The United States of America has a lot of great qualities, but unfortunately our flag design isn’t one of them. Stars and stripes weren’t exactly original even when the American flag was first conceived, but now they’re a dime a dozen on national banners. And let’s face it, squares and rectangles are hardly thrilling as design elements go. Add to that fairly dark colors and a bunch of bland white stars lined up in perfect rows, and it all adds up to one of the most staid and boring flag designs going. So what are the best flag designs then? Well, here are my choices for the twenty most awesome national flag designs on the planet. They’re more colorful, more dynamic, and overall just more interesting than most of the flags out there. Click on the images to see larger versions and examine the details. Meanwhile, I think it’s time we had a national conversation about a possible re-design for Old Glory.
#20 – Guyana
Guyana is probably best known in America as the place where the Jim Jones cult mass murder-suicide happened, which is unfortunate. It’s generally considered part of the Atlantic conglomerate known as the Caribbean, and as such it is the largest Caribbean nation by area and the only one which isn’t an island. But what most interests me is its flag design, which is colorful and looks more like something out of Star Trek than a national flag, making for a futuristic-looking design that will withstand the test of time. As with most flags, the colors are significant: the green is for agriculture and the rain forests that cover a significant part of the country; the red is for vigor and zeal; the gold is for the nation’s rich mineral deposits; the white is for rivers and other bodies of water; and the black is for the endurance of Guyana’s people. The flag’s central design is often called the Golden Arrowhead, an arrow being a dynamic symbol in itself. The flag was designed by Whitney Smith, a professional vexillologist, which accounts for the strength of its design.
#19 – Moldova
Moldova is a tiny Eastern European country wedged between Romania and Ukraine. It may be the poorest country in Europe, but it has one of the continent’s richest flag designs. It starts with the three primary colors as vertical stripes, which aren’t terribly interesting in themselves, but then, smack dab in the middle of the flag is the country’s coat-of-arms which has an auroch‘s head in the center of it. In case you aren’t aware, the auroch is extinct. Now, most countries would shy away from putting an extinct animal on their flag, but not the Moldovans. Why? Because they are just that damn cool. Another awesome thing about this flag is that on the obverse side of it, the crest is actually reversed, so when you see the flag in bright light, its central emblem won’t leave a weird silhouette bleeding through from the other side—it all perfectly matches up. If all that weren’t enough, Moldova actually has a variant war-time flag which is even more bad-ass, with the eagle carrying both a sword and a mace. A mace!
#18 – Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea is an island nation just north of Australia, part of the Melanesian island chain. It’s flag includes the colors red, gold, white and black, which always seem to look good together, and bears representations of both the Southern Cross constellation (which is also present on Australia’s flag) and an alien-looking critter called a raggiana bird-of-paradise. The coolest thing about the flag, though, is that it was designed by a 15-year-old girl as part of a nationwide contest. Of course, she really just incorporated elements that were already around and rearranged them, but hey, she did it artfully. It’s a fairly simple design as far as they go, but its elements are well-balanced, and that bird is weird and exotic enough to really draw the eye to it.
#17 – Sri Lanka
Our first Asian nation on the list is Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, a large island to the south of India and the place where bad-ass female singer/rapper M.I.A. (who is of Sri Lankan heritage) was raised. The most prominent thing on the flag is, of course, that particularly Asian lion, which is just fantastic. It represents the Sinhalese, the main ethnic group of the country, and it’s holding a traditional Sri Lankan sword called a kastane. But the most striking thing to me about the flag is the unusual color palette. The maroon element with the lion on it also stands for the Sinhalese. In addition to the Sinhalese, Sri Lanka also has two other major ethnic groups, the Ceylonian Moors and the Tamils, symbolized by the green and orange elements respectively. In the corners of the maroon section of the flag are four golden bo (fig) leaves . Everything is surrounded by a golden border, which represents the nation’s major religion, Buddhism. Even more awesome is the Sri Lankan military flag; it has all of these elements and the national coat-of-arms, which is, in my estimation, one of the coolest crest designs ever.
#16 – Macau
The flag for Macau—an autonomous region under Chinese dominion—is the essence of simplicity, but its strength is anchored by its one major element: a white lotus flower above a bridge and rippling water with an arc of five golden stars over the whole thing. The five stars are taken right from the national flag of the People’s Republic of China, but the other elements are original to this design. The bridge here, although highly stylized, is meant to be the Governor Nobre de Carvalho Bridge, one of two major bridges that connects the Macau Peninsula to the Taipa/Cotai/Coloane island complex. And the lotus is a rich Asian symbol with many layers of meaning. What I love about this flag is that it looks more like a logo for some hip modern company than a flag design. It’s a spectacularly beautiful image that really embodies the essence of contemporary China.
#15 – Portugal
Portugal is the westernmost nation of Europe, a narrow slab of land carved out at the end of the Iberian Peninsula, which is mostly occupied by France and Spain (though the tiny micro-state of Andorra is in there too, caught like a pea between the big fluffy mattresses of Spain and France). I digress. The Portuguese flag is our focus here, and what a doozy. Sure, most bi-color flags divide their two colors right in half, but not Portugal’s flag. It artfully keeps the division off-center, with the heavier dark green giving over more space to the lighter, more vivid crimson. What really makes the design pop, though, is its use of an armillary sphere or astrolabe, that lovely representation of celestial spheres popularized during the Renaissance era. Does any other national flag have one of those? I don’t think so! This is just plain classy of Portugal and indicates a devotion to the sciences. Then, over the top of that, they throw in a sweet coat-of-arms with yellow castles and shields that look like dominoes. So cool.
#14 – Uganda
And now we move on to another continent. Here is Africa’s first entry on our list, and it’s for the little nation of Uganda. Originally a British colony, it became an independent state in 1962, and with it came this new flag design, which is just gorgeous. The colors refer to the people of Uganda (black), the sun, source of life in the nation (yellow), and the blood of all Ugandans which unites them as a people (red). These same colorful stripes are on the German flag, and they look lovely there too, but the Ugandan flag doubles them up, making it twice as nice. Then, in colors that coordinate with the stripes, is a grey crowned crane, an attractive bird that you’ve probably seen at the zoo. And look at that thing: it has a mohawk! How boss is that?!
#13 – Holy See (Vatican City)
First off, let me preface this by stating that I am not, nor have I ever been, Catholic. This flag was chosen purely on aesthetic grounds. As flags go, it’s a weird one right off the bat because it’s perfectly square. The flag is divided into two equal halves, one gold (or) and one white or silver (argent). The silver half then bears the Vatican City coat-of-arms, which is positively loaded down with meaning. First off, there’s the papal tiara, basically the pope’s crown (actually three crowns in one), because he is meant to be higher even than kings, who stand only for worldly power. Then, there are the crossed keys of Saint Peter, who, as you may be aware, is supposed to be in charge of the gates of Heaven. One key is gold and one silver, complimenting the colors of the two bands of the flag. Even the arrangement of the keys has meaning. If your interested in the metric ton of symbolism found here, you can read more about it in the Wikipedia page on the coat-of-arms of the Holy See. Suffice it to say, there’s a lot to it. I just happen to enjoy the artistry and elegance of the design.
#12 – Mexico
So, the US flag is kind of lame, and Canada’s flag isn’t very exciting either, but all is not lost for the North American continent. Mexico to the rescue! The base of the flag is your standard vertical tri-color: green, white and red. But this is salvaged by an absolutely stylin’ central motif—Mexico’s coat-of-arms. It bears an eagle tearing into a rattlesnake (“Don’t tread on me!” screamed the snake . . . right before the eagle swooped in and snapped its scrawny little neck. I keed, I keed!) Anyway, this has a double meaning: to the original Aztec inhabitants, the image is based on the legend of the founding of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) as drawn from the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer and other sources, in which the bad-ass god Huitzilopochtli (symbolized by the eagle) brought favor to the island of Tenochtitlan (the prickly pear cactus he sits on). Initially the snake was associated with another god—Quetzalcoatl—who represented the Aztec priesthood and wisdom in general, among other things. Later, in accordance with European traditions, the serpent came to be reinterpreted as a symbol of absolute evil; likewise, the eagle was re-framed as an icon of good. Hence, the eagle devouring the rattlesnake represents good triumphing over evil. It’s all very complicated, but one thing is certain: it’s a stunningly attractive design.
#11 – Kiribati
Kiribati is a nation composed of a sparse group of tiny atolls and islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The collective land area of the whole thing is a little over 310 square miles (or about 800 square kilometers), but they are spread out over a space of three-and-a-half million square kilometers. That’s a lot of space between those islands! The total population of Kiribati is somewhere around 104,000 people. For a place that virtually no one but the people who live there ever thinks about, it has one of the loveliest flag designs around. The wavy ocean, the rising sun, the golden frigatebird . . . it all adds up to a really nice design. It is based on the Kiribati coat-of-arms designed by Sir Arthur Grimble in 1932. The three wavy white lines represent the three main island groups (the Gilbert Islands, the Phoenix Islands and the Line Islands) that comprise the nation, and the seventeen sun rays represent the sixteen Gilbert Islands and the coral island Banaba. Finally, the frigatebird, to quote Wikipedia, “symbolises command of the sea, power, freedom and Kiribati cultural dance patterns.”
#10 – Marshall Islands
The Marshall Islands are another island nation in the Pacific Ocean, just northwest of the Gilbert Islands, in fact. In the flag, the diagonal band stands in for the equator; the white star, then, symbolized the Marshall Islands in relation to the equator. The significance of the orange and white portions of the band is in recognizing the layout of the islands, which run roughly in two parallel chains, the Ratak (“Sunrise”) Chain and the Ralik (“Sunset”) Chain, so named because the sun rises on the Ratak side of the islands and sets on the Ralik side. The two colors also stand for peace and courage. The star has 24 points in all, representing the number of electoral districts in the nation, while its four longest points symbolize its four major cultural centers. As with the Macau flag, there is just something inherently modern about this design, providing its strongest appeal.
#9 – Montenegro
Conversely, the flag of the European nation of Montenegro looks rather antique, despite being one of the newer flag designs on this list. Nevertheless, it works—it’s a regal and classy design that incorporates all of its canonical elements perfectly. First, its too main colors, red and gold, have always worked well together, especially for heraldic designs, which, as with many of these flags, this one incorporates. Montenegro as a distinct entity began as a Prince-Bishropic, meaning it was ruled by a Christian bishop, and as such its flag was much simpler: just a red field surrounded by a white border and bearing a white Greek-style cross in its center. Later it became a principality, which is when the double-headed eagle carrying the scepter and orb and with a crown above it came into the picture. It did have a shield on its chest, but at that point the lion emblem sat beneath the entire crest rather than inside the eagle’s shield. The flag then went through several other incarnations minus the crest altogether before this final design was adopted in 2004.
#8 – Uruguay
In case you can’t tell, I’m quite fond of flags with suns on them. Such is the case with the South American country of Uruguay, whose sun is doubly cool because it has a face on it. It’s called the Sun of May (similar to the heraldic sun in splendor), and its based on the original Argentinian real coin. Uruguay is divided into nine departments or regions, each represented by one of the white and blue horizontal stripes. The flag’s canton (the square portion in the upper left-hand corner) has the Sun of May, symbolizing the birth of the new nation of Uruguay in 1828, though the current flag wasn’t adopted until two years later. I suppose one could argue that the flag’s basic design isn’t that far removed from the American flag. Sure, but the American is just so impersonal compared to this one, with its glorious anthropomorphized sun. Maybe the Uruguayans take it for granted, but to me its a far more enticing thing to look at than a bunch of regimented stars and stripes.
#7 – Serbia
Here’s that double-capita eagle rearing its, er . . . heads again. Like Montenegro, Serbia is another Eastern European country, and the two-headed eagle has a long and rich history in that region, dating back to the Byzantine empire. Unsurprisingly, the crest part of the flag is based on the country’s coat-of-arms. I love how elaborate the crown is here, with its jewels and pearls. The crest also utilizes a couple of fleur-de-lis, one of the most iconic, elegant and heterogeneous symbols ever devised, as well as a tetragrammatic cross with four stylized ‘C’s, which likewise traces back to Byzantium. The letters are not Latin ‘C’s but rather Cyrillic ‘C’s, in which case they are more akin to the Latin ‘S’, which explains their use in the Serbian cross, as they derive from the popular Serbian motto Samo Sloga Srbina Spasava (Only Unity Saves the Serbs). That’s a lot of meaning packed into that flag. Design-wise, I love that the crest is off-center, which generally makes for a stronger design.
#6 – Vanuatu
Yet another nation composed of islands in the Pacific (this is the last of them, I promise), Vanuatu has one of the most unusual and striking banners in the flag pantheon, mainly because of its strange Y-shaped field configuration. First, let’s cover the color symbolism though. The black element of course represents the country’s people, the Ni-Vanuatu, who are dark-skinned but, like many Melanesians, often have curly, naturally light blond hair, a beautiful combination. Melanesian children are particularly adorable. Anyway, back to the flag. The green represents the fulsome, fertile nature of the islands, while the red stands for the blood of both the people and the wild boar, a major traditional food source of Ni-Vanuatu. The emblem inside the black triangle consists of a curled wild boar tusk (a sign of prosperity amongst the islanders) and two crossed fern leaves, a symbol of peace. The yellow sideways ‘Y’ is actually a Christian symbol here, representing the spread of the gospel across the islands.
#5 – Bhutan
The little Asian nation of Bhutan is wedged between China (to the north) and India (to the south). Its flag consists of three major elements, but the meanings behind them are complex. The orange triangle represents the spiritual side of Bhutan, namely its Buddhist heritage. The yellow triangle, meanwhile, represents the worldly side of things, mainly the civil life of its people, as well as the ephemeral nature of worldly authority and society. But easily the most commanding part of the standard of Bhutan is the dragon. I mean, it’s a dang dragon, the coolest of all mythical animals! And this is not just any dragon. It’s actually Druk, the Bhutanese thunder dragon. In fact, this dragon is so important to the nation’s heritage that its people actually refer to their own country as Druk. It originates from a particular Buddhistic line called Drukpa. The dragon straddles the two halves of the flag, indicating the importance of attending to both civil/state and spiritual matters; it also symbolizes the bond between the nation’s leader(s) and its people. Druk’s color is white, epitomizing the purity of the proper Buddhist mind, and it clutches a gemstone in each of its claws, which stands for the wealth of the country. But really the Bhutan flag’s awesomeness can be summed up in one word: dragon!
#4 – Kazakhstan
When most people in the Anglosphere think of Kazakhstan—if they think of it all—they probably think of the satirical film Borat and its title character, played by Sacha Baron Cohen. But when I think of it, I first picture this wonderfully handsome flag. The elements are few but drenched in meaning. The blue field is first and foremost a color associated with Turkic religious traditions, but it also signifies the sky and water. The sun, as is often the case in iconography, is the source of all life, but also a representation of the nation’s abundance and fortune. The bird is a steppe eagle, and it personifies strength, freedom and progress. There were two things that particularly drew me to this design. The first is the way the shadow beneath the eagle blends into the background—it’s a very nice use of shading and negative space, unusual for flag imagery. The second was the ornamental band on the hoist end of the flag, which is a traditional pattern called koshkar-muiz (“horns of the ram”). It’s a sublime design; the Kazakhs can be very proud of their flag!
#3 – Swaziland
Our second entry from Africa takes the #3 spot on our list. Swaziland is a very small nation (there seems to be a lot of those on this list—well, never let it be said that I don’t stand up for the little guy!) situated near the bottom of the African continent, at the eastern end of South Africa. The entire symbolism of the flag rests on its traditions of warfare. Not that I’m fond of war, mind you, but I am setting aside my opinions about that and focusing on the aesthetics of the design. Even so, some of the symbolism is worth examining, the almond-shaped shield especially, as the black and white aspects of it represent the fact that whites and blacks peacefully live side-by-side in Swaziland. The shield and two spears demonstrate the strength of Swaziland to stand against its enemies, an important thing to project to outsiders in war-torn Africa, for, though she be but little, she is fierce! The third staff is a Swazi fighting stick adorned with bird feathers.
#2 – Turkmenistan
Oh, my! This captivating flag of the Islamic nation of Turkmenistan is the most elaborate flag in the world, with its intricate carpet guls inside the red band, and these guls are not random. They are the tribal guls of the five major tribes of the region: the Teke, Yomut, Saryq, Choudur and Arsary. The red band also includes a wreath at the bottom, a symbol of the nation’s official status as a permanently neutral entity in all international disputes. Green and red are historically important colors for the Turkmen. The crescent moon is a common symbol associated with Islam, but it is also a talisman of good omen and a hopeful future. The stars are for the five provinces of Turkmenistan: Ahal, Balkan, Lebap, Mary and Dashhowuz. And hey, do you consider those two-headed eagles to have too few heads? Never fear. The Turkmen have you covered—their presidential flag has an eagle with five of them!
#1 – Saint Pierre and Miquelon
And now we arrive at #1, and it is flat out amazing. It is a truism in modern design that less is more. Well, forget that bunk. I mean, just look at this thing. It has it all: lions, ermine tails, crosses and, taking center stage, a classic old ship sailing on the ocean. Before we delve into the meaning of all this stuff, though, let’s talk a bit about where and what this place is. Saint Pierre and Miquelon—which should more properly be called Saint Pierre and Miquelon-Langlade, but its name is already a mouthful so I totally get why Langlade isn’t included in the official title—is an archipelago just off the southern coast of the Canadian province of Newfoundland. At one time parts of Canada and what is now the Mid-Eastern and Southern US was largely under French control. That is long gone, of course, but there remains one French territory (or rather, territorial collectivity) in this part of the world, and that is Saint Pierre and Miquelon, which basically operates as an independent state. It’s people, of which there were around 6,000 as of 2015, are predominantly French-speaking Catholics who come from three major ethnic strains: Basques, Bretons and Normans, hence the three very different squares on the hoist end of the flag. Each of those sections, which are based on the flags and/or coat-of-arms of their respective peoples, has its own symbolism that I could easily devote another whole article to, but I won’t. It you’re interested, you can read about each of them here, here and here. But the most awesome part of this flag is the ship, which is a representation of the carrack the Grande Hermine, on which French explorer Jacques Cartier sailed. Cartier discovered the area that became Saint Pierre and Miquelon on his second voyage to the New World. This splendid banner is said to have been designed by André Paturel, a local business owner. Give the man a prize! Because I seriously doubt anyone is ever going to top this.