Running ideas up the flagpole for new flag

Council mulling town flag design options

Village of Burns Lake flags options.

Village of Burns Lake flags options.

When a rebranding exercise happens for any entity – company, organization, sports team, government – there are many visual facets that could be involved, but the flagship element is, well, the flag.

Mayor and council was presented with some design choices to mull over, and decided at the last public meeting that more mulling was needed.

“I don’t like any of them,” admitted mayor Henry Wiebe. “I do like some combinations of them.”

Councillor Darrell Hill agreed that, “of all the ones on here that I looked at, and discussed with a couple of people, there was a combination of different ones.”

It was only in 2018 that the town selected its last flag, but according to Village of Burns Lake’s chief administrative officer Sheryl Worthing, “We have since rebranded. In 2020 we launched our new brand. We wanted to wait until it was time to replace the village flag before ordering new flags with the new design.”

The draft ideas shown to council were in-house concepts based out of the public-professional consultation process that happened during the 2020 rebrand. If you’ve noticed the tag line “Carve Your Path” on village corporate information, that was one of the results. That and a new logo, different than a flag and colour palette came out of that exercise by marketing company eSolutionsGroup, now known as GHB Digital, a specialist in public sector design. Their work won a Platinum Hermes Creative Award from the Association of Marketing & Communications Professionals.

What it did not include was a flag, and if the town has a coat of arms, mission statement, seal, or an official flag, it cannot be found on the Village of Burns Lake website. If you type “flag” into the search bar, the message back is “no results found.”

Design expert and podcaster Roman Mars did a TED Talk in Vancouver he titled “Why city flags may be the worst-designed thing you’ve never noticed.”

“Trust me, 100 per cent of people care about flags,” he said.

There’s even a field of study for it, called vexillology, and a North American Vexillological Association (NAVA) that literally wrote the book on the topic called Good Flag, Bad Flag.

Mars itemized NAVA’s key concepts every municipality should stick to: five design principals that go beyond suggestions.

1. Keep it simple. “A flag should be so basic, a child can draw it from memory,” according to NAVA.

2. Use Meaningful Symbolism. The colours, images and patterns should relate to what it symbolizes.

3. Use two to three basic colours.

4. No lettering or seals/coats of arms. “Never use writing of any kind, or your symbolism has failed,” Mars pointed out.

5. Be distinctive.

“The biggest one is that fourth one. We just can’t seem to stop ourselves from putting the name on the flag,” Mars said.

Some at the Burns Lake council table were already alive to this.

“No letters. No words. That would be my suggestion,” said Wiebe. “Traditionally, a flag has no words on it, or you’re making a banner. Banners have words, a flag is just symbols.”

Councillor Charlie Rensby was on the same page. “Flags should just be symbols,” he said, but like councillor Kevin White wondered out loud about how the town can stand out with the symbols at hand, if Burns Lake isn’t stamped right on it.

You stand out because of how you depict your symbols, not hiding from them, NAVA deduced. Take your signature, for example. Everyone uses the same alphabet, but no two are alike. Your art is unique to you, not the 26 letters. If you are a town in a forest, then trees are not tired symbols, they are your superpower. No other forest town will render it the same way you do. Trust yourself. Love yourself. Put that love up in the air for all to enjoy.

“If you want to design a kick-ass flag, start by drawing a one-by-one-and-a-half-inch rectangle on a piece of paper. Your design has to work within that tiny rectangle,” Mars said, because flags fly at height and at distance, and their sole job is not to be your town’s ad or awning, it is your symbol. It’s not meant to point out differences; it is meant to point out truth. Just be yourself, with authority.

Look at the Canadian flag, Mars said, it is a perfect example. It’s even on the cover of the NAVA book. It’s something the people of Canada want on their backpacks and hockey jerseys. Check out what Canadian cities like Quebec City, Mission, Regina, Abbotsford, and Altona have done.

For examples of what not to do, Mars said, look to San Francisco, Cedar Rapids and Milwaukee, which he described as a “hot mess.” NAVA deemed the Idaho town of Pocatello as having the worst on the continent. Go ahead. Look them up.

When Don Iveson became Edmonton’s mayor in 2016, he noted that their city’s flag was infamously cluttered. He brought forward a professional design by Ryan McCourt, and cited Roman Mars in the process. It was clean and clear from 100 metres away – everything the old Edmonton flag wasn’t.

But Edmonton council turned down the clarified flag and still have the “hot mess” one flying over their heads, with next to no inspired public use of it other than the city’s own flagpoles.

“You have to get people on-board,” Mars confirmed. Chicago, Amsterdam, Washington…residents there willingly like their city’s flag on their hats, T-shirts and bumper stickers. Like a great sports logo, it’s not there to sway strangers; it’s there to make the true fans feel proud.

Keeping the discussion confined to the council table wasn’t helpful for Edmonton’s branding progress. As this is Burns Lake’s centennial year, the whole town’s public will be engaged in identity-based activities. Perhaps it is a ready-made time to think out loud about what our flag might be, especially since some suggestions have been put up for discussion. Mayor and council agreed it needed more thought before any decisions were made at their table.

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