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24 Iconic World Flags, and What They Mean

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From the skull and bones at the top of a pirate ship to a white flag on a battlefield, a single piece of fabric can be interpreted in a multitude of ways. Depending on where they fly, flags can represent freedom or control, danger or safety.

In the context of modern times, flags are best known as national symbols — and they’re used to air a country’s past, present, and future vision all rolled into one.

The Meaning of Flags

Today’s infographic from Just the Flight looks at some the world’s most iconic flags, and the intricate stories and ideals that can be found in their designs.

Flags of the World

The Americas

Since 1777, the star-spangled banner of the United States has gone through several facelifts. The current version has been in use since Hawaii gained statehood in 1960. Puerto Rico has been voting to become the 51st state in recent years — and if the U.S. government proved to accept such a resolution, the flag would be amended once more.

The largest country in South America, Brazil adopted its flag design in 1889. The primarily green background represents its lush Amazonian forest while the yellow diamond signifies its wealth in gold. Meanwhile, the Portuguese slogan on the flag, Ordem e Progresso, is a nod to democracy.

Europe

Denmark holds the Guinness world record for the oldest continuous use of their national flag, since 1625. The Danish flag is known as the Dannebrog, or Danish Cloth — as legend has it, the Dannebrog ‘miraculously’ fell from the sky in a battle during the Northern Crusades.

The Union Jack of the United Kingdom combines aspects of three older national flags and was adopted in 1801. Displaying the flag upside down is considered lèse-majesté — “to do wrong to majesty”, or an insult to the Crown — and is offensive to some.

Asia and Oceania

India’s tricolor flag was first flown in 1923. However, the colors do not represent religions or hours in the day — saffron symbolizes indifference to material gains, the white band represents light while the navy blue Dharma Chakra (wheel of truth) depicts dynamic change, and green demonstrates the country’s relationship to nature.

New Zealand’s flag features elements from the British Commonwealth. Since 2015, there have been ongoing debates among Kiwis about whether to amend the flag’s design. Frequent confusion with Australia is a significant pro for change, but national identity and financial costs are strong arguments against it.

Nepal is the only country without a rectangular (or square) national flag. The two triangles pay tribute to its geographic location in the Himalayas as well as the Shah and Rana dynasties. The sun and moon symbols on the flag used to have human faces on them, but were removed in 1962.

Africa

South Africa boasts one of the world’s most colorful flags. When it was first adopted after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, it was the first world flag to have six colors but no seal or brocade. Interestingly, while there is no inherent meaning in its colors, the Y shape symbolizes the convergence of diverse elements and societal unity.

Mozambique is the only national flag in the world to feature a modern weapon – specifically, an AK-47 with an attached bayonet. Adopted in 1983, the rifle represents vigilance and defense, while the hoe crossing it represents the country’s agriculture.

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Data Visualization

Visualizing the Average Flag of the World

The average flag of the world, as well as different continents, if every flag were combined together. Also, a look at the building blocks of flag design.

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Visualizing the Average Flag of the World

The intersection of data visualization and art is the perfect place to experiment.

In today’s graphic from Reddit user Udzu, flags serve as the visual raw material for experimentation. The visualization uses flags to show the “weight” of a country’s population or land area within its respective region – a unique thought exercise worth digging into.

Vexillology, Visualized

When all the world’s flags are averaged, the result is a hazy rectangle with outlines of popular flag layouts (e.g. tricolor, triband). That said, one feature that does stand out is the Union Jack in the top left corner, showing that Great Britain’s historical influence lives on even through flag design.

Russia, even with its landmass divided in two, is prominent on both Europe and Asia’s area-weighted graphics.

Interestingly, Udzu also repeated the process using U.S. state flags. As one would expect, California and Texas dominate the population-weighted image. In the area-weighted version, Alaska’s big dipper flag and the word “Montana” become more prominent.

us state flags mean

Examining the Building Blocks of Flags

Flags are fascinating for a number of reasons.

They’re loaded with history, charged with patriotic pride, and commonalities between flags often signal connections between the people who live in those respective countries.

These serious considerations aside, flags are fun to look at from a design perspective. There are nearly two hundred official countries in the world, and many of them embrace similarly minimalist flag layouts. As a result, it’s no surprise that some of them are strikingly similar.

similar flags

Source: Flag Stories

With many similar colors and layouts in the roster of national flags, it seems like every combination is taken.

However, as the visualization below identifies, a few specific combinations are still up for grabs.

flag design matrix cube

Source: Flag Stories

In case anyone out there is thinking of forming a new country, combining elements from different flags is a valid approach. Joking aside, the Union Jack really was created by combining aspects of the three older national flags of England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

flag combinations

Source: Flag Stories

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