Design History

On the design of American State flags…

A few weeks ago I found a weird little sideline in the project I was working on that I decided to explore for a while and it drew me inexorably towards a subject that I’d never even thought about before – American State Flags. It’s quite difficult to trace the path that brought me to these symbols – I was exploring some ideas around editorialising flat-termed folksonomies, trying to gett a generic word and giving it some kind of personality. Many words with competing meanings don’t really fit this kind of activity very well, but US States seem to handle this kind of stuff relatively easily (or at least, there’s pretty clearly a dominant meaning for most of them, even if there are multiple meanings). I imagine I’m losing most of you. As I said, it’s hard to explain.

Anyway, I’d decided that I wanted to explore ways of representing US States visually, and the most obvious way to do that is to use the map of the state or an outline of it’s shape. But finding a coherent way of representing states as outlines within a fixed width space without them all being massively different heights or radically different scales (or just looking dull) seemed impossible. So I found myself looking at State flags as a way of representing some of the colour and personality of the places – and they are extraordinary. There’s enormous variety – a complete range of styles from the classically-influenced through to the almost corporate. Some are high quality bits of design work, some are very much not. Some seem bounded by traditions of Heraldry, while others appear to have been knocked up drunkenly in a backshed a hundred years ago. I imagine outside America most of these flags are completely unknown. So I thought I’d go through a few of my favourites in alphabetical order and do a bit of a clumsy design critique upon them. The pictures that follow are all from Wikipedia and I should probably say before I start that my comments are not designed to be about the states themselves, just their flags, so please don’t lynch me, people of Nevada…

This is the State Flag of Arizona, the stripes apparently representing the original thirteen colonies of the US in conquistador colours with the copper star representing the state’s copper mines. I’m sort of puzzled by it – it’s kind of weirdly evocative, but there’s something very wrong about that star in the middle. It looks muddy and confusing to me. Perhaps it’s a bad reproduction. Find out more about the flag of Arizona.

I hope I’m not about to offend anyone by saying that the flag for Arkansas (the winner of a 1911 design competition, subsequently revised over the next fifteen years) reminds me of the label of a sardine can. It’s a resolutely puzzling piece of design work – laden with stars distributed semi-assymetrically and apparently at random (there is meaning to them, but it’s a fairly forced meaning). I would say this was not an enormous design triumph for the state, and – given how new the flag is – quite possibly up for a redesign. Find out more about the flag of Arkansas

Now I have to say I pretty much love the California State Flag, even though it doesn’t really seem to me to particularly capture the spirit of the state that I know. It’s clearly reasonable solid on design grounds, but I think it’s history gives it a character that some other state flags don’t have. A much much simpler version of the flag was first flown during the Bear Flag Revolt in Sonoma (a beautiful town I’ve visited a few times on online community business). The revolt came about when U.S. Army Captain John C. Fr√©mont persuaded the locals that the current Mexican government of California was about to attack them. Years later a revised version of the flag was adopted by the State. The original flag was in fact only flown for a couple of weeks before being replaced by the flag of the United States by officials of that power. However, the flag survived up until the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and in pictures appears to be a hand-crafted, rather clumsy but quite beautiful piece of cloth. The current design is a quite substantial reworking of that flag. Both versions feature the bear, which apparently was nicknamed Cuffy by Midshipman John E. Montgomery.

As a composition it seems to me to be pretty solid – the red stripe at the bottom gives a flag-like feel and a grounding to the work – with the star at top left balancing it all pretty successfully. The bear has been pretty well stylized and the grass doesn’t seem too forced. It’s all pretty solid. Even the font on the flag seems to fit quite well. American state flags seem to have an unusual amount of writing on them. Normally it’s a disaster – but not here. In fact the only thing I’d say about the flag that troubles me a bit is that its revisions from the original have maybe left it a little too airbrushed and carefully branded. Find out more about the Flag of California

I’m going to stick my neck out now and say that I think Colorado’s state flag is the worst flag of all the US States, and I’m going to put this down squarely at the doors of design amateurism. Apparently none of the colours or the shape of the ‘C’ were fixed by the legislature for decades after its original creation. Bad branding! I’d fire that particular agency in a moment. There’s also an alarming lack of meaning to the thing. The blue apparently represents ‘sky’; the white, ‘snowcapped mountains’; the red, ‘earth’ and the yellow represents the sun. If it wasn’t for the ‘C’, therefore, this flag could cheerfully be used to represent pretty much any country in the entire world. In fact, to me it looks more like a bad corporate logo – perhaps for Carolco or something – than a State flag. Bad form, Colorado. Very disappointing. Find out more about the Flag of Colorado

In terms of bizarre flags, Hawaii takes the biscuit. The flag officially predates most of the states in America itself and in its semantic cross-breeding gestures towards some of weird compromises in the state’s history – apparently representing an attempt to hybridise the flags of the UK with the US. That Hawaii still flies a flag with the Union Flag of Britain in the top left corner is – frankly – a bit weird. And given that the Union Flag is already rather overloaded with design elements and meaning (being itself a hybridisation of the flags of England, Scotland and Ireland), Hawaii never really had a chance… Find out more about the flag of Hawaii

Among the people I’ve shown it to, the flag of Maryland triggers really dramatically different responses. Some find it headache-inducing, but I absolutely love it. In design terms at least it’s totally distinctive and stark and sort of beautiful. Historically, it’s a bit more troubling – apparently being based upon the heraldic banners of George Calvert, 1st Lord Baltimore. There’s a twist though – originally only the gold and black elements were used for the flag until the Civil War, when secessionists chose to represent themselves under the red and white colours. After the Civil War, the flag was changed to represent both halves of the struggle. Find out more about the flag of Maryland

This is the flag of Mississippi. It is, I think, rather a clumsy design effort centred around the ‘stars and bars’ of the Confederate flag. The square in the corner is clearly a different aspect to the flag itself which makes the thing look inbalanced – particularly with the diagonal lines in it. The white surround to the square confederate design is also a design compromise to allow it to sit next to the red bar without a weird bleed. It’s just clumsy clumsy clumsy. In 2001 a replacement was proposed which replaced the Confederate cross with a series of circles of stars. The replacement was – I think – a significant improvement – disposing of the diagonals for one – and looked more balanced and mature. It’s still far form a beautiful bit of work, but that’s sort of irrelevant since the replacement flag was firmly rejected by politicians of the time. Find out more about the flag of Mississippi

The flag of Nevada troubles me a bit, mainly because of the large slogan, “Battle Born” stuffed unceremoniously in the top-left hand corner. This is supposed to reflect that the state was created during the Civil War, but seems to me to be the kind of thing that could encourage your citizenry to confuse aspirations of solidarity with violence towards outsiders. Seems to me that flags should help you aspire to something rather better than fighting. Design-wise it struggles with fonts and writing like so many of the US State Flags, but at least it does so more discreetly than some of the others. Find out more about the Nevada State Flag.

Now this is a classy flag – simple, elegant, modern and reflecting the history and people of New Mexico. Or at least so it would appear at first glance. The symbol in the middle is a sacred symbol of the people of the Zia pueblo and represents the Sun. That would probably make you think that the flag was a sensitive representation of the indigenous peoples of New Mexico. Unfortunately, given that the indigenous peoples of New Mexico are desperately trying to get their symbol off the flag, that’s probably not the case. Still in design terms, I think it’s a triumph – simple, elegant, stark clean colours suggesting the atmosphere of the place. All very interesting and well put-together. Find out more about the Flag of New Mexico

Now this is a strange one – the flag of South Carolina – that I’ve put up mainly because of the weird associations that it triggers in my mind. At first glance it seems like a picture of a palm tree and a crescent moon, and I’m afraid that immediately triggers thoughts of Middle Eastern flags to me. I’m not the only one, it seems. In terms of symbolism there are a whole bunch of articles online about how the crescent moon came to be associated with Islam. I can’t quite imagine South Carolina as an Islamic state though. A little more digging reveals that it’s supposed to represent not the moon, but some form of neck armour. Problem solved, albeit in an odd way. Find out more about the Flag of South Carolina

And my final selection is the flag of Texas. It’s difficult to know what to say about this flag, except that it’s solid, representative, strong and pretty much perfect for the state it represents. It’s not flowery or over-designed, it has blunt and solid symbolism (blue reflects loyalty, white reflects strength and red, bravery). As such, despite the other more florid, elegant or stylish flags from around the country, I have to say that I think this is the most successful. Find out more about the flag of Texas

If you’ve enjoyed this tour around some of the strangest and best of American State Flags, you should really explore them all on Wikipedia’s Flags of the US states page. You’ll notice that there’s a wide tradition of flags with scenes in their centre and latin proverbs. Unsurprisingly these represent most of the older and eastern states of the US. Of the flags I’ve not talked about, I think perhaps Alaska is my favourite.


On Belaugh House circa 1900…

Here’s something quite special (for me at least). While I was up in Norfolk over Christmas, my mother showed me a picture that had been taken of our home shortly after it had been completed (circa 1900). It may sound ridiculous, but I find it extraordinary how immediately recognisable it remains despite all the additions and removals and reorganisations that it’s suffered/enjoyed over the last century. Particularly astonishing for me is that the little pine trees that you can see dotted around the lawn are still there today and are now about twice the height of the house itself. And those little trees you can see dotted around the gate and around the drive-way are now enormous mature horse chestnut trees with branches that hang low as you come into the garden and shelter that whole side of the garden in dabbled sunlight through the spring.

I love the idea that the house has gradually settled into its location over the years, that it has made its environment its home just as we made it ours. It doesn’t look like a block perched on a hill surrounded by fields any more. Now it looks like a part of the landscape. And that makes me think more about the nature of artisanship – particularly that the creators of the house and garden built something that wouldn’t even start to look its best until decades after they had died. I wonder whether the current vogue for disposable, short-term buildings means that we’re cheating ourselves of that settled-in, mature feel – as if all our buildings were like unripened flavourless cheeses that we never respected enough to come into their own.

I’d love to work on something that had that kind of presence in time, that wasn’t going to vanish or mutate overnight. I wonder whether that’s why so many web people still want things in print or physical media. Because that way the artefact can age and mellow with them – even after them. That they need that sense that they’ve created something living that will change and deepen through time just as steadily as it will endure.

Family House in Norfolk Circa 1900


Two early views of income tax…

Thanks to Radio 4 for these two early positions on Income Tax. Nicholas Vansittart, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1816 put the case for the tax:

“This tax would press less on the lower orders of society than any tax which could be devised… It was a tax more upon the rich than upon the poor… When the act was revised, it would be found the least oppressive and the least objectionable of any tax that had ever been imposed…”

And a petition for the Corporation of London put the opposing view:

“Painful experience has only served the more strongly to root upon their minds a conviction of its injustice, vexation and oppression … the manner in which the said tax is carried into execution, by means of an odious, arbitrary and detestable inquisition into the most private concerns and circumstances of individuals, is still more vexatious, unjust and oppressive, hostile to every sense of freedom, revolting to the feelings of Englishmen, and repugnant to the principles of the British Constitution; … the petitioners are deeply sensible of the depressed state of the agricultural interests, and of the ruinous effect of such a burden thereon; … the manufacturing and trading interests are equally depressed, and equally borne down with the weight of taxation … and they confidently hoped, that by such reductions in the public expenditure… and the abolishing of all unnecessary places, pensions and sinecures, there would have been no pretence for the continuation of a tax subversive of freedom, and destructive of the peace and happiness of the people. [Petition to Parliament from the Corporation of London]

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the sheer number of people in government with a vested interest in not pay lots of tax, the government was defeated by a huge majority. Read more about the whole debacle: The Repeal of Income Tax.


Return to Broadcasting House…

So I don’t know where to start really so I’m just going to come out and say it. After several weeks of organisation, negotiation and discussion I find myself cheerfully back in gainful employment. My new job has almost intimidating potential and at the moment is a little large a concept to easily digest, but as of ten o’clock this morning I became once more an employee of the BBC – more specifically working in Radio & Music as part of a new live research and development team.

But it’s not just the job that’s fascinating – it’s also the environment. For the first time I’m actually going to be working in and around Broadcasting House, and (even though the whole area is being ripped asunder and rebuilt and even though I’m based in an extension to the main building) just being there feels like it connects me to a larger and messier tradition of people who have worked at the BBC in Broadcasting House over the last seventy years. From the origins of television through the Blitz right through until the present day, Broadcasting House has been a key element of the legacy of the BBC and there’s ludicrous amounts of history saturating every surface.

Last year I had a chance to visit the bomb shelters from the second world war – walls of concrete six/eight feet deep covered with faded remnants of sixty years of use and disuse. It was fascinating, atmospheric, almost haunting… The BBC Radio Theatre that was in the core of the oldest part of the building has been the scene for some of the countries greatest comedic performances – from the Goons and Round the Horne right through to (almost) the present day. When George Orwell was working for the BBC writing propoganda, he was based in Broadcasting House. There’s a Room 101 in the building, and it’s widely believed to have been the basis for the Room 101 in the novel 1984. Pretty much concurrently with his work, one of the so-called Cambridge Spies – the drunken, gay, apparently sybaritic Guy Burgess was also working in the building. That is, of course, when he wasn’t working for Russia…

Insane architecture and technology from inside the control room

But it’s not just what happened inside the building that makes it vibrate with such potent historical energies. Even the sculptures on the front of the building (which are unfortunately covered up at the moment by scaffolding and screening) are significant. They were designed by Eric Gill – most familiar to graphic designers and typographers today because of his creation of Gill Sans. I heard a rumour from a friend of a friend once that the male statue originally had prominent genitals that were removed by a censorious establishment. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it would fit with Gill’s aesthetic and with what I know about the political life of the nineteen-thirties.

There’s so much more that the building has been a silent witness to over the years. It’s coped with direct-hits from Nazi bombs, coped with generations of creative revolutionaries over eight decades and now is coping with a radical rebuilding to make it a home for the BBC for decades to come. It’s going to sound cheesy, but it’s a genuine honour to work there.

Academia Gay Politics History Politics

A piece of writing from a book about Baudrillard pertaining specifically to Nietszche and history…

I’ve been re-reading a little book on Baudrillard because it’s the only thing that fits in the pocket of my brand new coat (excessive money spent – we’ll say no more about this). In it I’ve stumbled upon a section about Baudrillard’s relationship to history and his debt to Nietszche that really appeals to me. It goes like this:

Friedrich Nietzsche, in his Unfashionable Observations of 1874, criticised historical inquiry in his time for making the present look just like another episode, and the creative acts of individuals humble by comparison. It burdened individuals with more knowledge than they could absorb; it encouraged a resigned relativism because change implied that the present was unimportant; and it generated irony and cynicism because it engendered a sense of late arrival…”

When I was doing my doctorate I got really excited by a passage in Forster’s Maurice – it’s a fairly iconic passage used in a lot of scholarship in a fairly throwaway fashion. In it, the character of Dr Cornwallis, teaching young undergraduate men (including our hero) says of a piece of translation that they are about to undertake, “Omit: a reference to the unspeakable vice of the Greeks”. I remember thinking this was extraordinarily radical considering how we now approach history. Current academic practice is one of dislocation – people in the past were nothing like us. They are incomprehensible to us by the standards that we generally operate by, and we have to hygenically and distantly analyse their behaviour with none of the emotional outbursts and resonances that we might use to examine contemporary matters.

This is considered true in basic historicist approaches, but even more true in historicist approaches to literature, where the assumption seems to be that one of the implicit acts of criticism is some kind of model-making of the minds of the audience (or author) of a work. Only by understanding the people do you understand the work. Personally I always thought this was a highly dubious intellectual move – particularly when undertaken in an absolutist fashion. Too many questions emerge from this kind of behaviour: Whose is the mind? Who does it represent? What about divergent readings from the period? Does it idealise a particular kind of reading or intepretation? Is the mind that we use to understand the text simply itself generated by us from the text itself?

Similarly there are problems with a complete lack of historicism, of course. It would be delightful to think that one could try and force a modern mind through a text without any historical information whatsoever, in such a way that they were encouraged to think about the text purely in terms of contemporary society – but it’s simply not possible. The mind constructs a fictional world as it reads – it contextualises, it tries to fit disparate and apparently nonsensical elements together. The practice of reading a work removed from historical context is simply an exercise in the conceptual reconstruction of that period. And this is never more true when you’re thinking about texts in other languages, where even basic comprehension the text requires a reconstructive leap.

So why is the statement in Maurice so challenging? Because it amounts to a statement that texts from outwith your cultural frame of reference aren’t just there to be examined analytically and distantly, nor even merely to undermine your assumptions of ‘normality’ and push you towards total moral relativity. Instead they can have very real and potent social and political effects. They are inevitably political, weapons / devices with no function other than to stimulate, entertain and use in argument and discussion to forward a case, a goal, a political end…


Factfile: Belaugh, Norfolk

I returned from my parents’ place yesterday afternoon. I’d spent much of the day poking around the village – my young cousin had found a bizzare rusty Victorian-style hook in the garden which had set me to thinking. Belaugh – the village in which I grew up – was mentioned in the Doomsday book many many hundreds of years ago. And yet there are still only eighty residents and fifty houses. This number has barely changed over the years. And while only the church remains of the really old buildings, there must be traces of one thousand years of residency all around the place.

I haven’t been in the church in years, even though it’s less than five minutes walk from my parents’ house. But my mother suggested I went and had a look because there was a small presentation about the history of Belaugh in it. I went and I looked and I was suitably intrigued and decided to dig around on the net when I got home to see what I could find. And this is what I’ve managed to dig up…

According to one source I’ve foung the church was assembled in the fourteenth century but still has some incorporated Norman walls and the old font.

Two of the best things I managed to find were from William White’s History, Gazetteer, and Directory of Norfolk – one from 1845 and another from 1883.

According to these records, in 1845 Belaugh had twice the inhabitants it does today – a massive 164 residents mainly situated in the village, itself located in the middle of “855 acres of rich loamy land, of which 199 are marsh, 647 arable, and seven plantations”. The Old Rectory – which I believe was recently put on the market for something ridiculous like half a million pounds was valued more conservatively in those days. “The rectory, valued in the King’s Book at £6, and in 1831, at £420 is in the patronage of the Bishop of Norwich”.

By 1881, the population has dropped to 139 – and the church cottages were being rented out for £18 a year. The big news is that someone has noticed the rood screen – which is of particularly good quality (Cromwellians apparently scratched the faces off the figures painted onto it – one classic quote from the time, “The screen hath the Twelve Apostles, their faces rubbed out by a godly trooper.”) – and someone’s slapped a proper high-pitched roof on it, to replace the thatch that had been there before [See a picture of the church today]. Belaugh has always been a fast moving place…

Interestingly the Traffords have a very strong presence in the area then as now…

Belaugh is located on the river Bure and there’s a whole page about the navigable parts of the river which includes several rather glorious pictures.

And to end with a few more images – here’s a watercolour of the approach to Belaugh from Wroxham by boat and a victorian watercolour from over the river looking towards the church.

Additional information: Here’s a bit more research that I found online in mid 2003.

Here’s a map from the late 19th Century (1890 I think). Of particular interest to me is calling the bit down by the ‘unsuitable for motors’ road, “Belaugh Hole”. I’ve also noticed that my parents home isn’t on the map yet, which I could probably have found out by asking them, but hey. It’s not the only empty area though – the area around Hill Piece is empty, and Sunny Haigh isn’t there either, and there are no buildings up on the main Hoveton / Coltishall road. What are there are some building down by the Staithe – obviously pre-existing the current range of buildings down that road. Very interesting stuff…

More pictures:


A brief history of the Western World…

One day Mesopotamia is assembled out of bits of twig and mud. It is one of the first places we see the ‘Indo-European’ language group that will split off into India and Europe forming the basis of most Western languages. The first written work of ‘fiction’ will be “Epic of Gilgamesh” – Mesopotamian critics give it ‘One Thumb Up’. Egypt turns up in North Africa. Everyone surprised. While that’s going, Greece gets it on – and lots of separate city states turn up. Athens becomes worlds first democracy then thre’s a big war with (I think) the Spartans and then another big war with the Persians (although it could be the other way around and one of them might not have happened). Xerxes was Persian. Herodotus wrote about him.

Then Alexander the Great decides he wants to rule the world and goes a bit nuts bringing Greece, Persia, Egypt, Middle East etc. etc. etc. under his big rule. This is called “The Hellenistic Period”. Finally the Romans turn up. They are boring arseholes and no one likes them. But being very organised they build roads everywhere and conquer most of Europe but become gradually corrupt and stretched too thinly. And the Romans ended up being Christians which is kind of ironic considering how many Christians they used as lion-chow. In the end, Goths come and beat them up. Which is not as amusing an image as it sounds.

Then there are dark ages for a very long time in which most of civilisation sucked arse. Civilisation is left to mad monks hoarding books in dodgy cold monasteries in places like ‘lindesfarne’. Things gradually get better and
monarchies get better organised – the two are not directly related. Technology gets better – someone invents venereal disease and pointy sticks again. Which is a relief as a lot of people thought pointy sticks had been lost when the Romans went nuts. A little bit later, lots of Europeans go and beat up the Middle East in the name of Christianity. Over a thousand years later, the Middle East remains pissed off. Everyone in Europe gets snotty with everyone else in Europe and there are big fights. Sometime around here people decide that science isn’t complete horseshit (very gradually and mostly in Italy).

European people send out people to colonise the world and send dodgy missionaries with them who introduce the world to the Catholic Church and syphilis. Which is nice. Except some of the people they meet don’t want the Catholic Church or syphilis, so they get killed and stuff. Particularly in South America, North America, Africa, the Antipodes and the bits of Asia that hadn’t invented pointy sticks yet. Then England goes all Protestanty which no one is particularly thrilled about. Particularly not the Irish who get in a snark with Cromwell.

America gets all snotty and declares independence. No one cares. It is a dumb country. Americans have wars with themselves for a bit. No one cares. It is a dumb country. Europeans have more wars with each other. No one cares. They’re used to it. Freud is born. There are a couple of world wars. Someone invents cool things like planes and electricity and moon rockets. Some of these people are from America which is no longer a dumb country but a fucking scary country. Russia is also a fucking scary country for a bit, but then they let MacDonalds in, so we quite like them now. And on the seventh day Joss Whedon created Buffy.