Now here’s a topic I haven’t covered before: worldbuilding flags. Visually flags, coats of arms, emblems, and symbols are a pretty big deal when creating fictional settings and sometimes in real life as well, so I’ll offer some thoughts to fill that gap in this blog, on Flag Day in the United States no less.
The study of flags is called “vexillology”, and there’s a rather large number of enthusiasts out there, seemingly able to do a much better job designing flags in most cases than legislatures and whoever it is they hire to make the generic or hideous emblems that pass for flags in our world.
Rules for good Flag Design
Yes, bad flag design is endemic, with perhaps the starkest case being the flags of the states in the United States, with it seems half of them being a copy of the state seal on a blue background. You can’t even tell what it is from a distance, which explains why states like Kansas feel the need to put “KANSAS” in big capital letters on theirs. Fortunately enthusiasts and scholars have noticed this problem, and the American Vexillogical Association has five guidelines for good flag design.
The first rule is that the flag should be simple enough a child can draw it from memory. The second rule is that the images, shapes, and patterns should relate to what it symbolizes. The third rule is to limit the number of colors to three, which contrast well and come from the standard color set. The fourth rule is no seals or writing of any kind should appear on the flag. The fifth rule is to if you’re making a set of flags to avoid duplication but use similarities in the design element to show they’re connected.
Using these five rules when worldbuilding may not be “realistic”, as the real world is full of hideous flags, but it will help a lot when it comes to building visual appeal and distinctiveness.
Distinction and Ease of Visibility
These rules might seem restrictive, and indeed it’s basically impossible for a flag in a world as big as ours to follow all these rules (or even not follow them!) and be truly unique, but keep in mind the purpose of a flag is to be distinct in the environment it’s in. Monaco and Indonesia, for example, have basically the same flag, top half solid red bottom half solid white, but how often will you see both of them in the same area? Next to France and Italy, two nearby countries, it looks very distinct.
Another purpose of a flag is to be easily visible at a distance. Draped in some parliamentary chamber your flag that’s designed with really cool and intricate emblems all over it on top of a big number of subtly shaded colors might look great, but viewed half a mile away from a ship or a vehicle on the road it will all blur into a jumble no one will be able to tell apart from a variety of other flags.
Colors and Heraldry in Worldbuilding Flags
Colors that contrast with each other well are vital to being able to easily identify the flag. In this heraldry may serve as an inspiration when worldbuilding flags and designing flags in the real world.
Colors and symbols when worldbuilding flags should also have some kind of meaning. Different cultures associate different meanings with various colors, though there’s often some overlap. Perhaps the best example of this is the Green movement using the color green to signify itself, while in the Islamic world the color has long been associated with paradise; similar meanings, both deriving from the verdant green of plant life, yet also distinct.
The Passion of Red
Red meaning blood, often (as far as flags are concerned) in memory of some struggle for national liberation, is perhaps the most universal symbol, as all human beings bleed red. Indeed, red is employed as a color of danger throughout the animal kingdom, along with other bright colors; the most poisonous frogs in the jungle are usually vividly colored. To this day red flags are used as a sign of dangerous conditions on beaches, “red flag warning” denotes wildfire-stoking weather, and the expression “red flag” denotes a sign of danger.
Red flags have also been used to signify the political left from its beginnings in the 18th century, no doubt to signify that they were a danger to the established power structure, which favored colors like blue and white. This is where the association of blue with right-wing parties and red with left-wing parties comes from, perhaps most familiar to Anglosphere audiences as “Tory blue” and “Labour red”. This is not universal, of course; famously the United States has (left-wing) “Democratic blue” and (right-wing) “Republican red”, a pattern shared by a few other countries.
Another color scheme that’s very common is red for the Left still but with the Right using white instead of blue; most famously the Russian Civil War, and when one thinks about it the whole “short 20th century” globally, was fought between the “Reds” (communists), and the “Whites” (anti-communists; originally just Tsarists but broadened as time went by).
More Political Colors
Gold and yellow are sometimes associated with the left wing, and in particular with liberals, I believe following the example of Whig gold from 17th century Britain. The Liberal Democrats in the United Kingdom, among other liberal parties, still use gold as their color, but perhaps most prominently in our time it’s the color of libertarians. Gold’s additional association with wealth bolsters its popularity among these arch-free-marketers, who even often support the gold standard to boot!
Black is a color with many associations, but politically it’s associated with anarchists, perhaps reflecting its most famous use by pirates in the 17th and 18th centuries. Various flavors of anarchists often divide the flag diagonally and place another color in the lower-right portion, black and red signifying socialist or communist anarchists, with black and gold signifying anarcho-capitalists; green anarchists take, what else, black and green, and so forth.
I could digress on that for multiple blog posts (Hmm…maybe I should sometime later…), but the point when it comes to worldbuilding flags is that colors have multiple associations that are often political, and this can easily influence the design of a flag. There is an entire tradition of “socialist heraldry” for the emblems of socialist states, which often incorporates a red flag, most famously now in China, where red is additionally a favored color of good fortune, and formerly in the supreme prototype of communist states, the Soviet Union.
The flag of Angola is my favorite extant example of this tradition, consisting of a red top half, a black bottom half, and in the center a golden gear, a golden machete (!), and a golden star. Sometimes called the most evil-looking flag in the world, I prefer to think of it as the most badass.
Though it’s worth noting that nothing was ever as badass as the flag of the anarchist Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine, all black but for a white skull and crossbones and white text. Sure, it breaks the rule of no letters on the flag, but if the text is “Death to all those who stand in the way of freedom for working people” who cares? The fact it’s written in Cyrillic gives it additional badass points.
Rolling the Dice for Realism in Worldbuilding Flags
Colors and color schemes may also attain more or less arbitrary meanings, for example if a particular dynasty and its colors becomes associated with a particular movement. From the mid 19th to the mid 20th centuries the black, white, and red Imperial standard competed with the black, red, and gold Nationalist standard for the prize of being the flag of Germany; both of these color schemes were the result of a chain of historical events rather than being designed as political symbols from the outset.
When worldbuilding flags in various settings, one should take the associations of different colors into account, and add in a certain “roll-of-the-dice” randomness to it due to historical contingencies like the above. For example, if you’re worldbuilding a space opera and the engines that take you to hyperspace glowed blue or created blue streaks as you (as they say in Star Wars) jumped to light speed then the flags and emblems of spacing guilds, trade federations, and interstellar commercial interests might tend to incorporate a lot of blue.
Color Symbolism for Worldbuilding Flags and Emblems in Science Fiction and Space Opera
In science fiction settings black might also become a much more popular color for flags, as it would symbolize the black sky of outer space, or “black-sky thinking”, as this fascinating article posits might be one pole of the politics of the future (with green, symbolizing the verdant ecosystem on the grounds of Earth, symbolizing the opposite pole). Personally I don’t see black being a popular color in outer space itself, since basically everyone’s a spacer in the black sky there, but for representing spacer interests on planetary surfaces, such as embassies of interstellar trade federations, it might become very popular.
Conversely, to denote the blue skies of larger space habitats in contrast to the not-so-blue skies of smaller vessels sky blue might become a popular color among those lucky enough to have such edifices to call their own.
More examples might be factions pushing organic technology and biological intelligence to take red for blood and green for life, factions pushing artificial intelligence to choose grey or some metallic color, factions pushing cosmopolitanism to take blue as their color as already the United Nations does in our time, and so forth.
Divisions of the Field when worldbuilding Flags: Inspiration from Heraldry
Let’s keep in mind that flags of course don’t have to be all one color. If they’re not all one color, then rather simple divisions are best. Heraldry has good guidelines here too, with its divisions of the field. Halving horizontally, vertically, diagonally, with a chevron, with a cross, with a saltire, with a division by thirds, and so forth are all distinctive ways to carve up a flag into distinct parts with different colors, a great set of guidelines when worldbuilding flags.
The divisions should be simple, though. Something on the order of the flag of the United Kingdom, perhaps the most distinctive and easily-recognized flag in the world, is in my view close to the upper limit of how complex a flag should be. The flag of South Africa is pushing it in terms of the quantity of colors, with no less than six, but the shape looks awesome.
The United States flag is also a bit complex; often cited as one of the best flags in the world, and frankly it is considering how hideous or nondescript so much of the competition is, the United States flag features red and white stripes, thirteen total, with a solid blue canton (a rectangular block of solid color in the upper left corner) containing no less than fifty stars! Simple five-pointed stars, but still! Fifty stars! Many a child has found drawing out all of them a tedious task.
Seeing Stars: the American Flag
Now, there are good reasons for that; there are fifty United States, and there were thirteen original states, hence the fifty and thirteen pattern. Still I can’t help but question if it’s a bit much. Anyway, an interesting feature of the American flag (and this is United States Flag Day, remember…) is that the number of stars is dictated by the number of states.
Originally there were thirteen stars, often arranged in a circular pattern as in Betsy Ross’s famous design, with the most recent two added on in the late 1950s, representing Alaska and Hawaii. For a few decades prior to that there were forty-eight states, which made for a pleasing grid arrangement. For the eventuality of a fifty-first state being added, a circular design has been proposed, and indeed the existing number of fifty stars could be arranged circularly too, but for whatever reason virtually never is.
America’s vexillological Riches
More generally, America is vexillologically rich compared to many other countries; not only are there the thirteen-star and circular variants of the United States flag, there are completely alternate emblems as well. By far the most famous is the Gadsden flag, consisting of a coiled rattlesnake in the grass against a yellow background with the words “DONT TREAD ON ME” in black lettering below.
Having attained renewed prominence as a symbol of freedom starting around 2010, I honestly think from a purely vexillological perspective it deserves much more widespread and official use. Gold and black are the dominant colors, with green for the grass, so the color scheme is simple enough. It’s also not nearly as “busy” as the federal flag, consisting of just one emblem on a solid background. Happily for such a simple flag, it’s also very distinctive: how many countries have a solid gold background? It’s relatively unusual.
Also helping matters is the rattlesnake being indigenous to virtually everywhere in the United States, and being an exclusively New World creature. Benjamin Franklin famously proposed the turkey as the national animal instead of the eagle, since the turkey only strikes when provoked and is indigenous, but the same logic applies to the rattlesnake. Indeed, the rattlesnake was a popular symbol of America during the Revolutionary era, and in my view would have made for a much better national symbol than the bald eagle.
The only real deficiency of the flag is the text on the bottom, but it’s a simple enough task to create a variant that removes the text and keeps only the coiled snake symbol. Arguably another deficiency is that no symbolism of the states is on the flag, unlike the existing one. Perhaps it deserves to stay as a symbol of political radicalism, though I still recommend changing the national animal to the rattlesnake and using the rattler flag sans text as an official alternate flag.
A rather badass variant of the Gadsden flag occasionally seen more recently features an anarchist black and red color scheme with a raised clenched black fist around the snake with the caption “WE WILL TREAD”.
Not just One, but Two Rattlesnake Flags
The First Navy Jack, sometimes confused with the Gadsden flag, is almost a hybrid, having red and white stripes (sans canton) with a not-coiled rattlesnake on it with, again, the words “DONT TREAD ON ME” written on it in black. This flag has been officially employed as the Navy Jack of the United States intermittently since the Bicentennial approached in 1975.
American Flag Daze
Much less well-known is the “Appeal to Heaven” flag, which featured a green tree on a white background with the words “An Appeal to Heaven” in black near the top. This spawned a whole design lineage in New England, but it’s easy to see why that flag didn’t catch on much.
Various regions of the United States have their own flags of course, such as New Mexico’s red zia on a yellow background, California’s Republic flag featuring a bear in the middle, and Vermont’s flag from when it was independent. Most famously the South has the Confederate flag as its symbol, from when the region made a serious attempt at gaining independence in the 1860s.
“Just one Flag? That’s practically un-American!”
As if they were aware that no self-respecting American could have just one flag, there are actually two flags of the Confederate States rather than just one, the by far better known one being the Battle Flag, with its very distinct and very aesthetically pleasing diagonal blue cross with white stars within it resting on a red background.
The lesser-known one was the official flag, which was suspiciously similar to the United States flag, featuring a blue canton with white stars denoting the number of states (originally seven, but soon expanded to thirteen) resting upon a background of two red bars and, in the middle, one white bar. Interestingly, it has been suggested that the artist who designed it, Nicola Marschall of Alabama, originally from Prussia, may have taken inspiration from the flag of Austria (of all places), which he would have been familiar with.
It seems that the battle flag was the more popular variant even at the time of the Civil War, since the Confederacy officially ditched the “Stars and Bars” in favor of the “Southern Cross” in 1863. Still, the Stars and Bars has retained some measure of popularity to this day, though it’s not nearly as common outside the South as the battle flag is, having not transcended its origins to some extent to become a symbol of rebellion.
More flags worth mentioning would be the Bonnie Blue Flag, a star in the center of a solid blue background, used as the flag of the Republic of West Florida around 1810, which consisted of the area of the Gulf Coast from the Mississippi River to the western border of modern Florida (then also known as East Florida, hence the designation of the region back then as “the Floridas”). It has since cropped up in various secessionist contexts in the broader region from time to time.
Intelligent Variants of the American Flag
Among flags of particular states, Texas’s is unrivaled in popularity, the “Lone Star Flag” even giving rise to its nickname of the “Lone Star State”; the Lone Star is a popular symbol of the state, dating to when it was an independent republic before joining the United States. A blue vertical stripe containing a white lone star on the left with the rest of the flag consisting of a red horizontal stripe and a white horizontal stripe make it perhaps the most distinctive flag that took inspiration from the United States flag.
A somewhat similar flag, dating much later, is the state flag of Tennessee, which again is a unique spin on the United States flag, consisting of a blue circle lined by white against a red background, containing three white stars, representing the state’s three “Grand Divisions” (which if you ask me has the same kind of vibes as the “great” in “Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya”, but whatever), with a little blue vertical stripe lined by white at the right edge of the flag. Although nowhere near as popular as the Lone Star in Texas, the “Tri-Star” emblem has attained some currency as a symbol of the state, which is more than most states can say for their flags.
Perhaps one of the most unusual variants of the United States flag visible in recent years is the “Thin Blue Line” flag (which also has British and generic variants), which turns all but the white parts of the flag black and inserts a blue stripe just beneath the (now-blackened) canton where the white stripe would be normally.
Well, that was quite the digression, but, eh, it is United States Flag Day, so why not? I suppose a lesson here for worldbuilders is that even relatively recently settled regions can have a rich heritage of flags and symbols, representing different movements, political currents, peoples, and regions within the same polity or overarching culture, much like the localities and families of Europe that have that deep history stretching back over the centuries that fascinates so many.
Worldbuilding Flags with Fantastic Beasts
Speaking of symbols, something some might neglect when worldbuilding flags is that animals are very commonly used as symbols. The eagle is perhaps the most common, dating back at least to the Roman eagle, but a different creature could fulfill that role in your fictional world. Just in the examples from the United States I mentioned, there’s the bear, the rattlesnake, and the turkey in addition to the eagle.
Mythical creatures like the phoenix and the dragon are very common symbols, especially historically, with a dragon appearing on the flag of Bhutan even now; the dragon might in a fantasy setting be much like the eagle is to us now, but that wouldn’t be a fundamental change. More exotic creatures, though, could serve as symbols in the future.
In my space opera setting, for example, the skies of Thalassa, Proxima Centauri’s planet, are filled with air reefs, air whales, gasbags, and pterodactyl-like flying creatures, which present a rather different profile to any common mythological creature that appears on flags.
Examples of Space Opera Symbolism in Worldbuilding Flags
To take an example, if Ilmarinen and Ilmatar of Thalassa, the couple in my novel “Letters from the Airy Deep”, wanted to have a family emblem they might select one of these flying creatures in silver and place it upon a red background that symbolizes fertility (sexual attractiveness is enhanced by wearing the color red), perhaps with blue (symbolizing the airy deep) and black (symbolizing the long journey they took from our solar system to Thalassa) added in in some capacity in the background.
Various spaceship designs might also be favored as symbols, sort of like sailing ships now, with starships shaped like cylinders, batons, and wheels possibly being common motifs in (harder sci-fi) space operas. In my setting and some others zeppelins and airships might also be commonplace; I could see Ilmarinen and Ilmatar, for example, adopting a zeppelin symbol.
Exotic oceans and clouds might also make an appearance; for example, instead of having a white cloud symbol there could be reddish and yellowish cloud symbols for families and nations that inhabit places like Jupiter or Saturn. Red or orange wave shapes might be favored as a motif for those who live on a world dominated by lava oceans; for those who live on worlds with radon oceans (yes, there could really be such places) yellow waves might be widely used.
Icy crusts covering up oceans might also show up on flags and emblems of people who live on such worlds. Icy rings would be more spectacular still; I imagine flags that originate from places like Saturn would tend to embrace ring motifs.
There might be still less obvious kinds of symbolism, but the point is that the field is wide-open for making flags as a worldbuilder, and if you’re going to do it, as you should, since there’s an entire universe out that will want to unfurl their colors, you might as well do it well.
Personally for space opera, as opposed, I’m not too interested in flags and symbols for countries as we know them; in my setting at least such polities don’t really exist in outer space. But there will still be a need for worldbuilding flags and emblems to distinguish social organizations and businesses as well as families from each other; if anything this should lead to a profusion of every conceivable kind of flag and emblem being extant and in widespread use somewhere.
To be honest with me becoming much more skilled at making digital art it might be a good project for me to try to make some flags and emblems for my families and organizations I write about, and I encourage anyone who has various organizations and families in their world to do the same if they feel up to it. If you do I hope this post will have helped provide some inspiration.