Why making flags

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Reading time: 2:30min | Why flags help to understand what secret stories colours tell in our pictures.

This is the tasks:

  • Take a picture of your desk.
  • Make it memorable but don’t put anything silly in it; the image will be ending up on your company’s website.

That’s what my film editing workspace looks like:

Flame suite. Photograph: Hans von Sonntag

And that’s what an abstract flag of it would look like. Pretty bland.

Flag of flame suite picture. Graphics: Hans von Sonntag

That’s the moment I like to introduce you to my concept of making flags. It’s part of my cognitive colour theory.

Flags usually depict an abstract idea. Typically, that’d be a nation, an area or state, a company, a sports club. They often follow the concept of a horizon, based on the human perception so see the world divided into two or more parts in a horizontal pattern: sea — sky; field — mountains — sky; desert — sky. That, too, works in the inside: Kitchen sideboard — wall; window-line — wall; floor — wall — window-line. If you internalise the concept of horizons, you’ll see them everywhere. Photographers rely on that concept too. They learn to shoot in such a fashion that the (imaginary) horizon is set to water level. Otherwise, the audience would perceive the image as wrong.

That means that most images we see can be seen abstractly and depicted as flags. Think of a landscape panorama. The upper third shows a blue for the sky, in the middle third a light blue represents the mountains, and the lower third is ochre for the fields. That’s the flag:

Flag of Kampenwand picture. Graphics: Hans von Sonntag

And that’s the original picture:

Kampenwand. Photograph: Tobias Volke, Getty Images.

Back to the original task. When looking at that flag I’ve made from my working space, it becomes clear that there is no story in it. At least there’s nothing that can be transformed meaningfully into abstraction. This issue draws our attention, and we rethink our original idea.

We take our red jacket and throw it on the left office chair.

Flame suite, red jacket. Photograph: Hans von Sonntag

We now make a new flag. It looks like this:

Flag of Flame suite picture, with jacket. Graphics: Hans von Sonntag

The flag changed a lot. The red rectangular shape — the red jacket in the real picture — is the new centre of the picture. It draws all the attention, which raises a new question: if the jacket is now at the centre of the image, what does that say in terms of storytelling?

The answer is this: there’s a guy in that room. He left for some reason, but it’s very likely he’ll be back soon because he has left his jacket. That is a much better story than there are a desk, two monitors and two chairs. But besides colour, the jacket’s design tells us even more. A young woman would have left a very different jacket. Thus, we get an idea who works in this particular workspace.

Making a flag helps to understand what a picture tells us (for reference check the article A hidden menace) but also allows us to give our images a better meaning. The basic idea of the cognitive colour theory is to understand what colours in images and environments could mean to us. And making a flag is a practical tool to get a grip on colour concepts.

But, to be clear, a picture consists of many more things than just colours. But colours play a vital role and should not be judged by conventions and rules but by our aesthetic senses and inner feelings. Only this way we’re able to be genuinely authentic with our handling of colours. For me, that’s a vital part of freedom.

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