This past weekend, Americans all across the country flew the American flag in celebration of July 4th. It’s a shared symbol of our country’s freedom, but the meaning behind the stars and stripes is increasingly fragmented.
When I look at the flag, as a designer, I see a collection of visual elements: stars, stripes, colors in an asymmetrically designed composition. It’s a piece of graphic abstraction—it conveys ideas rather than events or objects. As we are taught in grade school, the stars represent the 50 states and the stripes represent the 13 original colonies. However, that’s often where our shared agreement on its meaning ends.
People interpret the flag and respond to it as much more than the lines, shapes, colors, and geometric composition convey. It doesn’t have one objective meaning—other than symbolizing “America”—but instead, welcomes interpretations and allows everyone to infuse it with their own perspective. The constellation of stars and stripes will remain consistent, but we are the ones who apply meaning to them.
The first iteration of the flag was created during the American Revolution, designed to symbolize a brave, fledgling Republic fighting for her independence. Thirteen colonies, striving for their unity as one nation and fighting for freedom from England. Since then, the American flag has always communicated a message of strength during wartime. Consider the iconic image of American soldiers raising the flag on Iwo Jima. During every war the United States has been a part of, the flag has conveyed a country united against foreign enemies, upholding the virtues codified in our Constitution.
Throughout history, the flag has been burned in protest, heralded during Olympics, draped over coffins, and used to claim victory in wartime. It lives on bumper stickers, lapel pins, place mats, T-shirts. It has become a commercialized symbol, mass produced at scale for individual use. It flies at roadside rest stops, hangs on porches across America, and for those with exceptional commitment, is tattooed on their bodies.
This year marks 20 years since 9/11. In the years following the attack, the American flag was everywhere, especially in New York City. There were multiple flags on every block, hanging from stoops, blowing from brownstone windows. It carried the same meaning in the West Village of Manhattan as it did in Wyoming, Wisconsin, or Wetumpka, Alabama. People flew the flag in support of the lives lost, New York City’s recovery, and American freedom. It was a symbol of unity and solidarity within our country.
A mere 20 years later, the meaning of the flag has fractured once again, its meaning illusive. It no longer functions as a unifying device for our country, but as a way to categorize people by their political leanings. At his rallies, former President Trump and his supporters waved the flag high, while railing against immigrants, threatening the media, and denouncing anyone who didn’t support them. On one strange but memorable occasion, Trump hugged the flag tightly, grinning from ear to ear with his eyes closed, while he kissed it and said, “I love you, baby.”
Embracing the flag during Trump’s presidency could feel like you were also embracing his racist, hateful comments. In 2019, Republicans were twice as likely as Democrats to say that flying the flag was important to being a good citizen. For many, the flag became a symbol of division.
The flag was defined through the Flag Resolution of 1777 as “thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” Red symbolized hardiness and valor; white symbolized purity and innocence; and blue represented vigilance, perseverance and justice. (It’s also worth noting that the color symbolism has morphed over time. Former President Ronald Reagan claimed the red stands for the blood lost from patriots and that all of the colors symbolize “the qualities of the human spirit that Americans cherish.”)
There were no other design guidelines and no specific visual requirements except the above language. If you can, imagine a world before reproducible imagery, before the Industrial Revolution, before computers, before brand guidelines: Everything was made by hand, which by its very nature meant it was impossible for any kind of mass standardization. This allowed flag makers to produce whatever they wanted, as long as it abided by the above language, which led to an abundance of variants during this time. The forms diverged but the meaning was the same: A new country had emerged.
But eventually, a standardized flag was needed to show what land, and what ships, belonged to the U.S. Two variations were developed: one for use on land and one for at sea. The sequence of red and white alternated for each design. The naval flag had a red stripe on top, which increased visibility against the sky for ships at sea. This became the basis for our current flag. Since then, 37 stars have been added as new states joined the country. On July 4, 1960, the current iteration of the flag was released when Hawaii became a state.
As a designer, I am reminded that the relationship between visual imagery and its meaning is ever evolving, always incomplete, and full of nuance. There is no singular or finished meaning to a piece of design. The cross, which is now universally used, was not used in the early Christian era, as it was seen as a gruesome reminder of execution. The swastika, which is deeply linked to Nazi Germany, is a symbol of divinity in Hinduism and Buddhism to this very day. Before the Nazis claimed it, it once meant good luck.
As an American, I wonder if we will ever get to a place where the meaning of the flag can be multiple; where we can see our complete history—with our suffering, our failures, and our triumphs—and agree on one thing: that it holds multitudes. Just like our country.
Sue Walsh is a principal of design at SYPartners and is on the faculty at School of Visual Arts in the MFA Design and Continuing Education Departments.