DC’s two-bar, three-star flag recently got some props for being distinguishable while also having a classic, simple look. A well-designed flag can serve as a rallying point for civic engagement. Our region bears some great flags, along with some that leave something to be desired.

Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

The praise came from Roman Mars, a prominent radio host who covers design issues, in a recent TED Talk.

You don’t need to look hard to spot DC’s flag around town. The flag is on display in lots of storefronts, and it has been a clear symbol of city campaigns for statehood. And for how many cities would a misrepresentation of its banner be a scandal, as was the case this fall when the cover of DC’s voter registration guide displayed the flag upside down?

Many might question whether a flag misprint truly compares with all the other problems facing America’s cities. The point, though, is that if people are taking pride in their city’s flag, it’s more likely that they’ll engage meaningfully with issues like transit, green space and signage.

Here’s what makes a great flag

So what makes DC’s flag so great?

There’s a whole group of flag enthusiasts ready to explain flag design. According to flag expert Ted Kaye, there are five general ingredients for designing a great flag:

  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 two or three 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.

Some of our region’s flags meet the bar. Others, not so much

Given those principles, it’s easy to see why Washingtonians love their flag. (As far as the symbolism part is concerned, DCers might be interested to know that the red stars and bars are borrowed directly from George Washington’s family coat of arms.)

The same ideas also explain why Marylanders love to flash their state flag, a pattern pulled from the coat of arms surrounding Cecilius Calvert, Maryland’s founder. The flag is a popular pattern on local clothing, and can often be seen waving from the hands of fans at Orioles games. In fact, a 2001 survey by the National American Vexillological (i.e. flag) Association ranked Maryland’s flag 4th best of all state and provincial flags on the continent. (DC ranked 8th.)

Photo by Missy Corley on Flickr.

Unfortunately flag experts can’t offer the same praise for Virginia’s flag, which ranked 54 out of 72 on the Vexillological Association’s list. Check VA’s flag against Ted Kaye’s principles, and it’s clear why the flag ranked so low: the complicated seal, no focused choice of colors, and the fact that the flag bypasses all symbolism by literally writing out “Virginia.”

Image from Wikipedia Commons.

How do other city flags in the region fare? Chalk Annandale’s and Rockville’s flags in the thumbs-up category. For flags that could use some love, consider Fairfax and Bowie. And while many county flags in the region settle for complicated seals slapped onto a rectangle, the Montgomery County flag sticks out nicely.

In case you’re wondering if only governments with coats of arms can claim great flags, check out Chicago’s, the lead example in Mars’ TED Talk. The blue bars represent the local bodies of water such as Lake Michigan, while the red stars and their points symbolize different aspects of the city’s history.

Photo by WBEZ on Flickr.

And for cities whose flags miss the design principles, Mars encourages you to show your love for your city anyway and brandish its flag. Or better yet, start a movement to design a new one.

You can search for your city or county flag here.