SF Flag Design

So a little while back I listened to an episode of one of my favorite podcasts — 99% Invisible — which focused on the study of vexillology, or the study of flags, with particular attention paid to vexillography, or the study of flag style and composition (though the former, being much more popular a term than the latter, sometimes also encompasses it). Later on the host of 99PI, Roman Mars, appeared on TED to present on the good, the bad, and the ugly of flag design. One of the flags particularly lambasted in both instances was that of San Francisco, which features a somewhat ornate phoenix rising out of flames placed above a ribbon on which is written the Spanish phrase “ORO EN PAZ FIERRO EN GUERRA”, or, in English: “GOLD IN PEACE IRON IN WAR”. Below this in striking blue sans serif are the words SAN FRANCISCO, and the whole deal is surrounded by a thick, warm, yellow border.


According to Ted Kaye, vexillologist and author of “Good Flag, Bad Flag“, there are five basic principles of good 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.

The SF flag, then has clearly too many colors (6, including white and black), has less than meaningful symbolism (yes, it’s burned and rebuilt, but so have plenty of cities. There’s also a rather large city called Phoenix, with a flag also featuring a phoenix, in a neighboring state), has too many lines on the bird, and features several words. Personally I don’t think the flag is too bad, but insofar as the above five principles are valid, there’s clearly room for improvement.

So living right next to the Bay Area and inspired by a friend who also took a crack, I attempted to redesign SF’s flag using what meager graphic design skills I have. My first order of business was to discard some of the rules, particularly the ones relating to colors and simplicity. I do like me my colors, especially for symbolic purposes, and while I get the appeal of minimalism, the more extreme sort touted by a few of the flags in Good Flag, Bad Flag is not quite to my liking. I’ve historically also always rather liked overdesigned, busy esthetics, as embodied in things like the steampunk genre or Ghibli’s interpretation of Howl’s Moving Castle. I will note, though, I that I did manage to abide by one of the 99PI criteria for simplicity, that of drawing by hand your design on a (1″, 1.5″) rectangle:


So then I created this first flag design in photoshop, reproduced below from the header (with aspect ratio mirroring that of SF’s flag above):


The symbolism here is pretty obvious — in the foreground, there are two green hills, fairly common sights in the Bay Area:


at least when it’s not summertime:


Between these hills is the dark water of the Pacific Ocean, above which is seen a stylized representation of a segment of the Golden Gate Bridge, drawn in its characteristic International Orange color (though modified somewhat — see below). I chose the GGB because it seems to be SF’s most iconic and distinctive icon, as evidenced by the observation that, when I google imaged “San Francisco”, it was featured in most of the results:

(photocredit: Rich Niewiroski Jr.)

The sun shines overhead, and a palette of rainbows mirrors the hills at the base, echoing the Rainbow Flag and the long history of civil rights activism and inclusivity San Francisco is known for. Rainbows also bear some rich symbolism throughout myth and legend, feature strongly in one of my favorite childhood books, and have some loose connections to the computer industry, if you accept as “loose connection” the fact that microchips and glass prisms are both made of roughly the same stuff. Likewise — the sun! solar power! fiber optics! IDK! Take that, rules 2 and 5!

I’d tried initially to incorporate Holtom’s peace symbol


into the interplay between the sun and bridge but ultimately couldn’t make it work, though the general idea appears in another design I threw together:


and also a tad in its sister:


Other symbolism is easy to read into the flag (e.g. the green hills are not only green from grass, but from SF’s commitment to “green technology”), especially w.r.t. various angles, proportions, and so on, but the aforementioned are what I’d mainly intended.

The colors of the flag, meanwhile, were chosen using “International Orange” (F04A00), as a base, which I then tossed into this color calculator to find suitable complements/triads/tetrads/analogues. Unfortunately, the end result was far too vivid for my tastes:


So I ran the whole thing through one of Photoshop’s vintage filters to get the final results above (after tweaking a few of the individual colors slightly).

It’s also important to ensure that something like this is still decently distinguishable to individuals with color blindness, so I ran the flag through the color blindness simulator found here. Some of the adjacent colors are particularly hard to tell under certain forms of color blindness, but generally the differences in lightness and darkness throughout different parts of the flag make the whole thing fairly resolvable. Still, there’s plenty of room for improvement (e.g. in increasing light/dark contrast between adjacent colors):

(click here for a larger, less compressed GIF)

Finally, I was curious as to how it might look in person, but lacking the dedication to actually print the thing out myself, I followed a guide I’d found online to ‘shop the flag onto a flagpole:


Overall this was a fun diversion and I’m glad to have played around with it! I’m certainly no vexillographer or graphic designer (hell, I thought Milwaukee’s flag to be decent…), but I’m still decently satisfied with what I turned up, accordance with Kaye’s rules or no.


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