Flags have played important roles throughout history, from signifying a country’s victory in battle to staking a claim to land, such as that on the continent of Antarctic. They are flown above government buildings, universities, stadiums, businesses, and even individual homes. But have you ever wondered about why a particular country’s flag is designed the way it is? Why those colors and symbols were chosen to represent the country in the first place?
A flag is an identifier, much like that of a coat of arms, or a family crest. Individual flags represent countries, states, regions, military branches, organizations, schools, and many other entities and groups. While there may be some similarities in these flag designs, none are wholly duplicated, and all are symbolic in meaning.
Factors of Flag Design
So, what elements, or factors, go into the making of a flag design? These are most commonly agreed to as history, culture, and natural resources.
One element that goes into the design of a flag is historical significance, as in what occurred in history and marks a country’s future. Such historical elements may include bloodshed, independence, religion, or any event that becomes known as part of a country’s overall history and identity.
Another factor taken into consideration when looking at a flag’s design is culture, based on beliefs and ways of living in a society or group. One way to represent cultural differences is by the colors chosen for a flag for ethnic and cultural significant reasons.
Nature and Natural Resources
Still other factors are based on natural resources and landscapes symbolized on the flag either as an emblem of some sort or most likely in the colors chosen. This may showcase the importance of water to a particular country, important grasslands, or even mineral deposits.
The Role of Symbolic Colors
Perhaps the most noticeable element of a flag design is its colors. While there is not a true consensus on the meaning of each of these colors, there are common threads when it comes to defining each one’s symbolism. Studies and analysis of flags have often been conducted in order to determine the most common symbolism for each color, particularly for countries as a whole.
Overall, country flags lean more towards using colors to symbolize attributes such as harmony or peace, based on their history or culture. State flags may lean more towards representation of natural resources. For example, the state flag of Colorado contains the color white, representing its snowy mountains and red to symbolize the ground’s color.
Also, certain colors are used more often than other colors. For instance, the colors of red, white, and blue are the most popular. Very few country flags today do not contain at least one of these. According to one analysis focusing on the popularity of colors on country flags, red is used on 77.08%, white comes in just slightly below that with 72.92%, and blue is found on just over half at 53.13%, Next in line are yellow, green, and black.
These colors, when used, often reflect different symbolism for each country.
With all of this being said, you can bet color selection for a country’s flag is not taken lightly, or the design process rushed. Hidden symbolism is at play, and here is what we know about the most commonly used colors and what they represent.
Most Popular Flag Colors and What They Symbolize
Red is the most used color on flags throughout the world. A strong, bold color, it most often symbolizes bloodshed as in war and revolution, or in a struggle of some sort such as for independence. It also represents power, courage, strength, and valor. This shows the history of a country in many instances, as in the fight for its creation. A few examples of its use include:
- United States: Red symbolizes valor and hardiness.
- Austria: Red is used to represent blood in a historical context, that being a symbol of the Duke’s coat, full of blood stains, during battle.
- China: Red represents the revolution.
- Vietnam: Red symbolizes the bloodshed in their fight for independence.
The color white is often the background color for a flag or plays an equal role, such as in the red and white stripes of the United States flag. Most often, white symbolizes peace and purity. It also may symbolize honesty and harmony. As a natural element, it can represent mountain snow. Here are a few examples:
- Mexico: Today, white symbolizes hope, but in the past, it is said to have represented the purity of its Catholic faith.
- Thailand: White stands for purity and the country’s main religion, Buddhism.
- United Kingdom: White symbolizes honesty and peace.
Blue can be a calming color or bold in its own right. While its symbolism is often disagreed upon, there are overarching themes seen in the flags of various countries. Overall, blue on a flag is most often used to symbolize either the natural element of water or sky, or particular attributes. These attributes include truth, peace, loyalty, vigilance, freedom, and justice. It also may symbolize prosperity and good fortune. Examples include:
- Nepal: The blue border on this flag symbolizes harmony and peace.
- Greece: The blue symbolizes the seas surrounding the country, which play a crucial role in the country’s culture and economy.
- Sweden: Blue symbolizes loyalty, truth, vigilance, justice, and perseverance.
Shades of yellow or gold are most closely associated with the sun. However, the colors are also symbolic of energy, wealth, prosperity, and generosity. Examples include:
- Brazil: Yellow on its flag symbolizes the country’s gold reserves, which reflects on wealth and prosperity.
- Spain: Yellow here symbolizes generosity.
- Ghana: Yellow is a symbol of the mineral wealth of the country.
Green is one of those special colors that often has a nature-related symbolism. These include agriculture, grassland, forests, and various other geological features representative of a country. However, the color green also represents the attributes of hope, love, and joy, and often holds a sacred meaning. Still, others see it as representing fertility and prosperity. A few examples include:
- India: The bottom band of green symbolizes growth, their land, and fertility.
- Brazil: Green symbolizes their national treasures of the Amazon Rainforest and Jungle.
- Portugal: The green on the Portugal flag symbolizes hope for the future.
- Italy: Dual symbolism can be found in Italy’s flag, where the color green symbolizes hope and also the plains and hills that spread across the country’s landscape.
Black is a defining color on any flag and has less symbolic meanings than many of the other colors, and is used less often. This color often symbolizes ethnic heritage, victory in battle or defeat of enemies (historical connotation), war and death, determination, and even harmony. Here are a few examples:
- Germany: The black, in combination with red and gold, symbolizes unity and freedom.
- Botswana and South Korea: Black on their flags symbolize harmony.
- Antigua and Barbuda: Black symbolizes the soil and their African heritage.
The combinations of colors on flags are also symbolic. They weren’t chosen at random simply because they looked good together. In most instances, each one carries equal importance.
One country’s flag in particular, South Africa, contains numerous colors including red, white, blue, green, yellow, and black. This flag was adopted in 1994, after the end of apartheid. Overall, the new flag is meant to symbolize the unity of diverse peoples, combining the colors representative of the Boer Republics and the African National Congress.
Now that you are aware that flags contain such an array of hidden symbolism, especially in their colors, you may never look at flags the same way again.