/ 22 April 2019

Designing an Earth Flag

I have a neighbor who puts out flags for almost any occasion you can think of. Holidays. Sporting events. National celebrations. (You should have seen his house during the last World Cup.) About a year ago, as Earth Day came and went, he displayed a wonderful Earth Day flag. Today, it was out again.

Flag of Earth (J. McConnell)

This flag isn’t just a novelty or a one-off design my neighbor acquired so he’d have something to hoist on Earth Day. This is the Earth Day flag. Commonly recognized as the Flag of Earth, it’s connected closely to the origins of Earth Day itself. I’ve been around for a few dozen Earth Days at this point, and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the flag before. You probably have too, without thinking too hard about it. Until I saw it waving over his front porch last year, I hadn’t ever stopped to contemplate how incredible it was to even attempt to create an Earth Flag. The idea that a flag could attempt to express something universal about our planet’s particular circumstance is powerful. At ground level, it seems almost naive. 

(Almost all of my favorite concepts share this particular trait.)

The design is admirably straightforward: a highly detailed photo-realistic image of earth, taken from space, against an azure background. Organizer John McConnell created the flag in 1969 to mark the first Earth Day; the earliest iteration was a slightly simplified, sketched-out version of the earth-against-space idea:

Flag of Earth, Original (J. McConnell)

He later replaced the hand-rendered two-color illustration of Earth with the famous “Blue Marble” photograph taken by the astronauts of Apollo 17. The idea behind depicting Earth from space as a kind of frame around our collective humanity goes back even farther, at least to the famous “Earthrise” photo taken during Apollo 8. 

Earthrise (W. Anders)

There’s something audacious about imagining a real Earth Flag, used in some kind of official capacity, or maybe even loved, as we do our national flags. What more could a design, or a designer, ever hope to accomplish? To propose an Earth Flag is to express something intrepid and optimistic – namely, the idea that such a flag could ever represent some universal truth shared by the inhabitants that make up our conflicted planet.

U.N. Flag
Olympic Flag

Among current flags that live in this space, the UN flag and the Olympic flag each approach the idea of a common human experience. However, each seems to express themes that come from here on the ground. (Yes, the UN flag shows a top-down view of the globe, but to my eyes the shape of the continents and the projection betray a concern with individual, territorial and political detail.)

The genius of the McConnell’s Earth Flag is that it takes the perspective of some entity looking at the planet from much farther away – from a place where only the most universal attributes matter.

There is one flag on the Flag of Earth page that I find even more suited to the task at hand: James Cadle’s Flag of Earth.

Flag of Earth (J. Cadle)

This one is stunning, allegorically and visually. Earth is reduced to a single color, oceanic blue. The inclusion of the moon shows our uniqueness and gives a sense of perspective; the looming sun provides the same in the opposite direction – with a crop that alludes to a wonderful sense of size and depth. Deep black space beckons behind

After seeing Cadle’s flag, I knew I had to try my hand at the concept. Influenced by all of the material above, here’s where I ended up. 

Flag of Earth (M.Willis)

I hope you can see the inspiration and precedent I took from the other flags in this genre. Inspired by McConnell and the Apollo astronauts, I loved the idea of depicting Earth as a solitary, floating “blue marble”. From Cadle, I loved the idea of including the moon – a celestial body which is as much a part of us as the earth is. (I’d argue that it makes earth unique, and helps makes us human as well.) The moon is a part of our home, and deserves to be on an earth flag. I also liked Cadle’s reduced color palette. Tones of blue carry the work, and though I didn’t go full black, I opted for an inkier, near-black blue to serve as as the cosmic backdrop.

The Earth Symbol
Black Marble (NASA)

A few other touches: while keeping things blue, I depicted the variance in Earth surface colors not as swirls or solid blocks, but in the shape of the quartered Earth Symbol, itself an age-old representation of a global perspective.

And I decided to represent the sun even further off frame, showing a sliver of sunlight on both earth and moon.

(As it happens, this very portrayal was captured by NASA in 2012 in a sequel to Blue Marble they dubbed Black Marble.)

This last choice allows me to include some final allegory – the sun can be seen as a provider, as an influence that provides Earthlings with resources and hope. I’d like to think the sliver of sunlight represents shared potential as well – the hope that we’re continually awakening. 

Designing an Earth flag is a bit audacious. It forces the designer, and the viewer, to think about how much we really do share. Maybe one day, the  idea of an Earth Flag that we all know and love will seem just as unbelievably natural as being alive, on earth, together.