Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
A new infographic by a pair of Danish designers has everything you never knew you wanted to know about the world’s flags.
At their simplest level, national flags are banners that express pride and loyalty. But if you take a closer look, a flag is a fascinating representation of a nation’s identity—from the colors and symbols used to the overall layout.
“It's a very simple piece of design, and yet there are so many stories in it,” says Jeppe Morgenstjerne, a co-founder of the Denmark-based design agency Ferdio. “It’s telling of how the world has progressed.” He and fellow co-founder Birger Morgenstjerne recently created “Flag Stories,” an extensively detailed infographic breaking down the flag designs of the nearly 200 U.N.-recognized countries. The team studied everything from the most common colors used to the varying levels of complexity of the world’s flags.
CityLab picked out five points from Jeppe’s and Birger’s analysis, and to put the results into context, reached out to vexillologist (or flag expert) Ted Kaye, who authored the 2006 design guide Good Flag, Bad Flag. He was also the former editor of Raven, a scholarly journal about flags from the North American Vexillological Association. According to Kaye, there are two key points to keep in mind: The first is that flags are all about symbolism. That, he says, “can be carried not just by an object on a flag, but by how the flag is divided and what the colors are.” Second, imitation really is the highest form of flattery.
The three-striped “tribar” layout is the most popular
There are two major reasons for that, says Kaye. The first is simply because it’s easy to stitch three strips of fabric together. The second reason dates back to the 18th century, when a common way to represent a kingdom or a person was to take the colors from their coat of arms and place them as horizontal stripes on a flag. Among the first flags to use that design was that of the Netherlands, which Kaye says became an example for flags across Europe. Peter the Great then brought that layout further east after making the Russian flag a version of the Dutch flag.
But why are some vertically arranged? Thank the French Revolution. “It upended the structure of society in Europe, and it signified that by upending the horizontal tribar,” says Kaye. "The very nature of that verticality of the [French flag] represents a revolution of the then-order of Europe.”
Red, blue, and white dominate the colors of the world’s flags
A flag’s colors are often driven by the flag of the country it is related to. The U.S., for example, maintains the red, white, and blue colors used by the U.K. “Certainly, Great Britain, and France have bequeathed red, white, and blue to their colonies and former colonies,” says Kaye. That’s not always the case, though. Sometimes the colors are “reactions” to a colonial power. “For example, the colors of the African National Congress [a political party in South Africa] are black, yellow, and green—opposite the colors of the Dutch and the English.”
Birger and Jeppe note that, strangely enough, purple is not present in any of the flags. That’s because colors reflect the available technologies in making dyes, Kaye says. “Purple has a been a notoriously difficult color to dye, except extremely expensively. In the Roman times, purple was reserved for the nobility because purple dye was so expensive.”
Colors have individual meanings, too
Sifting through descriptions of each flag, many of which they gathered from Wikipedia, the team pulled out keywords and grouped them into categories. The description of flags that use red, for example, often include words like “independence” or “sovereignty,” which are categorized under “struggle.” But Birger and Jeppe tell CityLab that different countries have their own interpretations. And even within a country, those differ. Kaye also cautions that often, meanings are attributed to the colors after the flag has already been adopted.
The star is the most commonly used symbol on flags
According to Kaye, the first country to use a five-pointed star on a flag was the U.S., and some believe it was inspired by George Washington, who had the symbol on his coat of arms. Before the U.S. flag, stars were depicted as having six or more points, mirroring how stars twinkle in the sky. “A star represented component parts of a country, so it's now very popular to mean both independence—the Lone Star of Texas derives from the American flag—but also component parts,” he says. On China’s flag for example, the large star is said to represent the Chinese Communist party, and the four smaller ones surrounding it are associated with the four social classes that supported the party.
The simpler the flag, the more efficient it is
Using the Adobe Illustrator, Birger and Jeppe calculated the number of vector points, or points at which a lines meet, to determine the complexity of a flag’s design. The simplest flags, labeled “child’s play,” have just eight to 12 points. The most complex ones can have as many as 10,847 points.
Kaye’s first principle of flag design is to keep it simple—so simple that a child could recreate it from memory. “The idea of a flag is that it's a piece of fabric to be seen at a distance, on both sides, while it’s flapping,” he says. “By making a flag complex, it's more expensive, and that expense is wasted because you can't see [the detail] at a distance.”
But flags that stray from that principle aren’t all bad. Kaye points to the flag of Bhutan, which falls under the “impossible” category in the infographic. It features a highly detailed dragon against a yellow and orange background. “It's a very simple field division between the yellow and orange, and very distinctive; no other flag is yellow and orange,” he says. “And you can see that it's a dragon in the middle.”
Not every flag follows the design principles Kaye laid out in 2006, but that doesn’t mean countries are scrambling to change their national banners. New Zealand, for example, recently decided to keep its current flag despite spending a year and $17.6 million searching for a new one.
People have very strong relationships with their flags for two reasons, says Kaye. One is proprietary: They’ve grown up with the flag and feel that it will always represent them. The other, he says, is what psychologists call the “mere-exposure effect”: “If they’re used to it, they like it.”
You can see more of Birger and Jeppe’s infographics here.