Obviously there's been a lot in the news recently about the "Brexit" vote in the United Kingdom. Some commenters have speculated that Scotland - whose population voted significantly in favor of staying in the EU - might declare its independence so that it might later rejoin it as an independent nation. The fact that a 300 year-old union may be coming to an end is something to give us pause but so too is the fact the the flag associated with that union may soon be a thing of the past as well.
Often referred to as the Union Jack (although technically it's not a "jack" unless it's flown on a ship), the flag is as iconic as it is storied. It's the flag you can order on the roof of your Mini Cooper. It's the flag that you can still find incorporated into other flags of both nations and states. It's actually not the flag we fought against in the American Revolution. That flag was slightly different and that difference speaks to what an elegant piece of design the flag is.
The current flag of the United Kingdom is actually amalgamation of the flags of the kingdoms that make up the UK. England's flag had a white field overlaid by a red cross with horizontal and vertical members. When overlaid on top of the Scottish flag, a white diagonal cross over a blue field, you get the flag of Great Britain which is what the British forces flew during the American Revolution.
A few years later Ireland formally became part of the United Kingdom, and so the flag used by Ireland at the time - a red diagonal cross over a white background - was incorporated into the flag of Great Britain (which of course was already a hybrid of the English and Scottish flags). This has been the iconic symbol of the United Kingdom ever since.
It should be noted that Wales, the fourth kingdom in the United Kingdom, is notably not represented in the flag. This is because it was already under English control by the time this whole flag thing got started. Poor Wales.
So there are literally centuries of history built into the flag which I have ruthlessly condensed into the three paragraphs above. Maybe it's a happy coincidence that these amalgamated flags all fit together so well to create a design that is graphically compelling. Or maybe it speaks to the talent and skill of the designers responsible for such things. I tend to believe the latter is the case. At any rate, the Union Flag is a simple design that is made richer through an unexpected amount of complexity.
Take the proportion of the flag, for example. In it's proper form, the flag has a ratio of 1:2 as opposed to the more standard 3:5 of other nations. That's one of the reasons the Union Flag looks so much more regal when it's flown. There's also some strangeness going on with how the diagonal crosses are overlaid. If you look closely, you'll notice the flag is not symmetrical. The red of the Irish cross is not centered within the white of the Scottish cross. Instead it is offset slightly, but even this offset is not consistent. It "pinwheels" around the center of the flag so that its position is different in each of the flag's four quadrants (this diagram does a better job of explaining all this).
I only recently became aware of this asymmetry before but now that I have, I can't unsee it. It's like the "hidden" arrow in the FedEx logo. Even though I've yet to find a plausible reason for this, I think it makes the flag better.
Weather it's flags or buildings we're talking about, good design should be simple and elegant. But when something just a bit unexpected is added - be it the insertion of asymmetry, whimsy or humor - it goes a long way to making good design great.