Monday, January 14, 2008

Flag Criticism: michael5000's Turn

As you have gathered, I am a dork of legendary proportions, and this explains why I have not been able to get the idea of comparitive flag criticism out of my head since the subject came up last week. You might remember our discovery that both frequent L&TM5K commenter Chance and some Kiwi prof had published their opinions on the relative merits of various flags. Well, with a deferential salute to their groundbreaking work, but with surprisingly little compunction about stealing the idea, I have engaged in a rigorous binge of flag-critical thinking, and am now prepared to announce:

The L&TM5K Awards for Flag Merit

Best Flag (Tricolor): Estonia

You can't get much more classic than a tricolor flag design. A tricolor's bright, contrasting fields do a great job of identifying your army on a confused battlefield, provide a striking visual accent against the ornately carved stone of your public buildings, and give your population relative flexibility when dressing up in the national colors. But please -- red, white, and blue has been done to death, to the point where it's not even useful anymore ("Are we in the Netherlands, or Luxembourg?" "No problem, there's a flag. D'oh!"). Red, white, and green; Orange, white, and green: these combinations are fresher, but hardly unique. Estonia's tricolor, on the other hand, is muted yet individual, dignified yet surprising. It takes a grownup color palette, and uses it in a flag that is remarkable for its simple, elegant distinction.

Runners-up: Armenia, Botswana, Lithuania, Gabon.

Best Flag (Figurative): Kazakhstan

When you deviate from simple color fields, it is easy to get your flag design into real trouble. Look at Uganda, Dominica, Macedonia, or South Africa for great examples of ways to make a hash of it. Kazakhstan succeeded where so many others have failed by keeping the primary flag design element, color, under control. A fairly complex central design and the inward-side filigree characteristic of the "Stan" flags are rendered spare and elegant by their rendering in just two mature and memorable but unconventional colors. One of the best new flags in recent history.

Runners-up: Angola, Bhutan, Turkmenistan, Barbados, Kyrgyzstan, Uruguay.

Best Flag (Classic): Portugal

This is a limited-entry category, as it requires the nation in question to have a centuries-long relationship with the practice of heraldry. Here, the issue is not so much design sense as projecting a vision of your country's sheer accumulated authority, the cred that comes with merely having been around the block several hundred times. Portugal's shield figure is dismissed by some as fussy, but it is set off magnificently by generous rectangles of rich green and red. The most identifying feature of the flag, that shield is the central focus. It's right there in your face, all but daring you to call it old-fashioned. That ain't old-fashioned. That's classic.

Runners-Up: Albania, Denmark, Iceland, Moldova, United Kingdom.

Most Improved Flag: Rwanda

Rwanda's former flag was a tricolor in the familiar African colors of red, gold, and green, marked with a big capital "R" in the middle for the purpose of distinguishing it from the flag of Guinea. No, really. The new flag, by contrast, is an optimistic landscape in green, gold, and sky blue, with a jaunty sun rising over the horizon of, one hopes, a new and more prosperous Rwanda. A profound improvement.

Runners-up: Georgia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Lesotho.

Best Flag (American State): New Mexico

Most American state flags are simply appalling. Sticking a prissy state seal on a blue background isn't a design, and the result is barely a flag. It's just your state seal on a blue background. Eliminating these embarassments narrows the field to only around a dozen real contenders. Of those, New Mexico's banner steps out of the pack for its clean and distinctive design, instant recognizability, and daring coloration.

Runners-up: Alabama, Hawaii, Maryland, South Carolina, Alaska.

OK! Let the dorky second-guessing begin!


Anonymous said...

I approve of all selections except Portugal—that shield is too fussy. I especially like New Mexico's flag because it's the only US state flag that I've ever been able to recognize—and not just because I used to live there. I lived in New York for 18 years and I couldn't pick its flag out of a lineup. But New Mexico? Now that's memorable.

d said...

i agree. there has got to be a better selection than portugal for that category. the sideways castles at the bottom? DORKY and bad design.

and i totally agree with the choice of new mexico for best state flag. simple, memorable, colorful. bueno!

i kind of agree with you about estonia, although i will always have a soft spot in my heart for ireland's flag.

Anonymous said...

Dorky second-guessing -----

Very interesting selections. A bit of trouble understanding your rather refined choices vis-a-vis your rather abstract quilt designs. No, wait, I understand -- they're different.

Estonia: a brilliant color choice, and could be even better with the white stripe in the middle, in my unabbreviated opinion.

Kstan (street-cred name): I love the eagle. Unsure what makes a color "mature".

Pgal: I don't mind the tumbling castles so much. I hate it that the yellow straps don't work...if you continue them through behind the shield they don't end up where they should. I love the ratio provided by the division of the green and red fields. Not sure what to make of the five walrus-moustached faces in the center.

Rwanda: Yes, way better. Perhaps it's better in real-life color, but the green comes through as close to pea-green, which doesn't work too well for me abutting the yellow. This has nearly-the-same stylized Sun as on the Kstan flag, which may say something about You.

New Mexico: Nearly unimprovable. Worth relocating for. My only suggestion would be to make it square rather than rectangular.

Best (bmw)MINI(cooper) roof design: Union Jack. Distant runner-up: checkered flag. I love it when the checkered flag loses.

Honorable Mention / no specific category: Canada (Maple Leaf), California (bear), Isle of Man (crazy three-legged thingie).

-- KSart

Rebel said...

At first I wasn't fond of Estonia's flag... but you make some excellent points. Red/white/green & red/white/blue have been done to death!

I have to say though, Canada's flag is a fine one indeed, simple, bold, easily identifiable on a field of ... um... diplomatic discourse...

New Mexico's flag is okay... but dude... Oregon has the only double sided state flag - does that count for *nothing*???

Rebel said...

Also - Lebanon should win for "Most Christmassy"

Chance said...

Fantastic list. But what about Most Bad-Ass flag? From among all the bears, eagles, and weapons out there, I submit this.

Michael5000 said...

@MyDog, d: I respect your alternative opinions on the Portugal question.

@karma: Having the white stripe in the center of the Estonian flag would certainly give it a satisfying dark-light-dark conventionality. On the other hand, putting the white on the bottom is so unexpected as to be downright madcap. I am of two minds.

Love the Maple Leaf! It would have been a contender for the Classic category, but Canada is just too damn new. Love the Isle of Man flag! But see Chance's original post for the other side of that story.

@Rebel: "easily identifiable on a field of ... um... diplomatic discourse..." is pretty funny.

The two-sidedness of the Oregon banner does count for something, yes. It counts towards the cumulative suckitude of our state flag. The "front" side -- something you would never have to say about a proper flag -- is a prime example of the suck-o-rama state-seal-on-blue genre that I discussed in the O.P., exacerbated by text that reads "STATE OF OREGON." Rule of Thumb: If your flag is so unmemorable that you have to WRITE OUT THE NAME OF YOUR STATE ON IT, start from scratch.

The "back" side, a golden beaver on a field of blue, I could live with, but it is hardly the sexiest image you could pick for our dynamic, progressive little federal unit.

But I digress.

Regarding the award for "Most Christmassy, are you sure you gave adequate consideration to the flag of Norfolk Island?

@Chance: An excellent category and nomination. I'll include it in the weekend grab-bag.

Michael5000 said...

(The flag of Christmas Island is so disappointingly un-Christmassy...)

Anonymous said...

Nice array. I can see Estonians having a hard tie with getting just the right blues. It can be such a difficult shade.

Oh Rawanda has a huge improvement! The new one looks peaceful.

I like runners up in the classic but I'll agree with you on the choice. It is not too ornate as crests go and the simple two colors help. That could easily be on a line of clothing.

Kaz is mysterious looking to me. The colors aren't super earthy but the pattern and bird are.

Chance said...

You're actually making me rethink my position on Isle of Man, Michael.

Rebel said...

"The two-sidedness of the Oregon banner does count for something, yes. It counts towards the cumulative suckitude of our state flag. "


I did consider the Norfolk Island flag, and that's quite an impressive Christmas tree, but it lacks the traditional red & green color scheme.

Anonymous said...

Great idea Mr. MMMMMMMM and I agree with all of your selections, except for one minor lark.

Maryland for state runner-up? That might be the ugliest flag ever legally flown. Its only mention should be in your follow-up blog, ugliest flags. Seriously, were you joking? Making sure we were paying attention to even the smallest details of your blog? I can't really think you even considered it

Bridget said...

I am noticing a "sun" theme - is this flag commentary a secret cry of S.A.D.?

That said, I have to whole-heartedly agree about the "before" and "after" on the Rwandan flag. Much improvement, though perhaps still not a cover girl . . . Have to admit that I'd love to see a flag makeover contest as a regular feature - but that may just be my secret fashion magazine fetish shining through . . .

Kritkrat said...

Ok, I know I'm way to late to throw my two cents in, but how did Lebanon not get a nod? Or California? And I have to agree that Canada's flag is pretty effing awesome. And isn't there a dragon flag somewhere in Asia? Now that's cool!

Erik Maldre said...

Insight into the Estonian flag from

the blue, black and white national colours are much younger. They are closely connected to the Estonian people and date back to the end of the 19th century. At that time, the Baltic states, Finland and the greater part of Poland were under Tzarist rule. The period is known in Estonia as the era of National Awakening. The colours were chosen by a group of young intellectuals in 1881. The flag was, at first, the symbol of the Estonian Students' Society, but it quickly gained a much wider use.

The symbolic meaning of the three colours has been explained in more than one way since that time. One popular explanation derives from a contemporary poem by Martin Lipp. The blue colour is explained as the vaulted blue sky above the native land. Black symbolizes attachment to the soil of the homeland as well as the fate of Estonians - for centuries black with worries. White is connected with hard work and other more abstract human values. The popularity of this explanation is actually due to the melody arranged by composer Enn V├Árk, which made Martin Lipp's poem a highly patriotic song; it is often ranked next to the national anthem.

As in many other countries, there is also a historical metaphor for the Estonian national colours. Blue in this case represents ancient freedom, black symbolizes lost independence, and white promises a brighter future. Visually, taken together, these three colours have a fresh, cool, Nordic feel, as none of the "warm" colours are included. The same colour combination is used in no other national tricolor.

By the end of the 19th century, blue, black and white became widely accepted as the national Estonian flag. Therefore, it was natural to use these colours for the National Army's insignia during the War of Independence. When the flag was hoisted atop Tall Herman tower, which dominates all of Tallinn, the tower itself gained a strong symbolic value for the Estonians. The flag flying there has always indicated the ruling power in the country. On June 27, 1922 the Estonian Parliament made the blue, black and white flag the state's official flag.

After the Soviet occupation in June 1940, the blue, black and white flag, and, indeed, the mere combination of these colours, were banned. Many people were persecuted simply for keeping and hiding the flag or using the colours. The colours, however, were never forgotten and the struggle to bring the national colours back into use marked the beginning of a renewed struggle for independece at the end of the 1980's. The colours were an important weapon in the bloodless fight for the restoration of the independence of Estonia; it was finally won in August,1991.

ryanjanowski said...

Portugal: Those aren't "straps", it's an armillary sphere. This is one of my favorite flags - it represents a great aspect of Portugese history, the discovories of Vasco de Gama and the era of Henry the Navigator. The blue shields in the center are derivatives of the original shield of Alfonso I: this had a single blue cross emblazoned silver bezants in the form of nails pounded into it (to represent the right of the king to mint currency). When his son,Sancho I, inhereted the shield, years of wear and tear had worn the cross away - except for where the nails had been pounded in. When Alfonso III inhereted the throne, he added the castles, taking inspiration from the emblems of Castile (he was married to Beatrice of Castile). The armillary sphere first appeared in the royal standard of King Joao VI in 1816, when the royal court had fled Napoleon for residence in Brazil.