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Let's make fun of other countries...



Or, at least, of their Flags.

The World's Flags Given Letter Grades

It's kind of like the (former) Brunching Shuttlecocks' famous ratings, except not nearly enough snarky commentary. Still, it's a fun overview of the flags of the world, plus sometimes harsh judgements on them.

I don't always agree with him. (It figures that I, in particular, would have strong opinions regarding flag design.) Sometimes I disagree about whether or not the colors are hideous (but mostly they are). Mostly, it
irks me that he clearly doesn't know very much about heraldry, flag design and history, or cultural trends in iconic display.

You may say, of course: must you be knowledgeable about heraldry, flag history and design, and cultural trends, in order to make fair judgements about national flag design? And my answer is: YES! But then, I would say that, wouldnt I?

I agree with him, for example, on the idea that a country should *NEVER* write its own freakin' name on its flag. That's just stupid. A monogram, perhaps, you could get away with; initials, something like that. That has some small historical precedent in terms of vexillilic display, but usually that applied to individuals, not to corporate bodies. Still, a monogram can be come an iconic symbol in itself.

Anyway, I think you sort of have to suspend this judgement in regards Islamic flags that feature writing on them. That's because the long history of iconic display in Islamic cultures includes quite prominently the idea of text-as-icon. The calligraphic display of a verse from the Qu'ran has a long history of being regarded as talismanic, and the idea of putting that as a talismanic symbol on a banner has fairly steady currency in those cultures. It's really not nearly as lame as writing mottoes in Latin or English on a flag, particularly when that writing is only a small part of the overall design.

(Even then, you can go back to a certain point in Western European heraldic display history, and find a time when there was a fashion for pennants with Latin mottoes on them. The key points there, however, are: the pennants contained nothing else but the written mottoe; the pennants were a secondary form of display, accompanying but not replacing iconic identifying flags/banners; and, they dropped out of fashion after a while, and you don't really see them past the 17th century.)

Further, he's got a point about the use of what he calls "graven images", but he doesn't actually seem to realize all of the implications of the point. He basically just wants flags to be geometric in design, with no pictures of anything on them. And that completely ignores a large chunk of the history of heraldic design, as well as the differences in cultural attitudes towards what a "flag" should be.

In the Western tradition, what we now regard as national flags were originally an auxiliary form of flag/banner display that complemented the main iconic symbols of a country. In the pre-modern era, the flag of England was synonomous with the flag of England's king, and that flag wasn't purely geometric. Most royal devices weren't; most involved some iconic symbol. So "England", if you will, was a red banner with three gold lions on it (and, of course, later, a banner divided into compartments containing the heraldic symbols of the various countries that the king laid claim to; which of course violates the sin of "too busy", and nobody can argue with that). Meanwhile, a white flag with a simple red cross on it -- that, too, was "England", in a way, although it started off as the traditional flag of St. George, England's patron. The "rule", as such, was that only the king could fly his banner (indeed, it didn't get flown anywhere unless the king was in residence at the time), but the flag of St. George belonged to "the country" in general, and could be used to represent the country as a whole (as a distinct entity from its king, who "embodied" the country), or any individual within the country.

An awful lot of other plain geometric-looking flags of Western nations got their start this way, too. And as the history of Western Europe moved towards nationalism, the use of those flags as national symbols came to be preferred over the use of old, outmoded royal symbols.

The problem (and the reason for this digression) lies in judging the flags of all the world's countries according to the evolution of fashion and identity in flags of Western Europe. There are historic reasons why European flags no longer (by and large, except for ill-advised attempts to put actual heraldic shields on the flags) have "pictures". But those historic reasons don't necessarily apply to other nations in other cultures, in the same way that the idea that writing on a Western European flag is lame, but calligraphic script on an Islamic flag is part of a strong tradition.

Sri Lanka's flag is aesthetically displeasing for other reasons, but the animal on it, even an animal holding a weapon (which is a fine heraldic tradition, especially for lions) really shouldn't be a mark against it. You can't expect all of the flags of the world to conform to Western European design standards, and if the nation's flag is kind of weird, but you find that it has solid roots within the traditions of that culture, it shouldn't get marks off for that. (Sometimes, though, he seems to point out the presence of "graven images", without actually taking points off for it -- Canada being a good example.)

Still, by and large -- good lord, there are some ugly-ass flag designs out there.

Enjoy. Discuss.

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( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
sazabhadri
Mar. 28th, 2004 12:27 am (UTC)
No, I think that...
...if you're going to get all judgemental about something, you really ought to know something about what it is you're being judgemental about. It's one thing to say "I don't know art, but I know what I like", and another to state categorically what is and isn't "good flag design." He bitches about how many tricolors there are, but when you're disallowed anything even remotely representational, you're disallowed field treatments -- barry is apparently too busy, you're not allowed a quad-color (or more) and any number of stars more than four is too many -- and you are encouraged in the strongest possible terms to maintain a golden rectangle...

I can't believe he said Canada's maple leaf is "not quite stylized enough". (But Albania's eagle is okay ? Eh ?) Jeez. He never says *why* you shouldn't have "graven images" on your flags anyway.

At no point, I note, does he speculate on the *purpose* of a flag. He says what he likes and doesn't, and equates his aesthetic likes with "good" and his dislikes with "bad". But -- and this goes for tea towels, too -- there's more to a flag than its aesthetic appeal.

Incidentally, there are a couple of proposals on the table for a new NZ flag:

Nice symbolism, but doesn't do much for me.
http://www.hbtv.co.nz/flagnz/

I find the Maori kowhaiwhai one on this page more visially appealing. Too exclusive, though:
http://homepages.paradise.net.nz/nzealand/flanthem.html

This is supposed to be a silver fern, but they've stylized it so much it could just as easily be a feather, or a leaf or something:
http://www.nzflag.com/

It is also rather too much like the logo for the NZ Rugby Union (which is a fabulous design, I think):
http://www.nzrugby.co.nz/
eregyrn
Mar. 28th, 2004 04:29 pm (UTC)
Re: No, I think that...
...if you're going to get all judgemental about something, you really ought to know something about what it is you're being judgemental about.

Exactly. (Although, sometimes, in his estimation, deviation from the golden rectangle is good and original, and sometimes it's bad. And when he labels it as bad, I can't really figure out what it is that's all that bad about it.)

I can't believe he said Canada's maple leaf is "not quite stylized enough". (But Albania's eagle is okay ? Eh ?) Jeez. He never says *why* you shouldn't have "graven images" on your flags anyway.

I wondered if the statement about Canada's maple leaf being "not stylized enough" was actually a form of ironic sarcasm.

And I couldn't figure out why Albania didn't get slapped for the "graven image" problem. Why would Albania's eagle be okay, if nothing else figural is?

Incidentally, there are a couple of proposals on the table for a new NZ flag:
Nice symbolism, but doesn't do much for me. http://www.hbtv.co.nz/flagnz/


Hmm. I kind of like it, but...while the Maori-like swirl thing is a nice reference to something that makes NZ unique, it has that problem (as does this flag overall) of looking like a modern corporate/business design. And the inclusion of the Southern Cross stars (and the asymmetrical offsetting of those and of the swirl crest -- asymmetry is part of what makes this read very "modern graphic design" to my eyes) strikes me as one of those committee-like compromises that is trying to please too many factions, without considering the integrity of the design.

However, it's not as bad as it could be, and if it were adopted, it wouldn't be a crime against nature or anything.

I find the Maori kowhaiwhai one on this page more visially appealing. Too exclusive, though:
http://homepages.paradise.net.nz/nzealand/flanthem.html


Really? I find the top one more visually appealing (of course I know that the top one is a koru, while this is a kowhaiwhai, but still...).

I take your point about the exclusivity -- NZ is now more than the sum of its Maori heritage. It would have a certain kind of karmic balance to it, though.

This is supposed to be a silver fern, but they've stylized it so much it could just as easily be a feather, or a leaf or something: http://www.nzflag.com/
It is also rather too much like the logo for the NZ Rugby Union (which is a fabulous design, I think):
http://www.nzrugby.co.nz/


And I like the NZ Rugby Union version better. Plus, it being in existence makes the proposed flag design plagiaristic, and also, too exclusive.

Plus, to be frank -- plunking a leaf in that shape onto a rectangular field is, again, not good flag design. It's too unbalanced (because of its shape and its orientation). To get away from the NZRU design, they've removed the little bits that are supposed to indicate the branching nature of fern leaves -- with the result that it doesn't look very much like a FERN LEAF, it looks either like a generic "leaf", or a feather, and what's the point of that?

What does the silver fern leaf pin that returned service personnel wear look like?

Overall, the idea of doing some kind of fern-leaf-related design sounds like a good idea for NZ, but they could do it in a way that made for a much better flag design. For starters, they need somebody to draw some OTHER picture of a fern leaf, that does not resemble too closely a design already used by an existing corporate body; and one that is unmistakeably a fern leaf, not something generic looking and not something that looks like another object (such as a feather).

Taking some cues from traditional Maori design is a good idea -- it would be great if the resultant charge looked like it was related to the native design tradition, without perhaps being taken outright from it.

Keep us (well, me, anyway) updated on how this is going, because I do find it fascinating, to watch a country think about changing its flag.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )