Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day

Today is Memorial Day in the United States.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Flag Friday VIII

Flag Friday is a periodic discussion of the world's national flags; the project is explained and indexed here.

These discussions are about graphic design, and perhaps about nationalism and national symbolism in general. They should not be taken as critical of the countries, ideals, cultures, or people that the flags represent.


Parsons: Parsons: Complaining of a "Bad Tricolour," he gives it a “B-”, 65/100.

Michael5000: Well, what we have here is a tricolor. I don't see what's "bad" about it, particularly -- it's got the three primary colors, a pretty obvious set.

Now here's the deal: Romania has a virtually identical flag, and Moldova, which is arguably the Romanian chunk of the old Soviet Empire, has a very similar flag but with a coat of arms on the center yellow stripe. So, you might be tempted to accuse Chad of copping a design already in use by a European country. But not so fast! Chad came into being and designed its flag in 1959, when the French high-tailed out of Africa, and Moldova's flag didn't come along until 1990.

But what about the old-school country of Romania? Well, it had used a blank tricolor in the past, but during the communist era -- that's from WWII to the early 90s, for those of you who were born yesterday -- there was an appropriate communist national symbol in the yellow stripe. After the cretinous Ceauşescu dictatorship was toppled in the late '80s, these symbols began to be torn off or cut out of Romania's flags, sometimes leaving a defiant hole in the yellow stripe. In 1989, the blank tricolor was made official -- but this rendered Romania's flag identical to what was now an existing national flag, Chad's. Chad complained about this to the U.N. in 1994, but Romania understandably didn't feel like changing at that point. I can't imagine that anyone in the international diplomatic community felt too excited about taking the question on; in any event, the issue seems to have faded. If Romania and Chad ever go to war using 18th Century infantry tactics, though, there's going to be real trouble.

Grade: A-


Parsons: He gives it an "A-", 80/100, without comment.

Michael5000: For a UnitedStatesian, the flag of Chile is disconcertingly similar to the flag of Texas, a much wider political unit. Looking past that, something about Chile's flag -- perhaps is it the blue square amidst all the flaggy rectangularity -- mildly displeases me. It's a flag design without any glaring flaw, but also without any glaring merit.

Grade: B


Parsons: Disliking "too many stars," he assigns a "B", 73/100.

Michael5000: Pow! China's flag is instantly recognizable with its hot, hot colors and minimalist design. It's true that there are rather a lot of stars there, and that a star is not the most original of design elements, but interestingly I don't think I've ever really thought about the starriness of this flag. I think of the People's Republic's flag (we'll deal with the ROC later, under "Taiwan") as "the red one with a splash of yellow in the upper left). Which kind of works!

Grade: A-


Parsons: It's "original," but only gets a B-, 65/100.

Michael5000: A horizontal tricolor without the stripes at their typical even widths, the flag of Colombia is to an extent "original" -- until you look at the strikingly similar banner of its neighbor and chronic rival Venezuela, or the even more strikingly similar banner of its southern neighbor, Ecuador.

The Venezuela/Ecuador/Colombia flags use the same essential primary colors as the Chad/Romania/Moldova flags, but employ them horizontally instead of vertically and with the yellow stripe taken out of the center.

Grade (for the current flag): B+


Here's the flag of Comoros that Parsons reviewed:

Parsons: Disliking "Writing!", that it's "too busy," and that it has "too many stars," but liking "good colours," he gave it a "D+", 48/100.

In 2002, though, Comoros unveiled a new flag -- its sixth since 1975, making it possibly the most unstably flagged country in the world.

Michael5000: I kind of like it! The stripes liven up the white-on-green stars 'n' crescent action of the earlier iterations, with the red and yellow especially adding some warmth (although I fear Parsons would likely find them "eye-watering." The white stripe looks a little goofy with the flag spread schematically on a computer screen, but in context you would see that white stripe against the sky or some other kind of colored background, where it would probably look a little sharper. My recommendation to the people of Comoros: you've got a winner. Stick with this one for a few decades.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Flags and Refugee Identity

I work for a refugee community organization, where people from a wide range of countries who have entered the United States with refugee status work together to provide cultural, economic, and educational assistance. Like every generation of American immigrant before them, our clients embrace both their new American identities but also their native cultural background. Since flags are powerful symbols of cultural identity, they are seen a lot around the office.

Here's a flier from a recent soccer clinic that a lot of refugee girls took part in.

These flags represent six of the largest refugee communities currently arriving in the United States, and particularly my city of Portland, Oregon.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Flags of the World As Piecharts

Media designer, Shahee Ilyas, has analyzed the colors used by nations in their flags.
Each sector of these piecharts is proportional to the area of the colour on the respective flag. Using a list of countries generated by The World Factbook database, flags of countries fetched from Wikipedia are analysed by a custom made python script to calculate the proportions of colours on each of them. That is then translated on to a piechart using another python script. The proportions of colours on all unique flags are used to finally generate a piechart of proportions of colours for all the flags combined.

[Flags analyzed here are Uganda, Ukraine, United Araba Emirates, Vanuatu, Venezuela and Vietnam.]

Next, he combined all the colors together. We see that white and red are the most dominate colors used in flags.

Poster available.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Maps on Flags

This post originally appeared on Cartophilia: Maps and Map Memorabilia.

Josh Parsons is not happy with the poor design of some of the world's nation flags. "Some are good, some are bad. Some countries have clearly taken care in the choice of colours, layout, and design. Others have been lazy, stolen the flags of their neighbours, or just designed flags that are clearly supposed to cause pain to those who look at them." Rather than stew in silence, he did something about it. He ranked all of the flags of the world and gave them a score based on their overall aesthetic value.

In his Flags of the World Given Letter Grades he gives high marks for simple design with a pleasant choice of colors. Ugly flags, with garish colors are sent to the corner with a dunce cap.

What does any of this have to do with maps? Parson's Rule 2: Do not put a map of your country on your flag. "When someone is travelling around your country, where do you think they will look if they need a map? Bzzt! No, they won't look at the flag." The worst offender is Cyprus. "Quite apart from the total uselessness of having a map on your flag, it really shows that a country hasn't gone to any effort if that's the best they can think of." While Cyprus has a distinctive shape, so do many other countries... but they can do better. Flags should be iconic, not literal. Grade D

He gives kudos to the nation of Gambia. "Great design and colour choice. Also represents the geography of the country (without being a map)." Grade A+

Gambia is a tiny nation hugging either side of the Gambia River, but surrouned by the nation of Senegal. The map design suggests this, without being too obvious. Clever map design.

Thanks to Gadling for bringing this to my attention, here and here.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Flag Friday VII

Flag Friday is a periodic discussion of the world's national flags; the project is explained and indexed here.

These discussions are about graphic design, and perhaps about nationalism and national symbolism in general. They should not be taken as critical of the countries, ideals, cultures, or people that the flags represent.


Parsons: Parsons: Complaining of "graven images," he gives it “C”, 55/100.

Michael5000: Technically, this is a simple three-color flag, with the depiction of Angkor Wat in the center traced out in red. I am of two minds about the Angkor Wat business. On one hand, it's a highly recognizable national symbol rendered fairly simply, and it does make the Cambodian flag easy to identify at a glance. On the other hand, it remains a little more graphically detailed than I like to see in a flag.

Grade: B


Parsons: Calling it a "bad tricolor," he assigns a "B", 70/100.

Michael5000: The country of Cameroon has had an even more arbitrary political history than the other former European colonies in Africa. During the original carving-up, it was awarded to Germany, who apparently ran the colony of German Cameroon under this loveable but absurd flag:

...although in practice the elephant business might have been left out of the tricolor. After WWI, the German colony was split between France and the U.K., meaning that since independence Cameroon has had to work especially hard at establishing national unity. Think about it -- all local traditions of organization swept away, German law and administration imposed, then French and British law and administration imposed in different areas, and then you have to somehow pick up the pieces.

My point in all of this is that the central star in what is otherwise a fairly conventional African tricolor is symbolic of national unity -- an earlier version of the flag had two stars representing the post-French and post-British areas -- and is therefore perhaps more meaningful than your average flag star.

Grade: B+


Parsons: "Hmm... that maple leaf? A difficult question, but I think not quite stylised enough." He calls the leaf another "graven image." Nevertheless, he assigns an "A-", 70/100.

Michael5000: I live a mere five hours from Canada, a vast nation that has menacingly massed 90% of its population within a few dozen kilometers of my own land. If I disliked the Canadian flag, would I be fool enough to say so?

Fortunately, it's a moot point. I love the Canadian flag. There is nothing busy about the Maple Leaf -- it is stylized just right in my own opinion, and it makes a strong and instantly recognizable national symbol. Further, it creates visual interest within a simple, high-contrast two-color scheme; this is a flag you can find on the darkest night, yet it manages to be almost elegant.

Two more notes: 1) the Canadian flag specs call for a 2:1 ratio. I think many of the actual flags are in a more conventional 5:3ish shape, but Canada's is one of the few flags that still looks attractive when it is twice as long as it is tall. 2) Canada, like Brazil, has a very successful flag. Blessed with a terrific national symbol and -- dare I say it in print? -- possessing of a potent nationalism driven by the presence of a very populous, powerful, and culturally similar neighbor, Canadians display their flag and its central motif seemingly everyplace and at every possible opportunity.

Grade: A+. I consider this to be one of the world's finest flags.

Cape Verde

Parsons: Disliking a "corporate logo" look and calling it "eyewatering," he gives it a "C", 55/100.

Michael5000: I can see what Parsons means by the "corporate logo" factor here, but I'm a little baffled as to why it would be "eyewatering." I like the simple but off-centered elements here -- the horizontal strips and the circle of small stars. A relatively new flag, I personally think it is a big improvement on the 1975-2002 banner, and I bet you are about to agree with me:

Grade (for the current flag): A-

Central African Republic

Parsons: Liking that it's "original" but calling it "too busy," he assigns a "C-", 50/100. "Do not," he adds, "attempt to disprove the four-colour theorem on your flag!"

Michael5000: The poor C.A.R. As if the legacy of Jean-Bédel Bokassa weren't enough for one country, not only does it have the lamest of all country names -- virtually an advertisement of its arbitrary colonial origins -- but it is stuck with one of the worst flags, too. No doubt there is some cultural blinding going on here, but whereas tricolors look great and almost inevitably make a handsome national flag, quadrocolors (a word I am just now making up) look like crap. Adding other design elements just compound the problem. Do not attempt to disprove the four-color theorem on your flag!

Grade: D-

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Childe Hassam's Flag Paintings

The painter Childe Hassam (1859-1935) was an influential proponent of impressionism in the United States. A decided Francophile, he was appalled by the German invasion of France in 1914 and responded with "the Flag series," the paintings that were to become his best-known work.

Even before the United States entered the war, Hassam was already painting the American flag alongside those of the Allies, portraying for instance a 1916 "Preparedness Parade" in New York City. The political message could not have been less subtle.

Lots of impressionist painters, including Monet, have incorporated flags in their work. It makes sense: flags are, after all, actually designed to capture and reflect light, and so likely to capture the imagination of artists setting out to capture the play of light.

Hassam's flag paintings are only unusual in that they combine masterful impressionist technique with fervent nationalist feeling.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Sporcle's Flag Quiz: Winners and Losers

The quiz site Sporcle has a nice challenge in which you have 16 minutes to ID 195 of the world's flags. Be forewarned, there is a big spelling-bee component to the quiz, which shows you a flag and makes you type out the name of the country. So, even though the flag of Bosnia and Herzegovina is pretty recognizable, you still groan when it pops up.

As an confirmed flag dork, I felt OK about my score of 118/195... until I noticed that this only placed me in the 55th percentile. A suspiciously huge number of entrants -- 20.7% -- have scored 195/195, which either means that many of you out there are WAY flagdorkier than Carto and I, or that some quiz takers have, shall we say, used visual aids. I'm thinking it's been an educational tool for schoolchildren?

Once you finish the quiz, you get to see how many people got each flag correct. I guess I would predict that countries that have large populations of people liable to take an English-language flag quiz, and a distinctive flag, would be likely to fare well:

The top four: Japan (88.3%), the U.K. (88%), Canada (87.5%), and the U.S. (86.8%). Not too surprising. Numbers five and six are most less distinctive tricolors, but still probably familiar countries to most of the people participating in the quiz:

Italy (85.1%) and France (84.5%). Flag distinctiveness kicks in after that, with Israel's Star of David motif, Switzerland's square red cross, Germany's bold and garish colors, and South Korea's yin-and-yang rounding out the top ten.

Can you ID the four flags that, each under 36%, are the LEAST recognizable to takers of the Sporcle quiz?