For all the diversity found in the many countries of the world, national flags adhere to a fairly predictable formula. Sure, some states flout convention—I’m looking at you, Nepal—but for the most part, flags are built from the same basic symbols: some colorful stripes, a handful of stars, and maybe a national emblem. But that doesn’t mean they can’t pack in a wealth of coded information. I bet you didn’t know that the inverted yellow triangle on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s new flag, for instance, visually approximates the geography of the country while also representing the nation’s three constituent people with its three points.
The coded information inside all national flags is exactly what Mgmt. design had in mind when they created 50 new American flags for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s (Re)Flag USA project. Though the team looked at a wide range of patriotic symbols and evaluated a number of approaches, eventually, the idea of the flag as infographic won out. "We all gravitated to the fact that our flag began as information," explains Alicia Cheng, one of the studio’s principals.
The 50 banners Mgmt. produced were designed to reflect the "current conditions of a changing nation," each based around a single data point that defines the country in some way. Some are serious, taking on important issues like education and health care. Others, less so: A simple blue flag lined with white dots represents the average number of baseballs used during a major league game. But each offers its own subtle truth about the U.S. as it exists in 2012.
"We were inspired by standard American emblems like baseball and cars and TV and fast food," she says, "but also wanted to frame each of the statistics within a global context when relevant." Two of the team’s designers hail from Europe, offering a bit of outside-in perspective on the country.
Admittedly, some of the flags definitely wouldn’t fly—even a proud fast-food nation like ours wouldn’t want McDonald’s golden arches representing us on the global stage. But many others follow the traditional formula closely enough that they wouldn’t have much trouble passing for the genuine article, albeit in some alternate reality. "Our intent was to blur the line between flags-as-flags and flags-as-information," Cheng told me.
And in that they were remarkably successful. On a visual level, a clean white rectangle bearing a large green circle with a smaller circle cut out of it seems like a perfectly suitable symbol for a nation. When you find out that small dot represents America’s paltry foreign aid in relation to its total budget—well, that might make it a little less likely to fly on top of the White House.