The design of American heraldry: an interview with Charles V. Mugno.

Author:Heller, Steven

The subject of heraldry conjures vibrant images of colorful family crests, lavish medals, military insignia, and political correctness. But heraldry also applies to NDTA member trademarks and our Association logo as well. The following interview with Charles V. Mugno, Director, Heraldic Services and Support Division at the Institute of Heraldry, sheds light on what lies behind the design and makes a fitting contribution to this issue of the DTJ where corporate logos and organizational emblems are proudly displayed on Almanac pages. We express sincere thanks to AIGA, the professional association for design, for rights to reprint.


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 of design.



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 (eg, 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?

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...

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