Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The 15 Best Flags of the World

There's just something I love about flags. I'm not sure what it is - I hate flag-waving, and I hate the grotesque respect afforded them. But as iconic, rectangular 'logos' for countries or other geographical entities, they intrigue. And as with logos, they can have good designs or bad. I've picked out 15 here - that I don't claim are the best ever (despite the title of this entry), merely that I happen to find aesthetically pleasing.



I think this might just be my favourite flag. Every time I see it, I'm drawn to how unique it is. It's really a bold, appealing design, but it barely even makes sense. It's not a horizontal line dividing yellow from blue, because the blue makes a comeback on the right hand side. It seems to be an almost square yellow-blue flag with fat blue borders on either side. And that row of stars - that runs right off the flag, actually cutting two of the stars in half-how cool is that, and how decently does it subvert the bunch-of-stars flags that populate so much of the world. Gorgeous.


My other favourite national flag, and also in blue and yellow, this is one of several pretty cool central Asian flags. The central motif - of an eagle stretching its wings around the sun - is gorgeous in itsstylised way. And as a special bonus - like Belarus and Turkmenistan - we get a patch of tapestry running up the side. Stately and elegant - a flag to be proud of.



In east Asia, flags definitely subscribe to a kind of 'Asian' aesthetic. A good amount of flags from this region have what you might call a 'minimalistic approach' - in fact, in a good many cases, they seem to be logos centred on single-coloured backgrounds. The flower is apparently 'Bauhenia blakeana', a name I've never heard of before, but its five-ponted design nicely imitates the star located within each leaf. It's sleek, it's traditional and futuristic at the same time, and it's red-and-white, which I think inevitably makes nice-looking flags.


I could have compiled my entire top ten from the flags of Japan. Japan is broken into little areas called 'prefectures', and each prefecture has its own flag. The vast majority of these are beautiful and fully in keeping with the design aesthetic I described above. They might veer too close to corporate logography, but they err on the side of taste by inevitably being, well, tasteful. I've included three here, starting with this clever variation on the Japanese national flag, with the rising sun transformed into a kind of spiral that gets included on Wikipedia's 'list of flags with flowers', but I have no idea how it can be a flower.


The light blue of the UN as opposed to the standard darker 'blue' shade, this flag features three angular shapes that almost resemble capital As in a particularly chubby font. They are, apparently, mountains, among other things (symbols tend to have more than one meaning assigned to them on flags), but what I like about it is how far it deviates from round or crest-shaped flag symbology and, again, the similarity to a typographical font.


While this flag comes dangerously close to looking like a proposed logo for John Deere or some agricultural products company, it actually features a stylised rendering of the Kanji for 'Tochi' - part of the prefecture's name. The Kanji itself looks like this:

Stylisation of Asian logographs is, obviously, something I know nothing about, but I can, well, see a connection. For me, it's not just the park-ranger vibe I get from the flag so much as the way it combines the Asian aesthetic I've been discussing with a slightly more traditional heraldry. Apparently, according to 'Flags of the World', it represents 'improvement and active motion' (as opposed to inactive motion?), but I don't see it at all.


Alone in 50 states, New Mexico bears a flag with a sleek, modern design, as opposed to some of the more garish American flags that exist. The red and the slightly darker-than-normal shade of yellow evoke the desert and the sun to me, though apparently it's meant to be the colours of the Spanish flag. The symbol is a sun symbol of the Zia Indians, with is a good tribute to the area's original inhabitants, but it's also a very beautiful symbol, evoking hands stretching out in all directions.


I decided to check the Flags of the World site to figure out the symbology of this flag, but the description there is so filled with gibberish (including the phrases 'growing mighty trees' and 'cup holding light' that I couldn't bear to even finish the paragraph. The CIS is an organisation that was formed after the collapse of the Soviet Union to give the now-independent republics an association with which they could maintain their ties to one another. So it's the way forward after the fall of communism in the eastern bloc.

Which is interesting, because what I like most about this flag is the way it evokes, to me anyway, some of the more abstract sculpture of 60s and 70s Soviet art. The iron curtain hid some awesome works, which by now have been tossed into the dustbin of history. But I can imagine this flag depicting some granite statue with a name like "Friendship and Co-Operation of All Cultures" erected in the town square of some city in Siberia.


The white background of my blog is doing us no favours here, but what you're missing is, of course, white stripes (not the Detroit garage band) at the top and bottom of this flag. I think the white stripes alone are enough to catch my attention here - you'll note I have very little interest in tricolour flags, but whte-green-white is very pretty and, in some way, very refined and 'polite' too. The symbol in the middle is not two mountains, Yamagata - 33%, but two 'mounds'. And if you ask me what that means, I'll not be able to answer, except that a 'kurgan' is a mound, apparently, in addition to being the name of a small Russian oblast on the border with Kazakhstan. Just to prove that vexillology is not without humour, due to an outburst by a politician in the local Duma, this flag is known as the 'woman swimming on her back'.


Nunavut, the chunk of the Arctic belonging to the Inuit people, is one of the most remote and sparse places out there - it makes neighbouring Greenland seem like the centre of global action by comparison. But it appreciates its iconography and has taken the traditional inukshuk Inuit stone sculpture and turned it into a symbol of Inuit culture and, by extension, of Canada as a whole so potent that it was chosen as the logo of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. It's a striking symbol here, daringly going from the very top of the flag to the very bottom and this being the instrument separating the flag's Vatican-like yellow and white halves. Plus, there's a cockeyed blue star. Because why not?


Zamora is a province in Spain (in Spain, a province is an entity smaller and less imprtant than a 'region' - Zamora is in the region of Castile and Leon). This is, according to Flags of the World, one variation on the Zamora flag - the one it accepts as the standard does nt have the points on the right side. It's merely one green stripe on top of eight red stripes. It is much less striking. This variation is actually in this shape: it's not got triangles of white on the right, it has fabric cut into triangular shapes. So the fact that I'm the only person in history to compile a list of cool flags and not include Nepal is not that big a deal - I, too, have a non-rectangular flag.

But it reminds me of coloured pencils, which is why I like it. In fact, it seems to be telling us some message about certain pencils sticking out from the rest of the pack. How very profound.


As much as I appear to admire a kind of modernity and lightness in my flags, the opposite can be true. Montenegro may be a new country, but this flag is saturated with the sands of time - you'd expect to find it buried in a crypt from the Middle Ages. I love me a two-headed bird, and thought long and hard about putting Albania's flag on this list, but this beauty has a two-headed eagle in gold, and the red-and-gold design of this flag gives it a gorgeous pomp-and-circumstance that crummy old yellow could never hope for (sorry, New Mexico). A flag like this is wasted on a republic - it needs to wave behind an ornamental throne, preferably bedecked in golden tassels (the flag, not the throne). The golden-coloured border just adds to the ceremony, while also balancing the colours well. And hey - how cool is a border on a flag?


Odd how few of the flags I've chosen are national flags, as opposed to subnational (or, in one case, supranational). Having just, apparently, turned back from the civil war that constantly threatened to split the country in two, Sri Lankans can now marvel at the way their flag tells their national story - the very cool lion-plus-sword-plus-leaves on, er, is that maroon in colour? Anyway, that symbol is the flag of the Sinhalese people who are the majority in Sri Lanka. If you take a pair of scissors, you can use this flag to make the yellow-bordered historical Sinhalese flag of pre-colonial Ceylon. But as an added bonus, you get a green stripe and an orange stripe to represent the unheard-of Muslim minority (it must be very minor) and the Hindu minority, the Tamils, who have been fighting for independence for ages. I love how they're included on the flag, but kept separate from the main, Sinhalese part of the flag. I also love how the lion is actually brandishing its sword toward the minorities. All in all, it's a flag that resembles no other flag on the planet, yet its disparate parts somehow cohere to make a flag just as unique as it is striking.


One more bordered flag, the flag of Limousin, a historical province of France, has a very high 'WTF' value that endears me to it. The repeated symbol is describes as 'ermine spots', which just sounds to me like a staining problem related to, perhaps, house-training a weasel. It kind of looks to me like a stylised Whirling Dervish, but the awesomeness is how the design repeats with no consideration whatsoever of the border of the flag - it's as if the flag designers bought a very large roll of ermine-spot fabric and just had to cut it to meet the flag's specifications. That thick red border is what does the trick, though.


We're back to Russia for another oblast and for a flag that blows the WTF factor right off the scale. The Flags of the World page is no help, and I think I'm glad of that - I'd kind of like this flag to remain an enigma for me. What I see is a bullwhip resting on a mound of gold. Which could have some very exciting story behind it. But what I see most of all is, seemingly, a larger and more complete picture creatively 'cropped' to create a flag with no connection whatsoever to any traditions of vexillology I know of. This is the flag as abstract art, and I hope the people of Voronezh are filled with pride when they see their oblast's flag flying...

Incidentally, Voronezh is located in the so-called Central Black Earth region of Russia. How's that for an awesome name? 'Central Black Earth'? I just might name my son that.
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  1. Hey, great post. My favourite is the Brazilian flag, check out a post I wrote about it here, including a description of what it means. Pretty cool. Love some of the ones you have found here.

  2. So traditional cross flags arent anythin? In my oppinnion the best in the world is Finnish cause, well u guessed it i am Finnish. Patriotism before fashion is my way.

  3. Hi, I was googling this question (as you do) and came across this post. I totally agree on the Kazakh flag, by the way, and the Japanese Prefecture flags too!

    As for the Bosnian flag, it's shaped that way because it's meant to represent the shape of the country (i.e., a triangle) and the stars and colours come from the EU flag- given the war and ethnic tensions in the country, they had to choose something which didn't reflect any one ethnic group too strongly.

    One flag I think is beautiful, but which I think you missed, is the flag of Botswana. It's beautifully simple, not to mention a beautful colour (sky blue), which reflects their national motto (and currency),"Pula",which means "rain"- a reflection of how precious rain is in this desert country.

    Finally, the flag for Voronezh appears to me to be an amphora (a ceramic urn used in ancient Greek/Roman times), with water flowing out of it down a mountain. But that's just my opinion ;)

  4. Thanks for posting! I really enjoy peoples' comments (and protracted agonizing over awfulness) about flag designs so I was really interested in noticing that many of your favourite flags are also listed in some peoples' "worst flags ever"! Your contributions balance the debate.

  5. mmm.. Bosnia? I think is a common flag..stars , blue.. like venezuela. The triangle is very aestetic, I prefer the japanese circle, o the brasilian rhombus.

    Mi top ten

    1. Japan War Flag
    2. Germany
    3. Argentina
    4. Zaire
    5. Australia
    6. Spanish Imperium
    7. Albania
    8. Munich
    9. Canada
    10. Scotland

  6. I think Sri Lanka's flag is ugly. The colors don't go together, it is over-complicated, It is hard to draw, (a bad quality for a flag) and it is just ugly in general. I like Germany's flag because the colors just go together.

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