As the recently re-elected ACT Government campaigns to increase the Capital’s recognition, and make our city a tourist and cultural hotspot, it’s a good time to discuss the value of good symbols for creating civic pride. It is undeniable that civic symbols, such as flags, contribute to civic pride, and when the flag is a good design, the entire populace has a strong symbol to rally and bring the community together.
The ACT Flag already has most of the elements of a great flag in place. It uses the ACT colours blue and gold. It has the Southern Cross, a great symbol recognising the ACT as a part of the common Australian identity. However, the design has one mistake, which mars a potentially great symbol: The overly complex and heraldically incorrect Canberra Coat of Arms placed on the right of the design.
The Northern Territory flag shows how a simple, well-defined flag can raise civic pride and awareness. The NT flag is highly recognisable because it uses simple and meaningful symbols, such as the Sturt’s Desert Flower.
Many city governments make the mistake of placing their seal on flag designs to try to make it easier to recognise. The problem is that recognisability comes from the design itself, and its widespread use. It would be like writing the meaning of an artwork on the front of the canvas. It makes the work look ugly, and the meaning should be apparent from the work anyway.
This mistake hasn’t been instituted by the ACT alone. It’s a common mistake that has been repeated by municipal and state governments in the United States, and was even the subject of a TED Talk.
Indeed, some municipal governments have adopted new recognisable designs, or removed the municipal seal from their flag.
America’s most recognisable flags have no seals to tell you where they are from, they are recognisable by design. Think of the Lone Star Flag in Texas. And in Australia, the Aboriginal Flag, by using a very simple design, has become one of the most recognisable flags in the country.
In the case of the American municipal flags, it’s not necessarily fair to blame the designer. Often the designer will create a good proposal, only to have the authority in charge of approving the new flag add the municipal seal against the designer’s wishes. The ACT was no exception.
The ACT Flag’s designer, Ivo Ostyn, openly denounced the overly complex and heraldically incorrect use of the Canberra Coat of Arms on the ACT Flag. Ostyn advocates replacing the Coat of Arms it with a Royal Bluebell symbol (proposal here), which was rejected by the ACT Government in favour of the Coat of Arms. When a flag’s designer comes out in opposition to the design, you know that it needs fixing.
But some American cities have taken action to remove their emblems from their flag. Portland, Oregon is a good example.
When Portland decided to adopt a flag in 1969, they accepted a proposal from local designer R. Douglas Lynch. But, against Lynch’s objections, the city seal was added to the design. This made the design unnecessarily complex, and hardly used in the public. However, in 2002, Lynch, along with the Portland Flag Association, successfully pushed for the city council to restore the design to his original vision. The Portland flag has since become iconic, with the improved design now used proudly by its everyday citizens.
Not once in the many years that I’ve lived in Canberra have I seen the ACT flag flown by members of the public in sports events, Canberra Day, or any other public event. However, looking at the parallels between the ACT and Portland, there is great opportunity for the ACT Government to turn the ACT flag into an iconic Australian flag, loved and used by the Canberran public.
Correcting this mistake would not mean making a new flag, but refining the existing flag to produce greater civic pride, and create the beautiful, striking design that the designer intended.