With one-hundred and ninety-two recognized countries in the United Nations (plus two), each of them having a distinctive banner, this provides innumerable opportunities for design, colour and aesthetic considerations when crafting one's symbolic international image. Red seems to be a popular choice, as is blue. And occasionally white. But there is so much more to advertising one's internation banner presence than colour choice; symbolism, religion, and history all play huge parts into what crafts a distinctive flag. The following is an attempt to categorize each of the 192 UN nations into a style category, using one or several criteria. Bear with me here, a lot will seem obvious but there are some surprises in the mix.

Note: This only extends to *actual* countries. Don't worry, Abkhazia or Martinique, *I* recognize your independence.

Historical Considerations
A big tip of the hat to one's past. A mildly popular choice, given many countries have histories they would rather forget.
  • We Used to be British!: For countries that are either proud of their British heritage, or too inert to change the old colonial flag. Look for a quarter-Union Jack in the upper hoist, and a crest of some sort in the fly. Examples include New Zealand, Fiji, Tuvalu, Australia, Canada until 1965, and oddly, Hawaii (though not a country, anymore). Bermuda will also count should their electorate ever endorse full independence.
  • .
  • We Used to be French!: For countries that are equally proud of their former French heritage; like with Britain, look for a miniature French flag in the upper hoist. Currently, there are none.

  • Grasping Tenuously to Former Glories: Some nations will attempt to expropriate symbols from a more prosperous period to buttress a wobbly sense of national pride; Cambodia, for example, slaps a full profile of Angkor Wat on its flag. Tiny countries, like Andorra, San Marino, Liechtenstein and Brunei seem particularly unwilling to part with their rich historical insignia, often displaying elaborate coats-of-arms even on their civil flags. Montenegro, upon independence, opted to essentially refurbish their crowned double-eagle flag from 1876 rather than use some boring, Pan-Slavic tricolour, and good on them. There are way, way too many tricolour flags out there as it is.

  • Revolution!: For a while, tricolour democratic Revolutionary flags were all the rage. They typically consist of red, white and blue colouring, often with the use of stars to denote either a unitary national entity or the constituent entities of said nation. Examples include: France, The United States of America, Paraguay, Chile, Panama and Cuba.

  • Viva La Revolucion!: Nations having experienced a Communist revolution typically amend their flags to herald the establishment of a Worker's Paradise on Earth. Sometimes, like with Angola, nations which are no longer Marxist still retain the original flag. These flags often consist of the colours Red and Yellow, and usually contain a five-pointed Communist star (always with the apex of the top point at the exact star's midpoint) in some prominent location. Sometimes they will present a cluster of various tools and/or weaponry. The nations are : Angola, China, Mozambique, Myanmar, North Korea, Suriname, the former USSR and Vietnam.

Religious Imagery
Is a given nation fully committed to the One True Faith of their choice? If so, look for them to officially advertise the fact with a slick logo-based ad campaign.
Regional Solidarity
Oftentimes nations will choose the colour of their flag based on a pan-regional identity movement which typically accompanies colonial independence. This section will contain mostly lists and not a lot of humour.
  • Pan-African Colours: Consisting of green, red, and yellow (and sometimes black), many non-British African colonies chose to adopt the colours of the flag of Ethiopia, which was essentially the only independent native state left in Africa. Some mix it up by adding five-pointed communist stars somewhere in the field, but these flags typically want for creativity and have a cookie-cutter feel to them. Guinea-Bissau, for example, strikes me as the most uninspired and generic flag design out there - yeah, vertical column in the hoist, fly split in half, um, pan African colours yes SIR! Slap a star midway up the hoist and let cool for half an hour.

    These include: Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad (flashing a little blue for France there), Congo (republic of), Cote D'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Rwanda (pre-genocide) , Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Togo, and finally Zimbabwe.

    Interestingly enough, an African country seems to fare much better by *not* choosing the Pan African Colours. PAC nations only average a GDP per capita of $1362/year, a life expectancy at birth of 53.2, and an average literacy rate of 52.4%. By comparsion, all non-PAC African nations average a GDP of $4511/year, life expectancy of 56.4, and a literacy rate of 72.7% (all statistics compiled from United Nations development programme report, 2009). Even when factoring out northern Africa, Mauritius and the Seychelles, of the three metrics only life expectancy lowers to PAC levels (52.7 years). The advantages of unique flag design, at least in this instance, are clear.

  • Pan-Arab Colours: As mentioned before, consist of bands of black, white and red, common banner colours of the Emirates which once covered this part of the world. Includes Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, UAE and Yemen.

  • Central American Blues: Owing to the fact that most of this region was briefly part of the same country, its constituent parts adopted similar flags; typically, a national crest of some sort sandwiched between two blue stripes. Examples of this are Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Landscapes

Sometimes nations avail themselves of symbolic imagery, and go for a more realistic depiction by using native landscapes on their flags. Kiribati imparts a sense of lazy, idyll Island life with a flag that shows the rising sun over the wavy Pacific Ocean, albatross circling high above. Ukraine's flag depicts a vast expanse of steppe wheat, with half being sky blue and the other golden yellow, and explains why they felt so at home in Saskatchewan. Malawi and Antigua and Barbuda both include a vivid rising sun, while Saint Lucia shows an exact outline of the Piton mountains for which it is famed.

Sun Imagery, in particular, is quite common. Sixteen nations overtly display the sun in their flags, compared to twelve appearances from the Moon (all due to Islamic symbolism). Fully eighty-one nations, in total, show a star of some form on their civil flags, the vast majority being of the five-pointed variety (though angle of said star tends to denote which economic system they prefer).

After celestial phenomena, the second most popular physical object to display on a flag is a bird. Sixteen different flags depict some form of avian, usually eagles (from holdover European insignia), but vultures, birds of paradise, roosters and one sisserou parrot also make an appearance. Other animals, too, grace flags. Fiji, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe each display lions rampant, with Bhutan one-upping everybody with a big white dragon. Fauna are evidently far more popular than flora when choosing a flag design; only three nations, Lebanon, Equatorial Guinea and Canada, prominently display a tree (or part thereof) on their flags.

Representational Flags

Sometimes, nations will choose a particularly relevant symbol to slap on their banner. It might be that of a temporary dwelling, like Kyrgyzstan, or a leaf from a tree that grows rather well within its political boundaries (like Canada). Sometimes, the imagery is so precise and painstakingly accurate a flag will require several dozen revisions to keep it up-to-date. More lists now = yayy times!!!!11!!!
  • We Do Exist, You Know: Sometimes, countries that are small and obscure will cut to the chase and physically show you a map of where they are on their flags, as if proving they really are actual countries unlike Dougistan or Framptony. Nauru and Cape Verde both offer their positions relative the equator, while Tuvalu maps out the actual contours of the archipelago it covers against a sky blue field. Kosovo, starved for any symbol utterly unique to it, chose to slap the actual outline of their country on a red field. Turning your flag into a map seems like a cry of desperation more than anything, so Smokey says don't do it.

  • Fancy Rug Designs: Confined entirely to the former USSR. Belarus, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan (in particular) showcase an intricate, ornate rug design on the fly of their respective flags, both cementing a particular aspect of their culture and rendering their flags physically impossible for grade schoolers to draw accurately. One would imagine that this could pose a problem for these totalitarian-style states.

  • Drenched In Blood, Mostly, Except For This Little Bit: The flags of both Austria and Latvia are crimson red, with a narrow white band in the middle. This is significant. In Austria's case, its flag represents the white tunic of Duke Leopold V of Austria, after fighting in the Crusades. After a particularly strenous battle, his tunic was drenched in blood, save for a small white band around his waist where his belt was. So taken by this sight was he, that he adopted this colour scheme as his new national banner. Being as he was a forefather of the Habsburgs, this banner stuck.

    In Latvia's case, their banner refers to a pagan tribal chief of theirs who was struck down in the 1280s, mostly likely against Christian Teutonic Knights. After his death, he was wrapped in a white sheet, whose centre remained miraculously free of blood. During the next battle this bloodstained sheet was used as a banner, for some weird reason. It was officially adopted in 1917, and has been Latvia's banner ever since.

  • One Colour Per Ethnicity, Each Colour In Balance, All Ethnicities in Harmony = EPIC WIN!!!: Some countries riven by ethnic strife will attempt to placate all sides by creating a national flag incorporating the colour fetishes harboured by each ethnolinguistic group within its arbitrarily placed borders. South Africa is probably the most obvious example, with a colour scheme as schizophrenic as Philip K. Dick. Bicolour ethnic schemes are far more popular, particularly in Djibouti (where the competing Afars and Issas are represented with Green and Blue, respectively) and Sri Lanka (Green and orange. Sinhala and Tamils).


Misc!
Everyone loves misc. This is where you find the lovable misfits, weird one-offs, and bizarre curios that populate many a Barnum et. al production. They can be cuddly, or spiky and weird, and always one per category. Cool.
  • Reductio Ad Absurdum: Libya. Adopted after the failure of Moammar Ghaddafi's Federation of Arab Republics, this is the only flag in the world that features one solid colour without adornment - dark green, symbolizing the devout Muslim nature of its inhabitant's and Ghaddafi's attempt at "greening" the Sahara Desert.

  • Guns and Weaponry: Only two nations have chosen to immortalize semi-automatic weaponry on their flag; Mozambique, choosing the classic yet stylish AK-47 to adorn its centre-fly, and Guatemala, choosing the more dated musket with bayonet as part of its coat of arms. Both allude to an independence struggle which was won with the aid of one of these fighting implements. Interestingly, depictions of weaponry are not limited to these two flags alone. Knives/swords/cutting implements show up in the flags of six other nations; Angola (machete), Kenya and Swaziland (tribal spears), Oman, Sri Lanka and Saudi Arabia (swords).

  • United Nations Blue Looks So Good On You: Perhaps no flag better reflects its host country's existence as that of Somalia; a bland, white, generic five-pointed star against a background of United Nations Blue, symbolizing both the existential void experienced by a nation which lives in anarchy, and the feeble, perfunctory "rescue" the United Nations claims to champion. Ignoring, naturally, that since anarchy has reigned supreme there since 1991, literacy rates have risen, elementary and post-secondary graduation is higher, per capita income has drastically increased and access to telecommunications, electricity, and clean water is higher than ever . Warlords kinda suck too, though.

  • What about Tibet?: Messed up as its flag is, it's not a UN country. Sorry. Pacifism does not a revolution make; see, China during the Song Dynasty. Next.

  • Guyana: It makes sense that a country where one-third of the population has a US work visa pending would use brightly coloured triangles to symbolize a bright future for understandably jaded residents. Epic fail.


That's about it, I think. I know I missed a couple, but here you have it - e2's first, relatively concise, guide to the style of every national flag on earth. It's interesting to see how each nation plots, embodies and modifies its national image as it sees fit, through the medium of vexillology. I think it's fascinating, anyway. Enjoy.

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