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I came across this xkcd comic joking about a flag with a phone notification bar, which made me wonder what restrictions there are on flag design.

Is there some kind of committee that approves national flag designs? If I became the leader of some new country, would I be able to make the flag whatever I wanted, for example:

enter image description here

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    Most flags have layers of symbolic meaning representing the history and culture of the nation. I don't know why a blue-painted Satan walking in on someone doing something very naughty with strings is important to your new country, but it definitely seems like a fun place to be. – Giter Aug 29 '18 at 17:48
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    In theory, no other nation has to approve, or could reject, your flag or any other aspect of your nation. That said, some nations may choose to not recognize certain national aspects if it does not suit them. – dotancohen Aug 30 '18 at 9:17
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    @Bregalad: Rules for coat of arms that are valid within any given country, or anything that is internationally binding and thus would apply in a fictitious (for now) country that would approve of the above flag design? – O. R. Mapper Aug 30 '18 at 10:09
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    Isn't the whole point of being sovereign nation not having to ask anyone about your own business, such as what flag to have? – el.pescado Aug 30 '18 at 14:23
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    @IanD.Scott I refer you to the flag of the Commonwealth of Virginia, where the woman, Virtue (representing Virginia) is, in fact, displaying "some form of nudity". I can assure you this has long been a point of contention for some. – aldie_lab Aug 30 '18 at 20:07
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International politics is anarchy. There is no such thing as an international committee which needs to approve flags and other national symbols.

However, more eccentric designs might run into some practical problems.

  • When your design is too intricate, then it might be difficult to reproduce faithfully. You might have to live with some people using a simplified version of your flag. For example, the flag of Iran has two very thin bands with the inscription of the Takbir on it. This detail is often omitted on low-resolution depictions.
  • When your flag violates any copyrights or trademarks, then anyone using the flag abroad might run into legal problems. You can of course add exemptions to the intellectual property laws in your own country to protect your flag, but you can't enforce these world-wide.
  • When your design is not appealing to your own citizens, then they won't use your flag much. That means you lose the opportunity to use it as a symbol to instill a feeling of national pride and unity.

This TED talk about flag design offers some very useful tips for good flag design. The talk mostly centers around the 5 basic principles of flag design:

  1. Keep it Simple: A flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory.
  2. Use Meaningful Symbolism: Everything in your flag should have a meaning which relates to your country's history, culture or values.
  3. Use 2-3 basic colors This makes the flag much easier to memorize and cheaper to reproduce.
  4. No Lettering or seals: If you need to write down what your flag represents, your symbolism has failed. Also, people might not be able to read it from a distance or in a low resolution representation.
  5. Be Distinctive or Be Related: Either create a truly unique design or a design which relates to the flags of other countries you have a close relationship with.
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    Um..... OP's example flag actually scores 4/5 on your flag metric..... – Adrian773 Aug 30 '18 at 3:36
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    @Adrian773 It violates rule 1 (nobody can memorize and replicate the exact pattern of the scribbles in the center) and 3 (it uses 4 colors - the white background color also counts). Whether there is any meaningful symbolism is only known to the author. If there is, I would be very interested in reading it :). But it does not contain letters and it certainly is distinct, that's for sure. – Philipp Aug 30 '18 at 6:04
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    Easy to reproduce; in a lot of situations flags are made of cloth, with the symbols sewn or embroidered onto it. Your example would cause a rebellion among flag-sewers. – RedSonja Aug 30 '18 at 6:36
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    @paul23 like the Vatican flag? – JAD Aug 30 '18 at 8:08
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    Concerning number 4: Frankly, "symbolism has failed" for the vast majority of national flags. The symbolic meaning of the colours and shapes may well be obscure even to citizens of the country, and entirely unrecognizable to anyone abroad. – O. R. Mapper Aug 30 '18 at 10:14
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Any country can come up with any flag they want. New countries come up with flags, and even existing ones change flags once in a while (see South Africa or of course the United States).

The new flag of South Africa, introduced in 1994:

If you're in a democracy, then you will certainly have committees and debates and whatnot, but that's purely internal. There's no UN committee that is going to approve or deny your flag. Of course, if your flag is the same as another country's, or somehow disparages another country, you may run into issues with said country and its allies. Better not have a flag picturing the US flag being burned.

Note that most countries have rectangular, horizontal flags, but there are a few quirks:

  • even those that are rectangular and horizontal do not all have the same ratio. It may be 2:3, 1:2, 3:5 or quite a few other values. Note that many, many people will stretch your flag (and many others) so all flags look the same.

    The flags of Belgium, with a 13:15 (1.154) ratio and Qatar, with a 11:28 (2.545) ratio:

  • some flags are not rectangular at all (Nepal):

If we go beyond national flags, then it becomes even more fun, see the flags of Ohio:

or Tampa:

As you see, you can really anything you want. It's your flag.

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    Just joined to add to this interesting answer that the flag of Switzerland is indeed really rectangular, since every square is really a rectangle too. I would rather say that it is "not only rectangular, but even square". – ysalmon Aug 30 '18 at 6:16
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    I imagine a followup question if the USA has any restrictions on what a state flag should look like. ;-) – gerrit Aug 30 '18 at 9:13
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    Some flags are indeed nearly identical to other flags: Romania-Chad, Netherlands-Luxembourg, Monaco-Indonesia-Poland, Ireland-Côte d'Ivoire, … – 200_success Aug 30 '18 at 20:57
  • @200_success You are completely wrong about Indonesian, Monacan and Polish flags. Those are not identical at all. For starters, Monaco and Indonesia have red on top, while Poland has red on bottom. Secondly, each uses different shade of red, ignore lazy web users/admins/others who render all of them into FF0000. Thirdly, each flag has different shape 2:3, 4:5 and 5:8 respectively. – M i ech Aug 31 '18 at 10:19
  • Fun fact: Not only is Nepal's flag the only non-rectangular national flag in the world, it has a precisely defined geometric construction that would make Euclid smile. (The narrator "cheats" blatantly, but you could construct it with compass and straightedge.) – dan04 Sep 1 '18 at 0:02
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Flags have a function as military markers. So there is a natural, not quite obsolete, restriction:

  • A nation's flag should not be too similar to any other nation it's at war with or might someday be at war with, and not too similar to either side's allies.

For example, if country A was at war with country B, and their navies had difficulty telling their ships flags apart, then the navy of A might open fire on their own ships, or even be fired upon by its own allies' ships. And on battlefronts so clouded with smoke and fog that all that can be seen is a flag in the distance, soldiers need to know which side that flag represents.

Radio-based electronics provide modern militaries with more accurate and versatile methods of broadcasting their location, but in battles things break. Just as skill in hand-to-hand combat is useful for soldiers with no available weapons, the function of flags as markers would remain useful because electronics and computers can fail or even be hacked. Redundancy of function, (using different types of systems), is more robust.

An added military function of flags is morale, which also requires that it not be ugly, and absolutely must not symbolically offend its followers or their beliefs. (e.g.: the USA could never replace the 50 white stars with 50 white swastikas.)

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    I think you could phrase all of this answer in the past tense. It's been a long time since soldiers rallied around a flag as opposed to using camouflage and concealment, or when naval or air engagements were decided upon by seeing a flag rather than using radar or IFF transponders. The military use of flags these days is purely ceremonial. – Michael MacAskill Aug 30 '18 at 10:25
  • Australia and new zealand spring to mind – Display name Aug 30 '18 at 11:53
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    @MichaelMacAskill, Thanks. See revised answer. – agc Aug 31 '18 at 13:03
  • @Orangesandlemons Yes :-) but fortunately Australia and New Zealand have always fought on the same side: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_and_New_Zealand_Army_Corps – Michael MacAskill Sep 2 '18 at 9:21
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One thing that doesn't seem to have been mentioned is that a flag design should 'fly' well. Which means that it should still be fairly recognisable whether there is a helpful breeze blowing it open or no wind at all.

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    But that's just something that the flag designer should consider if he were decent. There's no rule that says that it needs to (which is more what my question was asking) – pushkin Aug 30 '18 at 14:04
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Yes, you can make the flag of your new nation "whatever [you] wanted", see Pan-African flag

enter image description here (The red, black, and green Pan-African flag designed by the UNIA in 1920.)

The Pan-African flag—also known as the UNIA flag, Afro-American flag, Black Liberation Flag and various other names—is a tri-color flag consisting of three equal horizontal bands of (from top down) red, black and green. The Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL) formally adopted it on August 13, 1920 in Article 39 of the Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World, during its month-long convention at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Variations of the flag can and have been used in various countries and territories in Africa and the Americas to represent Pan-Africanist ideologies. Several Pan-African organizations and movements have often employed the emblematic tri-color scheme in various contexts.

The flag was created in 1920 by members of UNIA in response to the enormously popular 1900 coon song "Every Race Has a Flag but the Coon".which has been cited as one of the three songs that "firmly established the term coon in the American vocabulary". In a 1927 report of a 1921 speech appearing in the Negro World weekly newspaper, Marcus Garvey was quoted as saying:

Show me the race or the nation without a flag, and I will show you a race of people without any pride. Aye! In song and mimicry they have said, "Every race has a flag but the coon." How true! Aye! But that was said of us four years ago. They can't say it now....

The Universal Negro Catechism, published by the UNIA in 1921, refers to the colors of the flag meaning:

Red is the color of the blood which men must shed for their redemption and liberty; black is the color of the noble and distinguished race to which we belong; green is the color of the luxuriant vegetation of our Motherland.

According to the UNIA as of recent; the three Pan-African colors on the flag represent:

  • red: the blood that unites all people of Black African ancestry, and shed for liberation;
  • black: black people whose existence as a nation, though not a nation-state, is affirmed by the existence of the flag; and
  • green: the abundant natural wealth of Africa.

Derivatives of the Pan-African flag include

enter image description here Biafra

enter image description here Malawi

enter image description here Libya

enter image description here Kenya

enter image description here Saint Kitts and Nevis

Historically, flag and seal design has a substantial degree of heraldry involved, see Does a description of the original design for the Great Seal of the United States by Simitiere survive? There is also the practical matter of not having a flag that can be mistaken for another nations' flag, or, for that matter, surrender, which was one of the considerations of the Confederate States of America national flag design, see Did the Confederate States of America ever officially adopt William T. Thompson's descriptions of the CSA national flag?.

From a political and historical perspective, composing and leaving a detailed description of the flag on the record is just as important as the distinctiveness of the flag; for the purpose of settling any potential controversies or disputes as to the meaning and original intent of the designer of the flag.

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Other answers are right that any sovereign state can decide on their own flag. However, other states may want to voice an strong opinion or even take action if they say the flag conveys an unacceptable message against them of the flag is an appropriation of their symbols.

An strong example of the latter was the use of the Vergina sun in the flag of the Republic of Macedonia. Since the Vergina sun was a symbol taken from the graves of the (ancient Greek) kings of Macedonia, Greece protested it as an appropriation the Greek past of Macedonia and blockaded the flag from being flown at the UNO. The controversy ran in parallel with those about the name of the republic.

Past and current flags of Macedonia Past Macedonian flag with Vergina sun on the left, current one on the right. (Image credits)

A more recent example - although not exactly the flag of a state - is the Korean Unification Flag used by the unified Korean team at the 2018 Winter Olympics. The flag displays a map of Korea which includes the Liancourt rocks, claimed by Japan. Japan protested the display of the islands and a flag without the Liancourt rocks was used at the games. Korean Unification Flag Korean Unification Flag. Liancourt rocks are the two blue tiny spots in the right side. (Image credits)

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The committee that approves national flag designs is the citizenry of your nation.

There are recent examples of nations discussing changing their flag, e.g. Australia or New Zealand; or nations that changed their flag, e.g. Canada.

In the end, if you became the leader of your nation, it comes down to acceptance within the population.

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