June 2, 2021

Queer by Design: The rainbow flag

Read time Min.

This post was originally published in June 2020, in the limited print magazine OFF centre, created in collaboration with Linda Hammarstrand and Viktorija Bernatavičiūtė.


1. Strange; odd.
2. Denoting or relating to a sexual or gender identity that does not
correspond to established ideas of sexuality and gender, especially
heterosexual norms.
3. Off-center

The word Queer originally meant “strange or peculiar”, not far from the meaning of the word off-center. In the early 20th century, people used it as an insult against people who didn’t conform to normative gender and sexual orientations until the 1980s, when activists reclaimed the word, using it to describe themselves as a deliberately provocative and politically radical act. Today, we use queer as an umbrella term to encompass sexual and gender minorities who are not heterosexual or are not cisgender.

The year 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of the first ever Pride Parade that took place in New York, one year after the Stonewall Riots that started what would be a half a century long endeavor to secure equal rights and representation for all the members of the LGBTQ collective.

I couldn’t think of a better moment than now for professor and art historian Andy Campbell to publish his book Queer X Design, an overview of these past 50 years and of the intersection between the fight for equality, the symbols and images that represent a community and graphic design. We want to join in on the celebration and pay a well-deserved tribute to Andy Campbell and the icons of visual queer identity.

The most salient and arguably the most recognizable symbol of queer identity is the Rainbow Flag. The flag came to be, thanks to the work of Gilbert Baker, a gay rights activist who, in 1978, gay icon Harvey Milk tasked with creating a flag for a gay pride event. Baker had always been drawn to fashion and art, so he happily took on the challenge of creating a new symbol for the pro-gay marches and protests.

He was inspired by the people and the chaos in the scene during the 70s to envision a swirl of color that would represent all of them. The rainbow, a classic symbol of hope since its appearance in the old testament would move forward to represent this diverse community and be a moment of change and re-imagining of the queer identity.

Originally designed to be composed of eight color stripes as including the traditional seven and hot pink, each one with its own meaning for the community. The first flags were hand dyed and sewn and measured well over 5 meters. The flag came when the queer community was looking for a symbol of pride and something that would bring a positive take. His contribution to the queer identity remains to this day one of the most significant and long-lasting; the flag has been updated a few more times, after being reduced to only six color stripes, adding stripes for the different racial groups and trans identities and immortalized and a wide variety of forms and applications. In fact, the typeface used throughout this article (in Off-centre magazine), in its black and colorful versions, was created in tribute of the flag-designer after his passing and aptly named Gilbert.
Today, when we think of LGBTQ symbols and representation, it’s easy for our minds to go to the rainbow flag and consider a colorful identity, but that hasn’t always been the case.

“Sometimes, a rebellion begins with a rebrand. In Queer X Design, the professor Andy Campbell weaves a telling visual tapestry of an emerging L.G.B.T.Q. language and identity.”

The New York Times

More information about Andy Campbell and his book Queer x Design