Quick: Close your eyes, and picture the Westchester County flag. Can you say what figure is pictured on it? Did you even know we had one?
We spoke with Ted Kaye of the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA.org)—vexillology, if you didn’t know, is the study of flags—the compiler for the flag-design guidebook, Good Flag, Bad Flag. We sent him a sampling of six of our local, state, and county flags. His findings were unfavorable. “All of the flags in the Westchester County sample are poor designs, some worse than others,” he says.
“The basic principles of flag design,” he adds, “can be boiled down to: keep it simple, use meaningful symbolism, use two to three basic colors, don’t use lettering or seals, and be distinctive or be related.”
Many of our local flags fall to a classic blunder and become “what flag scholars call a SOB flag—a seal on a bed-sheet, an unimaginative failure,” Kaye says. “Seals are meant to be used on paper, flat, not moving, seen close-up, and on one side.”
Below are Kaye’s opinions, ranked on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the best), along with his suggestions for how to improve them.
Rating: 4.5 Why: “While not a very good design, this is the best-scoring of the group because of its field division. Using New York—Dutch—colors of orange, white, and blue, the flag’s use of two horizontal stripes and a triangle at the hoist is very distinctive. It loses points for the lettering, and the indistinguishable shape—apparently the figure of Justice from the County Seal—surrounded by stars is a detraction.” Suggestions for Improvement: “Remove the lettering and the charge in the triangle. The original 1939 design did not have the lettering—it was added in 1985 in what was perhaps a misguided attempt to help people know what the flag represented. Does France have to put ‘FRANCE’ on its flag?”
New York State
Rating: 4.0 Why: “The state’s flag is the common seal-on-a-blue-bed-sheet design shared by twenty-four US states and
source of tremendous confusion. Nearly half of our state flags cannot be distinguished from each other at a distance!” Suggestions for Improvement: Start over. “Run a competition, as in Utah and in Oregon, to solicit updated designs.”
Rating: 2.5 Why: “The seal on a solid background rates a low score, as does the use of a plain white field, which is unimaginative and the most prone to attract dirt.” Suggestions for Improvement: “Find a way to symbolize Yonkers more clearly with design elements which invoke the city.”
Rating: 3.0 Why: “The engaging and simple seal is the only item that raises the score slightly. The font and stylized tree are very attractive, but lettering is not
appropriate on a flag.” Suggestions for Improvement: “Remove the white ring and lettering around the seal, and let the tree in a light-blue circle become the central element on the blue background.”
Rating: 2.5 Why: “Having two light colors—white and yellow—border one another confuses the eye.” Suggestions for Improvement: “Keep the unusual yellow background but start over with the design elements, including ways to divide the field and perhaps symbols to put on it.”
Rating: 3.0 Why: “The green field, recalling the town’s name, gives this a slightly better score, as does the relatively simple seal. However, at a distance it looks just like the flag of the State of Washington.” Suggestions for Improvement: “Stylize the contents of the seal and place only them on the background. Consider dividing the field in some way using the yellow from the seal and the current green.”