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I'm trying to come up with a flag for a fantasy city I'm designing, and it got me thinking about how flags are designed in general and where they draw their inspirations from.

For the most part, I believe that most flags are simply based on cultural/regional sources. Like for instance, the flag of a christian nation might have a cross on it, but a flag from a buddhist would not (probably).

Looking at the flags of the Earth (national, regional, municipal), there are countless designs. Some are abstract, some depict very detailed imagery. Some have only a few colours, some have an enormous colour palette. Some have animals, some have objects, some have people.

Also the process of creating a flag can also be very different. Just last year New Zealand held a national contest where any citizen could send in a design for a new flag, then a government committee would pick the best 50 and hold a public vote. I'm sure other countries have simply called in a designer and got them to design a flag and damn what the people think!

So my question to any vexillologist in the forum, are there any particular rules or guidelines for the inspirational source of a flag's design, or is it completely open to the designer's imagination?

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    $\begingroup$ I briefly considered an answer spouting terms like "rule of tincture" and keeping to common "divisions of the field." I then realized two important things. One, these rules have been gradually eroded here on this earth. Two, in your fantasy world, who can say whether such rules ever existed, except you the author. $\endgroup$ – cobaltduck Oct 11 '16 at 18:53
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    $\begingroup$ See this! $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Oct 11 '16 at 20:17
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    $\begingroup$ @cobaltduck IIRC rule of tincture was based on manufacturing techniques of the time. OP has to come up with overview of manufacturing history in his world -- or borrow ours, which would preserve the rule of tincture. $\endgroup$ – svavil Oct 12 '16 at 7:10
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    $\begingroup$ You might enjoy this video on flag design. It pretty much echos TrEs-2b's answer, but it is entertaining nonetheless. $\endgroup$ – Cody Oct 12 '16 at 18:38
  • $\begingroup$ Both JDlugosz and Cody linked the same video. However, it's pretty much what you need to know $\endgroup$ – Oak Oct 13 '16 at 22:33

11 Answers 11

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From the excellent article titled The 5 Basic Principles of Flag Design:

While not rules, there are 5 basic principles.

  1. Keep it Simple: A flag, they say, should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory. Kids will have fun drawing Japan’s flag, but not so much fun with Turkmenistan’s elaborate carpet-like patterns.
  2. Use Meaningful Symbolism: A Star of David in Israel’s flag carries great meaning; however, the symbol of the rifle found on Mozambique’s flag may not be the most positive icon to represent a country.
  3. Use Two to Three Basic Colours: Most flags get this right. Clearly South Africa didn’t get this memo — it has six colours on its flag.
  4. No Lettering or Seals: Mexico has incorporated an extremely complicated seal into its flag — an eagle holding a serpent, perched atop a prickly pear cactus, atop a rock that hovers over a lake. Try drawing that, kids.
  5. Be Distinctive or Be Related: I understand why the Scandinavian flags are part of a family, but Australia and New Zealand’s flags are virtually identical.
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    $\begingroup$ "2...the symbol of the rifle found on Mozambique’s flag may not be the most positive icon to represent a country". surely the rifle is just a modern version of crossed swords motif? "3...Clearly South Africa didn’t get this memo" they did, but they decided to go one step further. To create a new flag with the 'victorious' political party's 3 basic colours driving through the old 'defeated' national flag's 3 basic colours (well, that's how I've seen it the last few years). possibly representing 'good' overcoming the 'bad' and culminating in a colourful 'rainbow nation' flag. $\endgroup$ – EveryBitHelps Oct 11 '16 at 18:18
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    $\begingroup$ Australia and New Zealand, and the Falkland Islands etc are all similar for very good reasons $\endgroup$ – Rory Alsop Oct 11 '16 at 18:26
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    $\begingroup$ Great answer. I would say the american flag is likely at the upper bound for complexity a flag can have. I would add to the symbolism statement that if your world buliding it can be a convenient cheat to use the flag to symbolize something about the nation to the audience. Somber colors for somber people, flags that have similarities to real flags of nations similar to your fictional one etc. That is to say you may want to think not only about what is realistic in the world, but what is realistic in the world and useful to outside audience to understand that world quickly & easily. $\endgroup$ – dsollen Oct 11 '16 at 18:28
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    $\begingroup$ Since your entire answer appears to be copied verbatim from this article, I took the liberty of editing your answer to cite the source and formatting the quoted material as such, as I figured it was most likely a simple oversight on your part, and that is a great article. Feel free to edit my edit of course. :-) $\endgroup$ – type_outcast Oct 11 '16 at 18:37
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    $\begingroup$ Rules 1, 3, 4: I've once heard that it helps if groups in conflict situations have a flag that can be quickly manufactured at home from leftover fabric and on a sewing machine (or hand sewn). Many flags from wars up to a century or so ago were surely often hand-made by "grass roots" supporters of whatever side. Not sure if the same "rule" still applies in the modern day having hobby silk screening - but even then simplicity helps. Symbolism that can easily be multiplied helps to bolster "mind share". Key word being conflict situations like war, elections, etc. $\endgroup$ – fr13d Oct 13 '16 at 10:31
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There are no hard and fast rules …

There will always be outliers. The national Flag of Nepal is rather unique:

enter image description here

In fact, to construct it accurately requires 24 complex steps. Here's a video with mathematician Dr. James Grime following those steps to draw the flag.

… but there are guidelines

Obviously, many national, regional, and municipal flags are rather similar in appearance, as you noted in your question.

Aspect ratio

Or simply, the ratio of length to width. Wikipedia outlines the most common aspect ratios of national flags, of which there are a great many, but the largest groups of flags are either:

  • 2:3 (1.5), including Japan, France, Russia, and many more, or
  • 1:2 (2), including the US, Canada, United Kingdom, and many more, plus
  • a handful of others in use by a few countries

Colors

Virtually all flags use solid colors. You aren't likely to find gradients or shading on any government flags (if anyone's aware of a real counter-example, I'd be interested to see it, although these would certainly be outliers, regardless).

Symbolism

Some flags have symbolism, such as the "sun mark" on Japan's flag, maple leaf on Canada's flag, stars and stripes on the US flag (representing the States), while some flags adopt a simpler design, such as a tricolour design. Those are your two basic options (symbolic or not), but within them, the possibilities are nearly endless.

Creative inspirations

The first search result that popped up for me for a "flag design" search is the excellent The 5 Basic Principles of Flag Design by Hambly Woolley (a design firm). TrEs-2b referenced it as well, and has already quoted the five principles (summary) in his answer, so I'll simply refer you to the rest of the article, as it is very good.

I'd also suggest doing a Google Image Search for flag design, which will get you a lot of real flags, as well as flags designed for fantasy, corporate flags, and pretty much everything else.

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    $\begingroup$ If you consider the stars and stripes symbolic, then you should consider tricolours symbolic as well; for instance, according to the Irish government, "green represents the older Gaelic tradition while the orange represents the supporters of William of Orange. The white in the centre signifies a lasting truce between the 'Orange' and the 'Green'." $\endgroup$ – Tin Man Oct 11 '16 at 19:36
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    $\begingroup$ Gradients: Kaohsiung City, Taiwan (minor, easy to omit), Provo, Utah (changed in 2015 though) $\endgroup$ – Nick T Oct 11 '16 at 19:47
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    $\begingroup$ @NickT The Provo flag makes me think of late 90s/early 00s software logos. $\endgroup$ – JAB Oct 11 '16 at 21:16
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    $\begingroup$ Looking at the aspect ratios on the Wikipedia page, very many flags have a ratio of two consecutive Fibonacci numbers (1:2, 2:3, 3:5, 5:8). Which is probably not coincidental: Those ratios are increasingly better approximations of the golden mean. $\endgroup$ – celtschk Oct 12 '16 at 19:27
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    $\begingroup$ @user58697 The Wikipedia page for the Flag of Japan, referencing the Act on National Flag and Anthem, states "This flag is officially called Nisshōki (日章旗?, "sun-mark flag") in Japanese, but is more commonly known as Hinomaru (日の丸?, "circle of the sun")." You are probably thinking of the standard of the emperor, which does depict a chrysanthemum. $\endgroup$ – type_outcast Oct 13 '16 at 10:54
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You might also be interested in the 99% Invisible podcasts and articles on flag designs at http://99percentinvisible.org/episode/episode-06-99-symbolic/ and http://99percentinvisible.org/episode/vexillonaire/

Excerpt:

Here’s a trick: if you want to design a kickass flag, start by drawing a one-by-one-and-a half inch rectangle on a piece of paper.

A design at these dimensions held 15 inches from your eye looks about the same as a three-by-five foot flag on a flagpole a hundred feet away.

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    $\begingroup$ The excerpt information is actually pretty nifty B) $\endgroup$ – Harry David Oct 12 '16 at 11:11
  • $\begingroup$ They put on an excellent TED talk that combines the two concepts nicely: youtube.com/watch?v=pnv5iKB2hl4 $\endgroup$ – Kirbinator Oct 14 '16 at 17:57
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European national flags arise form heraldic tradition of armory (study of coats of arms) and are a quite new development. Similar ideas have been seen in other parts of the world hence the flag of nepal which comes from their own tribal markings.

The key concept of armory is that there is a limited color palette and symbols have a set form. The reason for this is that production methods in the medieval times were not standardized like today. So a logo like Coca Cola that is always printed in the nearly spot on same red color could not have been achieved back in the day. Same applies to shapes as they are hand drawn. So as a results the colors and iconography are symbolic.

  • All hues of red is still just the same red color.
  • All Circles are the same circle eve if the size changes slightly.
  • Shapes are simple, or at least a intricate shape is equal to simple one just as long as it has all elements in the description.

Rough European heraldic rules

There are some rules to the use of patterns and color so that the coat of arms or flag can be described with words and are identifiable in the heat of combat. Preferably even when soiled with gore or years of sunlight exposure.

Europeans have traditionally limited themselves to colors:

  • Black – Sable
  • Green – Vert
  • Blue – Azure
  • Red – Gules
  • Purple – Purpure
  • Maroon / Blood Red – Sanguine / Murray.
  • Orange – Tenne / Tawny

In addition to colors you have two metals:

  • Silver substituted by the color White – Argent
  • Gold substituted by the color Yellow – Or

And furs which are basically patterns on the color. All of these are together called tinctures.

As a rule of thumb you should never adjoin two colors, but you should have a metal in between (though sometimes black is allowed to do so, and if there is a symbol on top it has its own rules). Also your base coat of arms should be limited to one metal (and one fur). If you look at European flags most follow this rule see:

  • wikipedia on flags of Europe, the older the flag the more closely it follows this.

So take the Finnish flag, it is an Azure cross on silver (with some measurements for the proportions). The exact blue is not specified which is why you see some variation in the blue even so most Finns aren't aware of this fact and this may lead to heated discussions if asked. But there are more modern rules that say more stringent, but even with wrong blue its still the Finnish flag.

Same kinds of rules apply to pennants and banners. Sometimes it seems that these rules are more like what they call guidelines.

Other traditions

Other traditions exist and have somewhat similar rules. Its good to look at Japanese and Chinese heraldic banners and clothes for further ideas. This might also explain why the newer countries may have a more modern or more local interpretation of the rules. So maybe South Africa did get the memo but decided to use more local traditional interpretation of the rules!

Go forth and set your own rules

In your own world you can use whatever rules you want. But best limit to simple. It also makes written description easier.

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    $\begingroup$ Upvote because speaking about flag making without speaking about heraldry rules doesn't make sense, yet all the highest voted answer have no clue. The majority of country flags to this day follow the heraldic rules for their colours, including the distinction color/metal. It's still possible to do without, especially if op's city has never had western influences, but this is still important knowledge! $\endgroup$ – Shautieh Oct 13 '16 at 14:57
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What time period your world is set in? You might want to research the flags of the our world states of the similar era. How old is your flag? The designs of the symbols of state (flag, crest) often have tendency to stay unchanged for centuries. Once again, research the era similar to that in your world's history, when the flag first came to existence.

As for slew of advices already given about styling a flag, there is one important thing to remember: historically, a flag or a banner was raised to distinguish your warriors from enemy combatants.

That was (and still is) its primary purpose.

This is why a clearly recognizable combination of prominent solid colors is prevalent in the designs of most flags. This way a flag serves it purpose instantly, whether it is raised over a castle, man-o-war, or just picked up and held high by a single soldier.

The heraldic symbols (if you wish to employ those) are where you have most fun. There is no stopping your imagination in that. Historically they usually depict or hint at some heroic or otherwise important events in the history of the state/city.

The rest is up to you. That includes the aspect ratio :-)

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The important thing is to consider the function of a flag. A flag is a flexible, piece of fabric that is suspended in the air to use as a form of identification or communication at at distance.

So, a flag needs to be recognizable, and it needs to be so when suspended in the air, potentially wrinkled upon itself to some degree, and at a distance where fine detail is not going to be visible. It might also be seen from either side.

The "Rule of Tincture" from European heraldry is a rule of thumb for making high visibility colour combinations and could be generalized to "contrast light with dark". It's not about following the rules for the rules sake, it's about making the flag effective.

A few similar "rules" would be to try to have boundaries between contrasting colours extending to the edges of the flag. This helps make the flag recognizable even if it's hanging limp without much wind.

Don't use fine details to distinguish your flag. They won't be visible at a distance or if the flag is moving or limp

Don't just drop a symbol like a seal or coat of arms in the middle of a solid coloured field (US State Flag Syndrome). Derivatives of red and blue ensigns (Australia, New Zealand, Ontario, Manitoba, etc) are another bad example. An alternative is to do a heraldic banner where you take your coat of arms and expand the shield into a flag. (The flag of British Columbia was created this way for instance)

Don't make the back and front of the flag different. A few flags have distinct back and front designs and this is a horrible idea. The point of a flag is to be recognized so having it be different depending on the side you look at is counterproductive. It's also difficult to make a flag that's different on opposite sides without making it either "bleed through from one side to the other" or be too heavy to fly properly.

The flag should work when mirrored. The back of the flag is actually a mirror image of the front. The US flag has the blue canton with stars at the left on the front, and at the right on the back. Think in terms of toward/away from the flag pole instead.

Don't include text. Text is fine detail that doesn't work when mirrored.

Consider other flags being used and aim to be recognizably different. Don't be like Australia and New Zealand (Which one has the extra star and which has the stars trimmed in red?), Ontario and Manitoba (Does the little tiny coat of arms have a sprig of maple leaves or a bison?), The Netherlands and Luxembourg (What shade of blue is that?), or most of the US states (So it's some sort of circular seal on a blue background)

Of course, that all depends on whether you are trying to come up with good flags. There are obviously a lot of bad flags in real life, so you might want to make intentionally bad flags. Modern flags tend to be fairly symbolic so they can survive being poorly designed. Historically their function was more important so simple bold recognizable designs would have been preferred.

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Flag design is an interesting topic, which has been popularized recently by Ted Kay’s Good Flag, Bad Flag and Roman Mars’s TED Talk “Why city flags may be the worst-designed thing you’ve never noticed”. However, there is more to say than that. They are good places to start, but follow them up with Perry Dane’s Flags in Context, which discusses the history and aesthetics of vexillology in far more detail. Possibly also pop into /r/vexillology.

Flags can be sorted into various categories.

  • Most of the older flags have their origin in heraldry. Heraldry itself, of course, is a purely European tradition. Other cultures have had rough equivalents, but heraldry is European, as are the oldest flags. The oldest national flag still used is that of Denmark. The Scandinavian cross is also used on the national flag of many of Denmark’s neighbours.
  • Tricolours, when they originated, were bold and simple and new. Visually striking. Newer tricolours are less powerful. Also, they are somewhat boring. (Personally, I wish Ireland had retained the harp. It’s a heraldic symbol of Ireland, and is very distinctive.)
  • Newer national flags are striking out in different ways, discarding the heraldic past.
  • US State flags have a genre all of their own: seal on a bedsheet. Avoid.

And others (read Perry Dane for details).


In a worldbuilding context, you have to think about what you’re trying to symbolize with your flag, and about the design tradition in which it resides. Does it come from an older aesthetic tradition, such as heraldry? If so, what does heraldry look like in your world?

In our world, tricolours have a specific meaning. A tricolour means this country is a Republic. There are other traditions in flag design, such as the pan-African colours seen in many (but not all) African national flags. Similarly, you might be better off not designing one flag, but designing a family of flags, in conversation with each other. Work out their histories, and which came first.

Flags change, as a result of governmental changes. Many national symbols started out as family or personal symbols of a ruler. When there’s a revolution or coup, the symbols can change (or can merge).


Symbols matter. When the Irish Free State started minting their own coins, there was massive controversy. The Free State was no longer part of the United Kingdom, but at the time still recognized the British Monarch as Head of State. And yet they minted coins with just a heraldic harp, not a heraldic crowned harp. Some people saw this as disrespectful. Perhaps it presaged Ireland’s eventual exit from the British Commonwealth of Nations and declaration of itself as a full Republic with an elected president as Head of State.

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    $\begingroup$ "A tricolour means this country is a Republic", or in the case of the Netherlands, this country was once a republic but kept the flag the same when it gained a monarch. $\endgroup$ – origimbo Oct 13 '16 at 3:17
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    $\begingroup$ The harp was crowned as a badge of the kingdom of Ireland, but not in the coat of arms itself. Anyway, the Irish probably felt that the harp belongs properly to Leinster (the east quadrant) rather than to Ireland as a whole. $\endgroup$ – Anton Sherwood Oct 13 '16 at 8:05
  • $\begingroup$ @AntonSherwood. Well, the harp (uncrowned) also resides on the presidential standard of Ireland, which is basically a heraldic banner of the arms of Ireland. $\endgroup$ – TRiG Oct 13 '16 at 9:04
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I would like to just emphasize: It is really your decision.

Yes, it holds countless advantages to stay in line with principles, but basically a flag speaks for its bearers. If it depicts a community which is totally careless about the standards that others converge to, then so be it. You can read plenty about common thoughts and views about how to design a flag, but it’s up to you.

For a fantasy city: Since it is in your world, you may want to follow your rules. Once I happened to design a flag for a Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 city, showing clear communication that they are employing mercenaries for statarial and swift peacekeeping. The only aspects I had to go with is the communication style of the adventuring party and the baselines of the city. The party can still get lost in understanding the elements. So it is up to what the city wants to communicate and how.

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    $\begingroup$ There is a reason you can't comment with 15 points, and posting an answer instead is not the correct response to that limitation. Luckily, this seems to be a perfectly valid answer, so no need for the disclaimer in the first place $\endgroup$ – Kevin Wells Oct 12 '16 at 17:04
  • $\begingroup$ What is statarial? $\endgroup$ – TRiG Oct 13 '16 at 16:39
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    $\begingroup$ @Trig: Sorry, I thought this exists in english. The best translation I could find with help of friend is "drum head martial court". It means immediate evaluation of a crime right on the spot and immediate execution of punishment, without questioning later the fairness. It was initiated by edict in 1868 as provisional authorizable practice, authorized by palatine, and was available till 1897. majt.elte.hu/Tanszekek/Majt/Magyar%20JogtorteNET/magyarazatok/… It is from hungarian law history from Eötvös Lóránd University. $\endgroup$ – Sonic Oct 14 '16 at 7:19
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There is a fantastic TED talk regarding Vexillology that perfectly answers most of your queries. In this surprising and hilarious talk about vexillology — the study of flags — Mr. Roman Mars reveals the five basic principles of flag design and shows why he believes they can be applied to just about anything.

Please watch this:

Roman Mars — Why city flags may be the worst designed thing you’ve never noticed.

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  • $\begingroup$ So what does he say? Link-only answers are not very useful when the URL changes. $\endgroup$ – pipe Oct 13 '16 at 12:16
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    $\begingroup$ @pipe. It's not quite link-only. It also has the name of the presenter and, in the URL itself, the name of the talk. However, the same information is given in a few other answers. $\endgroup$ – TRiG Oct 13 '16 at 16:40
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My own conworld has its own heraldic rules. Those are:

  1. Colours for lines are sables, silver, gold;

  2. Colours for fields are goles, blau (blue), jaune (yellow), sinople, orange, violet, sables and snow (white);

  3. Any two fields must be separated by at least one line;

  4. Sables, violet, and blau fields reject sable lines;

  5. Orange, jaune, goles, and snow fields reject golden lines;

  6. Jaune and snow fields reject silver lines;

  7. Clerical heraldry must limit itself to sinople, orange, violet, sables and snow fields, and requires fields of at least one of the three first colours;

  8. Noble heraldry may use fields of any colour. but not both goles and orange, blau and violet, or jaune and snow;

  9. Commoner heraldry must violate at least one of the rules above.

I probably had more fun designing that set of rules than any of the individual flags I managed to come up with.

Flag of Sinian (one of the fifteen kingdoms, or major States): Flag of Sinian (one of the fifteen kingdoms, or major States)

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As alluded to in other answers it would be well worth looking at the rules of heraldry. In the UK and Commonwealth this is regulated by the College of Arms and their website (in the link) has quite a lot of interesting information on the subject.

These rules, in practical terms are designed to produce arms which are recognisable and distinctive to an individual/organisation.

In more general terms the basic principal of the graphic design of logos and trademarks etc will apply and indeed modern trademark law is a close analogy for medieval heraldry, serving a very similar purpose.

A key thing is that a flag needs to be simple and distinctive enough that it can be recognised at a distance in a range of scales and formats as well as being reasonably easy to reproduce. So typically you are looking at

  • bold geometric or stylised shapes
  • a limited palette of contrasting colours
  • limited fine detail, or at least a design which still works with fine detail removed.

There are designs which do have a lot of detail and small text etc such as regimental colours, but usually this is overlaid on a much simpler design which is dominates the overall scheme.

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