    Perceptual: square, ns-rectangular, triangular, etc.
    Technical: 1:2, 2:3, triangular angles, etc.
  2. Flag division
    Perceptual: triband, canton and field, narrow side-strips
    Technical: measurements
  3. Flag colors
    Perceptual: b, b+, v, etc.
    Technical: Pantone, RGB, etc.
  4. External symbol
    Perceptual: rough description
    Technical: detailed description
Luc Baronian, 17 May 2005