Hörður Lárusson weighs in…
A graphic designer, an instructor at the Iceland Academy of the Arts, and the president of the Icelandic Association of Graphic Designers, Hörður Lárusson has worked on an extensive and diverse range of design projects. He has a particular interest, however, in the history and design of Iceland’s flag, and has published two books on the subject, “Fáninn / The Flag” (in both Icelandic and English), and “Þjóðfáni Íslands” (‘The National Flag of Iceland’).
As explained in “Fáninn,” 100 years ago, a committee was established to come up with design suggestions for the new Icelandic flag. They petitioned the public for ideas and received 46 unique designs. 35 of these utilized a cross as a central element, 13 suggested a cross on a flag of red, blue, and white. At least six suggestions featured stars, at least two featured Mjölnir, the hammer of the god Þór (Thor).
During DesignMarch, Hörður and two fellow graphic designers—Atli Þór Árnason and Unnie Arendrup—will be replicating this public petition as part of the “Raise a Flag” event, where they too will accept design suggestions for a new Icelandic flag. The resulting drawings will then be displayed at Gallery ÞOKA during DesignMarch.
Why do you think it’s time to redesign the Icelandic flag?
This might be a strange way to start my answers, but I don’t actually think our flag needs to be redesigned. I’m sure many can come up with what they think is a better version of the flag. But in theory, there is nothing wrong with our current one. It’s simple, easy to draw by memory, has strong colours and doesn’t have any negative connotations. Really, the only reason one would have to want to redesign it is a selfish one, a ‘just because’ kind of reason.
Our flag will be 100 years old next year, which isn’t that old. We can use it for quite a number of years to come. Compare that to the Danish flag, which was given to the Danes in 1219 by God (according to legend). It’s still more or less exactly the same almost 800 years later.
What are some of the design elements of the current flag which you think do—or don’t—work very well?
Design wise, I think the Icelandic flag works quite well. It has three strong colors, with high contrasts between the ones touching (blue touches white touches red). It bears the so-called “Scandinavian Cross”, which links us to the other Nordic countries (Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, the Åland Islands and the Faroe Islands…as well as a couple of countries outside of Scandinavia, to be precise about it). The proportions of the flag are well thought out. I could go on. There really isn’t much negative you could say about it when it comes to the design side.
If you were to start completely from scratch, without any outside suggestions, what would your proposal for the new Icelandic flag look like?
I think if we were a new nation looking for a new flag—but still located where we are, with our ties to the Nordic countries—it’d be hard to look past the cross as a main element. But at the same time, we’d have to take into consideration that the cross represents Christianity, and today’s world is different that the one 100 years ago. I’m not sure we’d have the same luck getting a flag with a religious symbol as the core design element. I think whoever would be designing the flag today would stay away from that connection.
My proposal would most likely go in the direction of using Icelandic nature as the core element. Possibly with a focus on the sea, as it plays such a huge part in who we are as a nation. So I can most certainly say there would be a lot of blue in it.
When the public was surveyed for suggestions 100 years ago, there were a number of recurrent symbols, patterns, and colors schemes used. When you take new suggestions from the public during the DesignMarch festival, do you expect to see new design trends or popular color palates emerge?
As I mentioned in the last question, I think less people would be thinking about religious symbols in a “new” flag, so we might see a few less crosses. But then again, I don’t think so many people actually think of the current design as a religious one. I think we’ll see quite a few radical ideas. A lot of people like to see change, just for the sake of change. We might see a few fishes, maybe a whale or a puffin.
About the colour, there actually are some rules when it comes to flag and such symbols. If being strict, the only colours one is allowed to use are blue, red, green, black, yellow and white. But not all countries follow this, and for our suggestions, there won’t be a limit of colours. I’m hoping for something radical. Something new. Something current and fun.
In the past, both a flattened cod and a falcon were popular national symbols. Do you think these symbols still appropriately represent Iceland? If not, are there other symbols which better suit and/or represent the country today?
These symbols were there for a reason. The flattened cod, simply because it was one of our main exports to Denmark. (The flattened cod symbol is actually still our longest running flag or symbol for Iceland.) Then the falcon came to be because we (the Icelandic people) wanted something more noble than a cod. So we wanted a falcon with open wings, about to take flight. This was to symbolise the new nation, about to take off flying on our own. We asked the Danes to make this our crest, and they agreed. Only problem was that the artist in Denmark only found one stuffed falcon to draw by. And that bird was sitting still, wings folded. So our heroic bird, about to take flight, ended up sitting dead still (literally) on a rock. Whether this is really the true story, or if maybe the Danes simply didn’t want us flying away, who can say. But the sitting falcon didn’t last long as our symbol.
No, neither of those symbols really work today. We might have nostalgia about them, but that’s about it.
Finding new symbols for a country like ours is much harder today than it was 100 years ago. Our culture has become much diverse, so we would most likely have to rely on something from the past. Or, as I mentioned before, something very neutral, like nature.
What basic design standards might you suggest for someone thinking of designing a new flag today?
Keep it simple, visually strong and make sure anyone can draw it by memory. A great guideline is: can a kid in kindergarden draw it without looking at a picture?
What kind of influence do you think a flag or national symbol has on a nation? Is it important to change national symbols over time, or do you think there is a value to maintaining the same symbols for many generations?
This really depends on the nation and how they use their flag. We Icelanders have actually not used our flag all that much, which means it’s not loaded with ideas, thoughts and symbols (others than the actual meaning of the flag). And as long as the meaning hasn’t become distorted, then there is no reason to change it. Why fix something that isn’t broken?
But then you have many, many examples from all over the world, where an event (usually a war) has forced a country do change their national symbols. Some events are even so horrific that ancient symbols have been destroyed for generations to come. The most obvious example is the swastika.
In my second book on the Icelandic flag (which sadly has only been published in Icelandic to date) there is a great foreword by our former president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir. She talks about just this, how lucky we are to have a flag that isn’t loaded with negative meanings. She goes on to say how happy she is that our flag isn’t, for instance, a falcon. Why would a country that has never been at war need a bird of pray as their symbol?
As a graphic designer, what interests you the most about this current flag project?
I think flags are something most every designer loves in one way or the other. I might be a bit on the extreme side with my interest in, and love for, our flag and it’s history.
For this project, what I’m most interested in is the collaboration between a designer and a non-designer. Although I’m expecting quite a few proposals from designers, I’m hoping for even more suggestions from just anyone. Any age. Any profession. And they can only suggest the design in writing, leaving it to us to translate that description to a symbol.
Collaboration, whether it’s between designers or otherwise, is something I love and welcome. And this is an opportunity to do a huge collaboration piece with people I’ve never even met.
How does this project fit in with your other design work?
One of the things I strive to do in any work is to simplify my design down to be everything it needs to be and no more. This does not simply mean being minimalistic, but more about getting rid of clutter and unnecessary things. And designing flags is just that. Stripping away all that doesn’t belong in order to end up with a strong visual message. Something that hopefully will move the onlooker in one way or the other.
Once you’ve collected flag suggestions from the public, what will you do with them?
Me and two good friends who are graphic designers, Atli Þór Árnason and Unnie Arendrup, will be attempting to draw every single suggestion that is submitted. These drawings will then be displayed at Gallery ÞOKA on Laugavegur 25 during DesignMarch. And since I’m leaving such a huge part of the project up to you all, I have no idea how it’ll turn out. But I’m looking forward to seeing it.
For more information about Hörður’s flag-related projects, or to submit a design proposal, click here.