02/52: America the Minimal

A simple twist on the stars and stripes


Each week for a year, I’m going to be designing a shirt and releasing it on my Threadless store. This is the second design of fifty-two.


In honor of the Fourth of July, I wanted to design a shirt that’s a little patriotic… with a twist. I wondered what the stars and stripes would look like if it had designed with modern design sensibilities and restrictions. Is it refined and simple? Can it be easily reproduced in small sizes? Will it work as a social media icon?

How minimalist can you make the American flag and still evoke the feeling of the stars and stripes?

And so my second design is America the Minimal, a simple take on the stars and stripes. But what started as a funny little speculative redesign triggered some thoughts about redesigns, minimalism and more.

First some history about the American flag. I knew that the Betsy Ross origin story was widely considered a myth, but I didn’t know much about who was credited with designing the original U.S. flag. Turns out a guy named Francis Hopkinson is credited with the design of the flag and many other American symbols. He actually requested payment from the Congress in the form of a “quarter cask of wine” in exchange for designing the American flag, the Great Seal of the United States and other symbols. Long story short, he never got paid.*

The current flag has been in use since 1960 and is actually the 27th version. The number of stars have changed as states have been added. In early years, there was no prescribed structure for the stars so it varied based on who was sewing the flag. Only the number of stars was mandated. (The original stars had six points, but it turns out five-pointed stars are easier to produce.)

As I sought to create a minimalist version of the U.S. Flag, I started with the stripes. My first drafts had four stripes, but that didn’t look quite right. The regular American flag has an odd number of stripes and the top and bottom stripes are both red. Three stripes were too few. And while both five and seven stripes worked nicely, I eventually settled on five stripes for my design.

The stars were a challenge because they don’t work well at small sizes. My first thought was to use one big star in the blue field, but a single star was too prominent. (Plus, it looks like the Liberian flag.) As I was driving home one afternoon, I noticed that when you look at a flag flying at a distance, the stars almost disappear into the blue field. And after experimenting for a little bit, I came to the conclusion that maybe the best solution to keep things minimal was to eliminate the stars and go with a plain blue field.

And what I ended up with is a minimalist version of the American flag with five stripes and a plain blue field. I think it successfully feels like a more simple version of the American flag and not the flag for another country.

As I wrapped up the shirt design, a couple of lessons resonated with me.

First, it would be impossible to redesign the American flag in today’s environment. As I focused on designing a “new” flag, it occurred to me how frustrating this process would be. Every single item I removed or changed had meaning. And as I changed those things, every alternation would be scrutinized. I can hear the comments now…

Why aren’t there 13 stripes? You know, the ones that stood for the 13 original colonies. Do you no longer care about history? And where are the stars? Removing the stars is a sign that you care more about the federal government than the states. This is clearly the work of socialism! This is clearly the work of facism!

No one would be happy. And as I thought about it, redesigning the American flag, or any U.S. political symbol, has to rank as one of the worst, most impossible jobs in the design world. Which is why the flag won’t ever change. (I might argue that one reason Puerto Rico won’t become a state is that there are people who would be uncomfortable adding a 51st star.)

But here’s the bigger takeaway for me… Sometimes, minimalist solutions are unnecessarily limiting. In this case, it was a fun exercise, but every revision took away meaning. The 13 stripes do stand for the 13 original colonies. The 50 stars stand for each of the states in the union. Slavishly removing those things in an effort to make it more simple destroys the meaning of the symbol. And the quest to be minimal adds an additional challenge: with every detail you remove, the design becomes less unique. The “new” flag looks more like other country and state flags. One benefit of more complex designs is that they often seem more original than simpler ones.

Get your America the Minimal shirt over at my Threadless store. I’ve included kids shirts for this week and a long sleeve “baseball” tee. Remember that for the first week a new design is on sale, the price is discounted, so get your shirt this week and save some money.

One additional note. I realize that it’s too late to order shirts for the 4th of July this year. For future seasonal shirts, I’ll release them earlier so you’ll be able to get them in time.

* That's what you get for doing spec work, I guess... even in the 1790s.

Bob Wertz writes about design, technology and pop culture at Sketchbook B. Bob is a Columbia, South Carolina-based designer, creative director, college instructor, husband and dad. He’s particularly obsessed with typography, the creative process and the tools we use to create. He's currently in the middle of a project to design a new shirt a week for an entire year. Follow Bob on TwitterInstagram and Micro.Blog.