For those who want to create flags for their Althistories, here are a few guidelines that might help you. Remember that those only represent general trends and in no way are they supposed to prevent you from going in a completely different direction.
The flag used to represent the country is usualy refered to as the national flag(s). While this can be of a single design, some countries will use more than one, depending on who uses it (citizens, government agents, military, etc...). Note that the status of a flag can differ depending where it is flown so that a given flag could be used by all on land but only by some at sea.
The national flag that private citizens and companies are allowed to fly at sea (or more rarely on land).
Its existence can come from:
- Foreign treaties: Merchant ships could have the right of passage in foreign waters but not warships. In other cases, all ships of a given country are allowed to enter a given port but while merchant ships must pay a docking fee, warships are exempt from it. This is probably the most common origin of civil ensigns.
- Local Regulation: To prevent any private individual from claiming to work on behalf of the government (or to have its aprobation), the public can only fly a modified version of the national flag. Most often seen in totalitarian countries or those that are determined to show neutrality on the part of the government (for example following a civil war).
The one used by the government and its agencies. The reason for its existence can be the same as for the civil ensign.
In some circumstances, private individuals are not allowed to fly a flag at all which then make the national flag a de facto state Ensign.
The flag flown by ships which might become involved in battle.
They can be used for 2 reasons:
- to identify a navy ship at all times
- to identify a ship whose country of origin is at war (when that country does not use a specific flag for its navy).
A related item is the battle flag that was used by armies on battlefield. These usually occured when a national flag might be confused with the ennemy`s one. This could be done by keeping the main colours and/or elements but in a different design or by adopting colours which would help differentiate it from the enemy's flag.
Due to change in warfare (which does not require modern troops to carry any standards into battle) these are almost never seen in modern time outside of parades. One could however be used in a different fashion such as markings of military vehicles or becoming the war ensign.
One thing to remember is that simplicity is often the best course for a flag to be recognisable from afar. To achieve it, you should bear in mind the following:
- Don't include too many elements. Often people try to include a little bit of everything that they feel represent the nation. You are probably better off using a single symbol or partition shape (that can of course be repeated or combined). Maybe try to find common colours of the groups included (most flags use 3 or less) or a symbol that could be easily combined.
- use contrasting colours for elements and partition that are in contact or over one another. When seen from a distance and flapping, colours have a tendency to "bleed" into one another. Traditionally, people used the heraldic rule of metal (white or yellow) against emal (black and any other colours). Obviously there are a few exception but usually, these are cases where they do not touch over their entire length.
With modern artificial dyes, it is much easier to find a stable colour that fits one's need so you could see for example a pale blue object on a dark red background. Because older flags were based on heraldic images (which almost never differentiate between shades), this should probably be reserved for countries that have recently achieved independence or those that readopted a flag.
- When you're done, a good rule of thumb is to ask yourself whether a young child (or an artistically challenged adult) could draw it from memory. Although there are many flags that included complex coat-of-arms, in most cases a badly rendered one could still allow it to be recogniseable.
Since the national flag is the one that you will see most often, you will probably want to give your country something very distinctive. That being said, countries do not live in a vacuum so flags are often related to others design-wise. To simplify matters, they can be place into broad families:
- Banner of Arms: The design on the national coat of arms is made to occupy the entire field of the flag. Many older flags started out that way but are a bit rare with modern ones: nowaday flags tend to precede the creation of other national symbols such as the arms.
- British ensign: used by some commonwealth or ex-commonwealth countries. Usually, the field is either red or blue but other colours exist. There is usualy some symbol placed on the lower fly, most often in the form of a COA. Some countries that have adopted a disctinctly local national might still use these types of ensigns but replace the union jack with it.
- canton & horizontal bands: Used mainly by country who have (or had) a link with or been influenced by the USA. In many cases, it is also meant to show republican (or democratic) ideals. Obviously, this would require the existence of the USA within the alternate timeline or another explanation (such as being, like the USA *here*, a variant of a british ensign).
- horizontal bands: very common in kingdom or ex-kingdom. Most of those flags started as a livery banner, that is, a flag made using 2 or 3 bands in the principal colours of the civic or sovereign's COA. Although practices can vary from country to country or simply be ignored, the band at the top is usualy in the colour of the main charge and the one at the bottom is the same as the field. In cases of triband, the middle band's colour is taken from a secondary attribute.
- Saint's cross: Though it as fallen into disuse nowadays, a simple straight cross or a saltire on a plain field was the symbol of quite a few European nations. Most were identified or became identified with that nation's patron saint. It is believed by some that their origin might go all the way back to the crusades though it should be noted that few can really back it up.
- Scandinavian cross: A cross throughout with the vertical arms being offcentered toward the hoist. It is considered by most to be the staple of scandinavian and related countries, the oldest one being the danish national flag. In recent years, the design as also been used by minority groups that claim an historical link to scandinavian countries.
- vertical triband: usualy used by countries who have (or had) a link with france or some of those founded on a republican ideal especialy in Europe and Africa. Since the design was meant as a break with tradition, the use of this design would require the existence of France within the timeline or another explanation.
Emergent countries that have (or at least appear to have) a certain ideological outlook will often choose a design that in some way remind the viewer of another country that epythomises said outlook.
- Colours: sometimes a particular colour can become associated with a political party (red for communism), ethnic group (orange for dutch) or religion (green for islam). Obviously this can be tempered by local reality: a green flag for an irish republic would be perceived the same way as an islamic republic in the middle east.
- Symbol: certain symbols can be put on the flag to represent allegiance to a given political party after a takeover of the government. In some cases, it will simply be placed on the former national flag:
- Communists: Apart from the red or yellow star used in one way or another by most groups, symbols used by far-left parties tend to represent the union of the factions which are perceived by them as "non-imperialistic": factory workers, farmers, soldiers, intellectuals, enlightened middle-class, etc... Note that these can be quite different from one society to the next although the first 3 are probably the most common.
- Fascists, far-right & ultra-nationalists: Organisation that belong to this group tend to use symbols that invoke feeling of strength, power, violence, and ethnic specificities. The most common are runes/non-latin letters, crosses, animals, weapons & natural phenomenons.
Any other fictional political factions could do the same. What they have in common, no matter the ideology defended, is a search for simplicity in design: something that could be spray painted in a few seconds by someone with little or no artistic talent.
Multiple national flags
The difference between them must be evident from a distance especialy if they were originaly meant to distinguish between warships and merchant ones. Common form of distinction are:
- Defacement: Both flags have the same basic design and colours but one is defaced (means something is added, not a pejorative term) with the national Coat of arms or Emblem while the other is not. The government one is often (but not always) the one that is defaced. Another method is to have the emblem in various size and place (centered). Finaly, they could use 2 versions of the same coat of arms: the "greater arms" (complex shield, supporters, national orders, etc...) for the government and the "lesser arms" (just the shield and crown) for the civilian version.
- Coloured Field: The flag is put in canton (part of the flag closest to the top of the pole) and different colours and defacements on the rest of the flag indicate whom it represents. It is most common in current and former commonwealth/British Empire countries.
- Different shape: Scandinavian and related countries use the national flag with one or 2 triangles cut out of the fly side as their war ensign. A few countries use an elongated form.
After the national flag come the other geopolitical entities under its jurisdiction. Depending on the nature of the countries, the flag can be created out of a need to represent a group with a strong sense of self within a loose confederation or it can be mere office space filler for an arbitrarely defined administrative division of a centralised nation.
- 1st level: Provinces, states, Department, etc...
- 2nd level: City, township, parish, etc...
- Semi-autonomous: Often refered to as "territory", these are subnational entity that are still controled to a certain extent by the national government. This can be because it contain no inhabitant, very little permanent inhabitants or inhabitants that are not fully considered citizens (protected ethnic minorities, second-class citizens, colonies, etc...).
While in older countries subnational entities can previously independant states that have been absorbed over the years (and thus its flag would have served as a national flag), in newer countries, flags of these entities are often created as an afterthought and in some cases, decades after its incorporation.
- Banner of Arms: The design on the subnational coat of arms is made to occupy the entire field of the flag. Most common in older cities or those from a country that has a strong heraldic tradition. Sometime, arms or badges might have been granted a long time ago (during colonial time for example) to use on official documents and only adopted later in the form of a flag.
- National flag variant: Either the national is part of the design (for example in canton) or the subnational flag replaced one element with a local one. In a few cases, The national flag is use its its entirety but defaced with a local symbol. Very commons for colonies.
- Logo on bedsheet: As the name imply, a local emblem (sceal, coat of arms, logo, etc... ) on a plain coloured background. White is porbably the most common colour but some countries have adopted a different one (In the USA for example, most LOB use a dark blue background)
These flags are those intended to signal the presence of a particular person in a given building or mode of transport. Some countries use none while others have a large number. Normaly if there are any, it will at least have one for the head of state or for the high ranking officers.
- Head of state: This can be a president, prime-minister, king, etc...
- Head of Staff: For the head (and sometime his aide) of a ministry, department, etc...
- Dignitary: Ambassadors, non-ruling nobility, etc....
- Officers: High ranking members of the armed forces. This usualy mean generals, admirals or equivalents. In some countries, these people are even refered to as "flag officers".
Unlike the national flags, you can probably have design that are more busy as long as their primary function is not to give a quick identification of the person (officers ones should be simple, minsters don't need to).
- Defacement: national flag with the addition of a particular symbol (monogram, personnal symbol) that change with each actual person (france, UK) or defaced with the national coat of arms (russia). Scandinavian and related countries use their maritime flags with added symbols. Mainly for heads of state but also sometime for officers
- Logo on bedsheet: a one-colour flag with a symbol centered. The symbol can be related to his post (the logo of a given ministry) or be the national emblem (for head of states or ambassadorial staff).
- Insignia Banner: The emblem of a given person is made to fill the flag. This can be a coat of arms (making it a banner of arms), the rank insignia of an officer (often in a simplied form), a cloth pattern specific to a person, etc...
- National flag: some countries have a de facto positional flag for their head of state in that he is the only one allowed to use the national flag as a car flag.
normaly flags that represent members of a given hierarchy (officers, head of staff & aides and Ambassadorial staff) are all built around a similar design that vary only in one element.
- Incremental: The same basic flag is reused with an incremental number of a simple object (stars, dots, bars, etc...). A few rare exception (notably the UK) use the reverse: the less objects, the "purer" the flag so the higher the rank.
- Field colour: The design is identical except for the background colours which is different depending on the rank. Some intermediary ranks might have 2 colours except of one. This supposed a hierarchy of colours within the culture and might not be evident to outsiders.
- Shape: the shape of the actual flag change with ranks, this could be for example (in decreasing level): rectangular, trapezeoid shaped, triangular, etc...
Historicaly, flags were first and foremost used for the purpose of war that is to say, recognising friends from foes and who was whom within an army. Although nowaday there is no need to carry any banners in battles, the army, for reasons of traditions, still use a few
- Regimental Colours: This type of flag used to be carried in battle as a way for the general to see where his forces were and how they were doing. Another purpose was for the soldiers themselves to have a rallying point. Nowaday, these flags are only taken out during parades. One trait specific to these sorts of flags is that they usualy contain some form (stitched scrolls, streamers, metal rings, etc..) of record of they past deeds (victories, citations, glorious retreats, etc...)
- branch flag: the flag use to identify instalation under the jurisdiction of a given branch of a country`s armed forces.
- Sword: either by itself or two crossed ones. tend to be associated with the land forces and as such can be found on rank flags, regimental colours and branch flag. Swords often form part of badges worn as defacement.
- Tassles & fringe: use as decoration for parade flags.
- Anchor: used for naval or amphibious branches.
- national roundel: most often associated with the air force but sometime found on other flags if it is also use as part of uniforms or vehicles markings.
Of all the type of flags, these tend to be the most standardised and in many cases are simply variation of the national flag. Follows a few common design elements and their use.
- Logo on bedsheet: the badge of a regiment or branch put on plain field. The colour used tend to have traditional meaning and being associated in that country with a given group (ie. black for armoured, blue for airborne, etc...). Pale blue in most country is associated with the air force and its ensign is often defaced with the national roundel.
- canton and plain field: the canton is occupied by the national flag and the field is defaced with a badge. In commonwealth countries, commmon for air force and navy.
- national flag: usualy with some added elements and / or in different shape (squarer or longer)
Follows miscelanous flags and some common design style they can be found in:
- Civic organisation (company, association, etc...): the group's logo placed in the middle of a one colour sheet.
- Customs/revenue/quarantine: Usualy similar to the national flag with some added symbols: the caduceus, the key, the porticulis or the name of the organisation.
- Coast Guard: either like the naval/warflag flag with a different symbol or the national flag with a bugle.
- Jack (flag put at the front of the ship when in port): If the national flag has a canton, it will be this. It could also be a squarish version of the national flag or a square banner of arms. Most modern countries do not have a distinctive one.
- police: usualy a simple Logo on bedsheet. flaming grenades are quite commons as well as shields.