It’s been interesting to me to see some of the registrations/grants of coats of arms by some heraldic organizations, because sometimes the arms they register just seem so complex and hard to identify. (For examples of which, see the picture below.) And, really, isn’t identification the raison d’être of heraldry? Now, by this I don’t mean just the function of identifying knights in full armor on the battlefield or in the lists. In some of the presentations I give to genealogists and other groups, I use the analogy of a coats of arms being like one of those "Hello, My Name Is ..." nametags that people wear at meetings or events. That name tag, and a coat of arms, is just a way to identify someone. But if the coat of arms is so complex that you have trouble making it out, doesn’t that reduce its value as an identifying symbol? In just the same way that using an extremely florid script or medieval German blackletter on that nametag would make the name harder to read, and therefore identify?
I also certainly don’t mean to state, or even imply, that this tendency to overburden the shield is anything new, or has only occurred in recent years. Goodness knows, when you look at some of the grants done by the heralds in the time of the Tudor kings and queens of England, you see a lot of pretty complex stuff.
And I fully understand that many of these heraldic registries are, and must be in order to stay in business, "customer-oriented", and that there is only so much that you can do to guide a client determined to commemorate every significant event in his or her life on the shield. It isn’t always possible to apply the advice once offered by Garter King of Arms Peter Ll. Gwynn-Jones who, when asked what could be done with a client to wanted to put his resume on his shield, replied "Tell him he can’t have it!" But surely there must be some nice but effective way to explain to some of these clients that "resume heraldry" might not give the effect they are trying to achieve.
The best "rule of thumb" I ever heard regarding designing a coat of arms was by then-State Herald of South Africa Frederick Brownell, who opined that you should take a line drawing of the proposed coat and reduce to about the size of a postage stamp (roughly the size it might be on, say, a business card). If it is recognizable at that reduction, then it has achieved one of heraldry’s primary goals: identifiability.
And so it is in heraldry, as in so much else in life, that it helps to remember what has been called "the K.I.S.S. principle": "Keep It Simple, Stupid."