14 March 2005

[design] Two City Flags of Oregon

I wonder how many people are aware that major Oregon cities actually have official flags?

Portland does. Here it is:

It's a pleasing design. The symbolism is a little unclear, but if I correctly recall, the green might represent our forested landscape (in which case later this year, it might have to be updated to brown), the blue stripes our rivers, the gold might represent commerce, and the star tying it all together at the center the city itself. In design, it is evocative of the mysterious six pointed star hovering over the head of the lady on the Portland City Seal.

It's also a good design, at least by one organization's standard. There actucally are 'flag geeks', and they have an organiztion, the North American Vexillogical Association (vexillology, for those who don't know, is the study of flags, taken from Latin roots). They seem to be the acknowledged authorities in the area of flag design because, well, there doesn't seem anyone else doing it seriously for one, and for the other, they do a very thorough and credible job about it.

Last October, NAVA released a survey, American City Flags Survey. This poll included members of NAVA and about 400 members of the public, and rated 150 city flags along five criteria, as detailed in NAVA's Good Flag, Bad Flag, which can be found on thier site. The standards are direct and reasonable statements about how a flag ought to look for good effect, solid design, and, yes, emotion impact...because flags are meant to move people to pride, after all.

The standards are, paraphrased: Simplicity-the flag should be so simple that a child could draw it from memory; Meaningful-the design elements should relate to what they symbolize; Limit color usage-use two or three basic colors only, and choose standard colors that contrast well; No Lettering Or Seals-I think this is because lettering or seals compete with the main theme, causing distraction hence obscuring or confusing the message of the meaning, and Be Distinctive or Related-don't copy another design but draw similiarities where apprpriate. Survey respondents rated each pont from 1 (bad) to 10 (good), and the scores were averaged fo the aggregate number.

It's clear that Portland's flag has those qualities in strong proportion. Thus, out of 150 rated US city flags, Portland rated seventh, with a rating of 8.38 out of 10, behind Wichita KS, but ahead of Indianapolis IN.

Salem actually has a city flag, too, and here it is:

It ranked 51st out of 150, with a rating of 4.71 out of 10. Top third of the middle third of the class, better than most, not as good as the really good one. By the NAVA standards, it's easy for me to see why they might have done that. The word "salem" on the right would be a big negative hit on that score. Also, the yellow does not contrast well with the white field, making the word printed on the long, yellow stripe a bit hard to read and the yellow on the white is hard on the eyes generally.

The design's strength is in simplicity and meaning. I was a teenager in Salem when the flag debuted, and I remember vaguely the description of why the design was settled on. The Capitol cupola is an obvious reference, and is rendered with appropriate and almost poetic simplicity. The five stripes' beveled ends converge to form a star in the negative space, evoking a double symbolism as the state capital (the star being a traditional mapmakers' symbol) as well as Salem's regional prominence (all local roads lead to Salem) and even a geographic-schematic similarity (the state and federal highways in the greater Salem area do rather radiate out as spokes do from a wheel's hub). The colors of the stripes are open to interpretation, of course; to me the green symbolizes our environment, the gold the flow of commerce, and the blue the Willamette River.

My gut feeling is that the score on Salem's flag is a bit unfair; I think it's a fun design that carries a big message with economy. Moreover, I think that the graphic treatment of the type makes it straddle the middle ground between type and pure design element. However, the NAVA statement that there should be no type on the flag has merit and is well taken, so I'll be happy that Salem is better than average. After all, we could have got the design sense that rendered the Pocatello banner, which came in last at 1.48 out of 10, and for a very good reason; it's merely the logo of the Pocatello Chamber of Commerce put on a sheet of fabric. And, friends, that AIN'T design!.

Moreover, as one moves down the list, the things that begin to emerge as one goes from good to bad become obvious. More complex designs, more type on flags, more colors. Sometimes stacking the good next to the bad is more apt explanation than any amount of words can be.

In the meantime, we can be proud as Portlanders-our flag is officially cool!

(Source for all information and images: the NAVA survey page. Source for my opinions, my tiny little brain.)

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