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Charles V. Mugno, director, Heraldic
Services and Support Division at the Institute of Heraldry, is largely
responsible for conceiving and fabricating the emblems that say
“America.” For a nation that was born of rebellion against the
entrenched traditions of Europe, the idea of heraldry—as representing an
aristocracy—is a bit of a paradox. And starting with Betsy Ross'
decidedly modern American flag, this nation, like any other, demanded a
language of emblems and seals that galvanized the populace and
symbolized its values and virtues. In this interview, Mr. Mugno
discusses the forms and functions of this special, yet ubiquitous, form
78th Signal Battalion, coat of arms.
Heller: Military insignia are born of heraldic
traditions, but so many of them are decidedly modern. What inspiration
(or background) material do you rely on to design a military symbol?
Mugno: The history, lineage, location, mission and
branch affiliation are the primary focus in the design of insignia. We
are provided specific information by the customer (e.g., a military unit
or government agency) such as a motto if they chose to use one,
specific colors associated with the unit/agency, a mascot or symbol they
are using, or even a design created by the customer through a contest
to promote esprit de corps among its members. For Navy and Coast Guard
ships, we use information provided by the commander about the type of
vessel and the origin of the ship’s name. We thoroughly research all
aspects of potential design elements using our extensive library located
on premises, internet resources and information provided by the
customer. When the insignia is for a newly organized unit and there is
no history to consider you will see “art imitating life,” and more
contemporary abstract patterns may be used to establish an identity.
Heller: Is there a uniquely American style for designing crests and seals for government and military?
155th Chemical Battalion, distinctive unit insignia.
Mugno: Heraldry is extremely traditional in its
approach. American heralds, for the most part, follow Western European
practices. This is evident in designs for coats of arms and crests for
organizational colors (flags). There are many symbols used, however,
that are uniquely American and connect our history to Native Americans,
such as the use of the bald eagle, American corn, wheat, cactus and
other elements symbolic of our heritage. The use of 13 stars to
represent the 13 original colonies or 50 stars to represent the 50
states is also common.
Heller: Are there guidelines that you must follow? And are these set in stone or carried out in an informal manner?
Mugno: The first rule of heraldry is that color on
color or metal on metal is not permitted. In addition, there are
specific requirements, limitations and restrictions concerning overall
size, number of colors and design elements allowed for a particular
seal, flag, badge, patch or distinguishing insignia. Distinctive unit
insignia (an enameled metal pin worn by soldiers), coats of arms (on a
flag) and shoulder sleeve insignia (patch) for an organization can share
a color scheme and some design elements, but cannot be identical. The
patch is the simplest of the three, using just three or four colors and
usually not more than three symbols to depict the organization. Simple
designs are the most notable and least likely to require change or
revision in the future. For example, a few of the most recognized cloth
insignia for Army units include: the First Infantry Division, a red
numeral one embroidered on an olive drab irregular shield shape; the
First U.S. Army, a black block letter “A” on a rectangle divided white
and red by the cross bar of the block letter; and the flag of the U.S.
Army Corps of Engineers, a white castle on a red background. These
designs are simple, timeless and readily identify the organization.
Heller: When a new symbol is conceived—say for something like
Homeland Security—what is the design brief, and how do you go about
solving the problem?
Mugno: When tasked with a new project, we gather as
much information as possible about the mission or purpose of the
organization, as well as specific design elements that are desired. A
blank canvas is rare because even when an organization is open to
anything; it is usually followed by “except for...” and they are
suddenly able to articulate things they do not want represented.
As previously mentioned, thorough research plays a key role in
developing the best design. Government agencies and military commands
often present the added difficulty of “design by committee” which
involves multiple levels of individuals who believe their views and
opinions need to be considered. The heraldic artist must take the very
best visual information available and create a strong design that can
stand the test of time for the organization, not the individuals who
have been tasked with getting a symbol or design for the organization.
Heller: Some symbols seem to never change. I understand that
the president’s seal has only changed once since Harry Truman was
president. Is there ever a time when such key symbols are considered for
Mugno: Symbols likes the presidential seal are so
timeless that every image, every color and every position has meaning,
and the authenticity is lost with changes. Change for the sake of change
is not a mindset of the heraldic artist or anyone who appreciates the
significance of having a seal, coat of arms or insignia. As a rule, the
strength of an emblem correlates to its years of use; standing the test
of time gives authenticity.
Heller: Are symbols reviewed on a regular basis? I know that
these become so charged that change is difficult, but have there been
instances where history or politics necessitate change?
Antilles High School JROTC (Fort Buchana, Puerto Rico), shoulder sleeve insignia.
Mugno: No, if it is determined that an insignia or
design is incorrect or some element of it is now considered offensive,
then it will be changed. Recently, several ROTC and Junior ROTC units
requested changes to their patches because their schools made a decision
to change their Native American mascots to other identifiers. Sometimes
the motto for a unit might need to be changed because it is no longer
accurate. For example, with the growing number of women serving side by
side with men, the motto “Fighting Men” would require change as well as
any insignia where it appeared. An unchanged insignia lends to its
legitimacy, just as the attributes it portrays are regarded as timeless;
no fashion trends, political winds, or personal taste should be allowed
to override established work.
Heller: How much iteration must a designer go through before nailing the perfect image? And what is the approval policy like?
Mugno: It’s not as much about “nailing the perfect
image” as symbolizing the organization in a way that tells the story,
states the mission and further defines the unit or organization. The
back-and-forth exchange of ideas between the artist and the
representative usually takes place during the design phase so that when a
suggested design is delivered, it is accepted. There are often comments
or requests for modification of the original suggested design, and as
long they do not duplicate existing insignia or fall into the category
of ”politically incorrect,” we do our best to incorporate them into the
Heller: Are certain colors preferred over others? Are there colors or images that are simply forbidden?
165th Infantry Brigade, shoulder sleeve insignia.
Mugno: Heraldry is based on a small basic set of tinctures: azure (dark blue), gules (red), celeste (light blue), vert (green), sable (black), sanguine (brown/maroon) and tenne (orange). The two metals, gold and silver, are identified as or and argent respectively, and would be depicted in cloth as yellow and white.
Due to historical events, there are symbols that would not be used,
such as the red star which is associated with the former Soviet Union,
the “stars and bars” of the confederacy, or the swastika which is
identified with Hitler and the Nazis of World War II. Religious symbols
are not used, except in items for the chaplains or religious offices of
the military. Any image that could be considered in poor taste, anything
suggestive, and specific weapons and machinery are not used. Weapons
and machinery are depicted in a general manner—a sword, a helicopter
blade, a bi-plane—are all non-specific and stand the test of time to
depict weapons and aircraft.
Heller: What is the training like for the members of your
design team? What rigors must they have before becoming a designer of
such charged images?
Mugno: Heraldry can be a solitary pursuit. Those who
forge ahead with a disciplined, self-taught program are the most
successful in producing heraldically correct and engaging designs. With
that said, the artistic staff of the Institute has a varied educational
background from art school, design school, interior design, bachelor of
arts, to masters of fine arts. In the area of heraldry, it is on the job
training and the self discipline to read and work independently
studying existing coats of arms, military history and symbolism. The
Institute is a one of a kind organization within the government and the
work is so unique and interesting that we have a very low turnover,
which is fortunate. Newly hired illustrators start off working on
revisions to existing drawings because of unit re-designations or the
need for additional specific color information. They move on to more
challenging work, including designs for the ROTC programs, Air Force
badges, group and squadron patches, and ultimately designing medals,
decorations, ribbons, badges, seals, plaques, distinctive unit insignia,
shoulder-sleeve insignia, and coats of arms.
Heller: You also design medals and awards. What determines
the symbolic make up of such things? What is the different design
component for campaign medals versus bravery citations?
Iraq Campaign medal.
Mugno: The type of award is the key to the design. A campaign medal
is limited to a standard shape and size. There are separate designs for
the obverse, reverse and ribbon pattern that combine to make up the
complete decoration. These elements come together to define the award.
The obverse is designed with reference to the theater of operation,
usually incorporating a symbol common to the region, while the reverse
often contains a appropriate symbol (such as a wreath, torch or laurel)
or nationally recognized emblem. Ribbon colors may represent the area of
operation, such as the national colors of the region or those
associated with allied forces. A medal for valor, heroism or meritorious
service is limited only by the designer’s imagination. These awards
follow a similar process as a campaign medal; however, they are rarely
circular in shape. The reverse usually has an area to engrave the name
of the recipient as well a symbol and/or inscription relative to the
type of award.
Heller: Are there any signs, symbols, medals or seals that are in the deep freeze waiting to be unveiled?
Mugno: There are always new and interesting
projects. Most recently, we were contacted by the Army Historical
Foundation to assist with the design of a one dollar U.S. coin to
commemorate the 235th anniversary of the U.S. Army. It is our policy,
however, not to discuss specific issues or design recommendations until
formally approved by the client.
When I started out, I worked for a designer who told me that there was a
little regret in every job. At the time, I thought this was a negative
But now I realize that if you don’t see that there are things that
you could do differently or better, you won’t keep striving to improve.
who aren’t afraid to question themselves and their work are the ones
who ultimately get better and succeed.
Section: Inspiration -
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