Flag Designers' Guide

Designing a national flag is an extraordinarily difficult task. The challenge is to symbolise an entire nation with a few colours and simple geometric shapes. It is important before attempting to design a flag to understand what a flag is and the basic principles of flag design.

In simple terms, a new Australian flag should proclaim clearly and unequivocally our identity to other nations as well as to ourselves. It should not be confusing. When designing a flag, the following principles should be kept in mind:

Simplicity: The design should be kept simple.

Heraldry: Only five colours are in general use in heraldry (the study of arms and shields), the principles of which vexillology has largely followed. These colours are red, blue, black, green and purple. There are also two colours known as ′metals′: gold (yellow) and silver (white). Colour is not normally placed on or immediately adjacent to another colour, nor metal on metal, as they are too indistinct at a distance. No national flag currently uses purple.

Colours show up well on or next to metal, and metal on or next to colour. Light colours should not be placed next to or upon other light colours and similarly, dark colours should not be placed next to or upon other dark colours.

Animals or birds should preferably face the flagpole. When the flag is used in a march-past, the animal faces in the same direction as the flag bearer. This is known as the advance position.

Recognition: The design should be recognised internationally. It should not be confused with the flag of another nation or colony. However, many national flags are deliberately similar to the flags of other countries, reflecting regional identity or common history.

Practicality: A flag has two sides. Today, many flags are screen printed as the cost of manufacturing flags by the appliqué increases. Designs or graphics, such as a map of Australia, will appear in reverse on the opposite side of a printed flag and will generally be inappropriate.

If a flag is to be made by the appliqué method, then the pieces should be simple to cut out and sewn on to the main piece. Additionally, the fly section, the end furthest from the flagpole, wears out first as it is the part which flaps in the breeze. It is also the section that is least visible when the flag is not fully unfurled. For this reason many flags feature designs that mainly occupy the top left hand corner closest to the flag pole (canton).

Colours or shades that are difficult to reproduce in fabric or in the printed form should be avoided. Colours which stand out from a distance and are readily recognisable against the sky and sea are preferable.

A flag is not a static object and makes fluid shapes. Flags are frequently represented as flat graphics, or used as decals. The best flags work as well on cloth as they do on paper.

Proportions: Flags of 1:2 proportions are often standardised to 2:3 (eg at the United Nations), but designs might also be tendered in proportions 5:8 - close to the Golden Mean. Whatever the proportions chosen by the designer, the design must be 100mm in height, as in the diagram below:

Glossary of Vexillological Terms:
Types of Flags
Banner A flag elongated or displayed vertically - eg street decoration
Burgee Small triangular flag used mostly in yachting and as a signal flag
Ensign Properly a naval flag, but in practice, any national flag; a flag based on another.
Jack Flag flown at the foremast of a ship.
Pennant A long Burgee
Sonic Three dimensional flag, usually cylindrical and fitted with a rattle or whistle - used at the Battle of Hastings
Vexilloid A flag-like solid object, performing the function of a flag.
Vexillum Form of standard used in the armies of Rome, consisting of a cloth bearing an image or lettering, hung from a horizontal cross bar.
Windsock A cylindrical device often used as a vexilloid in East Asia (esp Japan)
Design Terms
Vexillology The study and science of flags and their symbolism. From Latin vexillum (standard) and Greek logos (knowledge).
Vexillography The art and science, principles of flag design, a specialised heritage of heraldry - as this has evolved from the Middle East and Europe, and in East Asia.
Canton The quarter of a flag, especially the viewer′s to left, the position of honour, and location of a major device
Colour Red, Blue, Green, Black, Royal Purple, Tenny (Orange), Black
Countercharging  Repeating a device in mirror image, and in reverse colour
Counterchanging  Reversing colours in different parts of the design
Device A symbol placed upon the background cloth of the flag
Dexter From Heraldry: The wearer′s right and therefore the viewer′s left
Fimbriation A narrow border separating two other Colours
Metal From Heraldry: Silver and Gold (that is, White and Yellow)
PMS Pantone (Colour) Matching System
Saltire An X-shaped cross appearing on such flags as Scotland, Burundi and Jamaica.
Sinister From Heraldry: The wearer′s left and therefore the viewer′s right
Manufacturing Terms
Canton Top left corner according to the viewer
Appliqué A technique used in flag making whereby design elements are sewn into their backing
Breadth From lower edge to top edge
Bunting Lightweight woollen cloth of coarse weave
Field The extent or area o the flag, its background colour
Fimbriation A narrow border separating two other colours
Fly The outer edge
Halyard Ropes keeping the flag to its mast
Hoist The vertical side of the flag along the mast
Ingflefield clip Metal clips at top and bottom hoist by which flag and halyards are attached
Length From hoist to outer edge
Examples of Well-Known Flags