What was your favorite historical flag
Designer: "The younger flags are, the more critical it becomes"
DEFAULT: Do you like flags?
Erwin K. Bauer: I love flags. Flags are great.
DEFAULT: How come?
Farmer: Because they are so simple. They are commonplace, strong and even reduced. So they represent everything that makes good design. And the stories behind it are exciting. Mostly.
DEFAULT: When is a flag a good flag?
Farmer: It's about an interplay. A flag represents an identity, a group of people, a unit. It is good when it conveys the personality of this unit and this group can identify with the flag.
DEFAULT: But who still really identifies with flags today?
Farmer: Just think about soccer. A country match begins with the anthem, with flags, with the federal eagle. All of these are symbols. When it starts, a lot of Austrians identify with it. The group is enthusiastic about football, but at that moment these signs unfold their effect.
DEFAULT: Isn't that anachronistic?
Farmer: A flag is anachronistic per se because it describes a story. Think of the British flag. It's like a log of history. The St. Andrew's Cross, St. George's Cross and much more can be seen in the flag. Obviously this is anachronistic, but it represents a status quo. In the digital age, the flag is an incredibly slow medium and of course not up to date. A flag has a completely different pace. It partly tells of centuries. The flag doesn't have to be quick. You can be slow.
DEFAULT: Let's talk about flag design. How do you design a flag?
Farmer: The basics of a flag construction are based on vexillology, the flag science, which was first coined as a term in 1959. There are a few basic shapes such as crosses or stripes, area divisions, etc. It's like a construction kit that you can use.
DEFAULT: How did this kit come about?
Farmer: Flags originally come from seafaring, where you had to distinguish friend from foe over very long distances and make quick decisions even in bad weather. This is the reason for this purity and reduction. That alone makes the design good. The individual design options are very limited. A very detailed flag is a bad flag. Even today. This fact allows good flags to survive in the digital world as well. It can be reproduced in any size. Even so small it can be recognized.
DEFAULT: Which European flag is your favorite flag?
Farmer: Because I don't want the British to leave the EU, it's the British. You can see that here, too, it is obviously about an emotional charge. In addition, it is formally very strong in character.
DEFAULT: Visually, which European flag would you describe as the least successful?
Farmer: The younger the flags, the more critical it becomes. Take Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example. It shows a blue background, a yellow triangle that supposedly represents three population groups, plus a bar of stars that are based on the EU. Formally it is ugly, but if you look at the numerous previous flags and their history, it works quite well. And has a strong message.
DEFAULT: Are younger flags usually worse flags?
Farmer: Let's put it this way: We may have to get used to them first. You haven't topped up yet ...
DEFAULT: ... compared to the English or American flag.
Farmer: Exactly, these are quoted a thousand times. Think of the myriad of political illustrations that feature the American flag. That is stored in every head.
DEFAULT: How would you go about the job of designing a new flag?
Farmer: I usually don't see any reason to design new flags. I would advise working with the existing flags. Unless there are political reasons.
DEFAULT: What could be such a reason?
Farmer: Let us assume that European countries move even closer to the EU. In such a case, one could think about a redesign of your flag.
DEFAULT: What could that look like?
Farmer: Formally, a design with a circle that represents the community would be appropriate. That also appears in the EU flag.
DEFAULT: What do you think of the EU flag?
Farmer: Look at the American flag and think back to the election campaign. Elements from the flag were quoted again and again, the colors, symbols, etc. In the blue and red logo, which was designed for Obama's first campaign, the stripes of the flag, a rising sun, but no stars can be seen. Trump did use them again. Stars are a type of military badge. Now I am wondering a little how the stars got into the EU flag. They also stand for hope, but are also charged differently in the subconscious. I find the circle and the community well represented, I am critical of the stars.
DEFAULT: Let's talk about the Austrian flag. The myth goes that it goes back to the siege of Acre in the 12th century. Allegedly it symbolizes the blood-soaked tunic of the crusader Leopold V. The white stripe goes back to the removal of his sword belt.
Farmer: It's a myth, but this story shows what happens to flags quite well. You create a myth and load the flag with it. That's the point. About symbols, about character and strength. That's why there are eagles and lions on flags.
DEFAULT: And no mice.
DEFAULT: But is all of this still somehow contemporary?
Farmer: Think of the flag of Catalonia, which is not yet a nation-state. It is similar to the Austrian one, there too the red stripes next to the yellow stripes are supposed to stand for blood. And now this flag is being reloaded, because the Catalans decorate their houses with so-called "yellow ribbons" as a sign of protest and hope. The ribbons are "faster" than the flag, but they represent a quote from the flag, from the national identity. So the flag still functions as a sender today.
DEFAULT: Does that mean you could see the yellow vests in France as a kind of portable flag?
Farmer: Let's say they also stand for a group. The west works faster and more actionist than the flag.
DEFAULT: Back to the Austrian flag. Do you find it successful?
Farmer: It's as simple as possible. I think they're totally fine. The only thing that went wrong is the redesign of the eagle by the Austrian police. He looks starved and the proportions aren't right either.
DEFAULT: The darkest chapter, also in terms of flag design, is the swastika flag. It's a simple symbol that stood for a system that brought death to many millions of people. How strong was the flag really?
Farmer: Don't get me wrong, but the "campaign" was just good, of course in the spirit of the campaign, not in the sense of the intent. The curious thing is that the swastika is a millennia-old symbol, which in turn proves this topic of charging. It is actually a symbol of luck that has been misused. This topic is not just about a flag, but about an all-encompassing identity.
DEFAULT: You deal with colors and symbols on a daily basis. How do you feel when you see the swastika flag? Are the alarm bells going off?
Farmer: Yes, very loud! In the area of design, the following is very exciting: If you use the colors white, red, black in a similar dosage - even without a swastika - something is immediately interpreted into it. As a designer, you have to be very careful about the mix of ingredients. This National Socialist identity was made so well that we still have to suffer from it today because we are not allowed to occupy this design niche. The same applies to the Gothic script. Here, too, it is important to be careful.
DEFAULT: What would a modern alternative to the flag be? In other words, what would happen if flags were abolished?
Farmer: One would first have to abolish the nation states. The questions are rather: "Are we groups who want or have to set themselves apart from one another? Do we have to have borders, or can we dissolve them in the sense of a common globalized world?" If we were to put our national identities in this Europe on another level, one could also think about the flags. But they would not go away, they would rather fade away.
DEFAULT: When you talk about flags, you can't really ignore the term home.
Farmer: It is easy to misuse flags nationalistically. It's always a question of tonality. (Michael Hausenblas, RONDO, October 26, 2019)
Erwin K. Bauer was trained as an alpine farmer. He studied type and book design as well as graphic design at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, where he also teaches. He heads the buero bauer in Vienna, an interdisciplinary design office at the interface between visual and architectural design. In addition to design projects, he and his team regularly work on current social issues, including as curator for visual design for the Vienna Design Week or the Vienna Biennale.
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