Michael Bierut | Essays

Better Nation Building Through Design

Iraq Flag
New Iraqi flag, Rifat al-Jadirji, 2004

When a new CEO takes charge, often at the top of the agenda is a new logo. What better way to project the enterprise's newly redirected mission, not to mention the authority of the new regime?

Someone must have been thinking along those lines in Iraq, where the beleaguered interim Governing Council this week unveiled a new flag design. And a handsome design it is: a pure white field representing the freshly reborn nation, a blue crescent standing for Islam, twin blue bands for the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and a yellow stripe for the Kurdish population.

Iraqis, however, don't seem to be buying it.

"When I saw it in the newspaper, I felt very sad," said Baghdad supermarket owner Muthana Khalil on MSNBC. "The flags of other Arab countries are red and green and black. Why did they put these colors that are the same as Israel? Why was the public opinion not consulted?" Other Iraqis objected to the deletion of the phrase "God is great," which had been added to the old flag in an admittedly cynical move to shore up religious support for Saddam Hussein.

The design, by Rifat al-Jadirji, was selected out of "more than 30 proposals" according to al-Jazeera. Unfortunately, flag design, like logo design, is one of the most volatile of professional activities, and should not be undertaken lightly. Flags, like logos, don't mean anything in and of themselves. The swastika, arguably one of the most beautiful symbols from a purely formal point of view, has been irredeemably tainted by its association with the Nazis. On the other hand, the American flag is a fussy affair that would not make it out of a first-year design school critique. Instead, people use flags (and logos) as tabulae rasa, upon which they project their hopes, dreams, fears and, sometimes, nightmares.

In his classic textbook Corporate Identity: Making Business Strategy Visible Through Design, Wally Olins describes how the British Empire asserted its control over India after the mutiny of 1857 through the imposition of "a complex set of symbols and a fiendishly complicated hierarchy of ranks," including coats of arms, heraldic symbolism and uniforms, all presided over by Lockwood Kipling (father of Rudyard) who functioned as de facto "design director" for the effort. It culminated in an Imperial Assemblage in Delhi in 1877 at which the new Indian "identity" was officially "launched" in an affair that involved 85,000 people in its staging. "The whole business," observes Olins, "was contrived to create new loyalties and supplant old ones in the most spectacular way."

Ah, the days when imperialists really knew what they were doing. Today's efforts seem halfhearted by comparison. The U.S.-sanctioned leadership in Iraq - like many logo-manipulating management teams before them - committed the common error of mistaking easy symbolism for difficult substance. As a dissenting Governing Council member, Mahmud Uthman, observed, "I think there are issues more important to concentrate on than the changing of the flag."

Absolutely. But symbolism can be meaningful, as long as it's yoked to a clear idea of what's meant to be symbolized. Towards the end of his book, Olins warns that unless a corporate identity is communicated with consistency and commitment, it has little chance of success: "Where there is hesitation, lack of coordination, disagreement, there will be perpetual confusion in the minds of the audiences, and myths of a destructive kind will reign unbridled." Absent any semblance of consensus, a flag is doomed to become a target.

Posted in: Business, Graphic Design, Politics

Comments [38]

Flag deconstruction should be a required course in design school. Even more than corporate logos and trademarks, the symbolism embedded in flag design is emotionally, philosophically, and politically charged. Flags are a textbook example of how not to design. No matter how effective the end product may be, it takes a village (committee) to reach consensus.

Writing in today's (April 29) New York Times House and Home, Julie Lasky and Ernest Beck explain that the "new flag has a blue Islamic crescent on a white field and three stripes. Two stripes are blue, symbolizing the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam, and the third is yellow, representing the Kurdish minority. The words 'Allahu akbar' (God is great), added to the flag by Saddam Hussein, have been removed along with the three stars."

As I read this article (with a sage quote by Michael Bierut) I imagined asking a class of design students to use these elements to create a new symbol/flag for Iraq. Would they individually and collectively come up with the same result? Would someone attempt to break the mold and introduce a different element? Can the elements themselves be divorced from the current state of Iraqi affairs?

Apparently, this is a transitional flag - a place holder that will be highly criticized for reasons more important than design alone. It will be interesting to see how the flag will be transformed if and when there is stability in Iraq.

A flag is something to rally around - it is designed to exude pride - that the controversey over this flag has started so soon is both fascinating and sad. If people cannot agree on the flag how will they agree on their nation's future?
Steven Heller

The Times article also provides the following update on the genesis of the flag:
There has also been confusion about the process that gave rise to the new design. A spokesman for the governing council, Hameed Kafaei, said the design was the result of a competition in which 30 proposals had been submitted. The Independent, a London newspaper, however, reported yesterday that the designer had been given the assignment over the phone by his brother, Nasir Chaderchi, who is a prominent Sunni member of the council.

More and more, this sounds like a classic design process gone wrong. Indeed, the head of the Governing Council has backstepped and is now saying that the flag is only "temporary," and that "It will stand for a few months until we decide on a flag for Iraq." In other words, the "Don't worry, this is only a placeholder" gambit. God, I hate clients like that.

In the meantime, the designer is darkening the Crescent color so it doesn't resemble the Israeli blue as much. I assume in the presentation they blamed the inaccuracy of the color printer that generated the comps.
Michael Bierut

Michael, I agree with your statement about the inaccuracy of the colour printer: they are obviously running really low on magenta.

I love this photograph of an Iraqi citizen showing his displeasure. There is something almost sweet about the fact that the man went to the trouble of creating a home-made flag in order to burn it.

Steven, maybe that flag-analysis course could follow-on from the heraldry-analysis course that was part of my design education. (I don't remember much, alas. But I did learn that everything has a meaning. Heraldry is perhaps a bridge between hieroglyphics and the International Style.)


I was shocked - shocked! to read Rifat Chaderchi's statement in the Times this morning regarding his defense of the flag: "I didn't think about Israel. Political opinions don't concern me. I approached the design from a graphic point of view."

As designers we must think responsibly when we design a symbol of this magnitude; we are visually representing and influencing a culture! This responsibility includes the need for a visual fidelity to the environment from which the mark (flag) springs. It is preposterous that Chaderchi should claim indifference to the countries and political opinions surrounding Iraq. From what else is the flag born than the political, cultural and social text of its country? I am disappointed in this effort - in part because of its premature nature, and particularly because it does not properly flow from the history of the Iraqi civilization - in color, form or posture.
Andrew Breitenberg

Opinions of those concerned should be considered foremost. One of these is that of an Iraqi-American named Tala who pleads for continuity. She seems to be calling for a levelheaded approach; the original flag predated Hussein. A total departure from 'what was before' is not necessary -just get rid of the words the despot had added. The extremely poor script was no where near the beauty of Islamic calligraphy anyway.
It's telling that the brief for the job included the word 'Western' as one of the criteria for the new flag and no wonder then that a cyanish blue similar to that of Israel's flag occupied the template.

I agree wholeheartedly with Andrew and Shahla's comments. Why is there even a new flag? The flag was around long before Sadam, are the Iraqis no longer Iraqis? Are they now the "neo-liberated" Iraqis?

If "regime change" occurs in the US, will there be a new US flag (I know its a horrible example, but...)

This whole affair is just so sad.
Kevin Lo

Well, I can't honestly imagine a worse project than designing a flag for any nation, let alone one under these circumstances. You can't possibly win. We think it's bad when the client takes the comps home to show their sister and neighbour ... a whole country? Yeesh.

But there's something amusingly gratifying in that picture of the flag burning. I would kind of like to experience that one day: my client takes my mockups and angrily sets fire to them! He cares! He really doesn't like it! Better than having someone sit across from you, expressionless, saying "Yeah, sure."

I think. Maybe.
marian bantjes

Not only does this flag speak loads about American arrogance but it also highlights two other salient points: this administration desperately needs an cultural anthropologist and, more disturbingly, we are fundamentallly denying these people a voice (however difficult and messy that voice may be for us to hear) in their own future. But I am not convinced that American's actually consider Arabs or Muslims as people worthy or capable of controlling their own destinies.

The placeholder comment I did not like, Steven. You've bought in to the whole idea of unnecessary change. Running a country is NOT like running a corporation. How would most Americans feel if, with every new administration, we redesigned the flag to fit that administrations's agenda. I sure don't want Bush's team doing our flag revision.

BTW, Green is the traditional color of Islam NOT baby blue.
Gregory Turner-Rahman

I didn't think about Israel. Political opinions don't concern me. I approached the design from a graphic point of view.

That's the funniest thing I've heard from a designer in a long, long time. Is there a more purely political act than the design of a national flag? But hey, maybe Rifat's got something there. Next time I'm completely off target with a design, I could just tell my client that I wasn't concerned about strategy or audience, just aesthetics. It would certainly make my life easier...
Jose Nieto

1) why two mismatched shades of blue?
2) why does it look like the crescent got smushed vertically?
3) why does it look like the crescent is crushing sweden?

i say the iraqis got hosed.

Even more design wisdom from Rifat al-Chadirchi:

From CNN.com:

[...] the old flag was "graphically a very bad design" because it combined rectangles and trapezoids.


[...] "It must be a powerful simple design. Something like the Canadian flag. Simple, straightforward very strong statement.".

I agree on mostly everything that has been said so far about the flag, but you do have to acknowledge that it is a peacier-less-angry-looking flag (what with the red and black of the old one). It almost makes you forget there is war going on over there. Almost. [Sarcasm intended]

This whole flag situation is so exemplary of the Bush administration's total lack of cultural sensitivity and awareness. It's just pathetic. And can it be any more insulting to have the light blue "Israeli" color used on the Muslim cresent?!? I mean, they might as well have made it the Stars and Stripes with an extra star.

On a sarcastic note though, a feckless and insulting transitional flag is ironically a good symbol for a feckless and insulting transitional government. ;-)
Steven S

With thanks to the the North American Vexillogical Association (Vexillogy is the study of flags). Here is a guide to flag-making from the ones who know:

"A flag should be simple, readily made, and capable of being made up in bunting; it should be different from the flag of any other country, place or people; it should be significant; it should be readily distinguishable at a distance; the colors should be well contrasted and durable; and lastly, and not the least important point, it should be effective and handsome."

-- National Flag Committee of the Confederate States of America, 1861
steven heller

Why do I feel like the objective of this is to give people something on which they can waste their energy and attention while the elect is deciding on important things?

The color and the placement of the symbol is outright insulting in the cultural sense and in my humble oppinon, aimed to provoke controversy. Mainstream media also seems to be determined to portray the sunnis and the shiites as two radically different identities (the two stripes), something that, some have reported, dazzles Iraqis themselves.

Also, the symbol of islam usually includes a five pointed star in addition to the crescent.

Indeed, the crescent does seem to have been squashed, which is pretty appropriate in the circumstances. I agree with Emir that the flag is insulting and provocative, and I would not be the slightest bit surprised if the American occupiers and the provisional council saw the provisional flag as a (failed) diversionary tactic. As our discussion as taken place on this website American troops have been pulling out of Falluja, which seems like the wisest U.S. military decision in, well, a long time. There is zero understanding of the meaning of the provisional flag - Shiites and Sunnis divided by Kurds, with an inverse Israeli/U.N. symbolic crescent - which seems to echo the lack of understanding that so many well-intentioned US troops and citizens have voiced since the beginning of the war: "We're just trying to help. We're freeing them from a terrible dictator. Don't they appreciate our help?" It's almost Mametian, the misunderstanding. Saddam is a bad man - "the naughtiest man in the world", as my friend told his 3-year old daughter last year when she asked why we were bombing Iraq - but if we were in the same position, we would not like it. Washington D.C., New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Austin, Milwaukee, Omaha, and the rest of our country bombarded with munitions in advance of a ground assault by forces sent here by Paul Martin to liberate us from our despotic, evil-doing President, his two daughters killed in a gun battle at the ranch in Crawford, a deck of playing cards issued with Rumsfeld as the King of Clubs and Condoleezza Rice as the Queen of all suits... How would we feel if this happened here? We would send our liberators packing with our constitutionally-guaranteed armaments, we would string the invaders up like puppets, we would burn their new flag for us.
(Paul Martin is the Prime Minister of Canada, by the way.)


ready the CF-18s, boys, we're heading in!

Contrary to what the poor man assumes, his "new" flag for Iraq is VERY political indeed. The new flag doesn't simply replace the symbol of Saddam's regime. The new flag deliberately ignores the colors of arab solidarity toward the palestinian people -black, white, red and green being the colors of the palestinian flag. This flag is a statement that says "okay, we surrender. we won't oppose the will of the US and Israel ever again".
By the way, this new flag is too white, looking like the flag of cowards and capitulards. It symbolizes defeat and occupation.

And was it really necesary to add the crescent?
In the current context, that is another statement:" religious fanatics, this country is yours. Work with us, and you'll get what you want." Like a prelude to a new Islamic Revolution.

Samuel K

There once was a site diskussing and ranking flags from a design point of view, which was quite refreshing. I lost the link and can imagine it doesn't exist any longer. Does anybody else remember that?


This new flag is not meant to be kept. It is a test, in a somewhat low impact area, of the unity of the new Iraq. This flag is so obviously incorrect that one of the early efforts in Iraq will be to replace it. Is it possible for the different parts of Iraq to come together and create a new flag? If they can come together for a new flag, perhaps they will come together for a new nation. We shall see because we will be there until they do.

Are there any Design grooups in Iraq? a directory? prepare for a competition.

Jochen, I believe this is the site you were looking for.

The world's flags given letter grades

A fitting interpretation of what is going on next door by Reza Alavi.

What a great post! Any ideas what the other [missing in action?] 29 design submissions might have looked like? I agree that
a] the winner is an insult, a provocative sideshow to the real issues confronting the Iraqi citizenry
b] conversely, most designers would kill to produce work that generated reaction as strong as this
Michael's initial point about the political window-dressing of British empire in India is very interesting to me as a Brit who teaches graphic design in another faraway relic of that empire - New Zealand. For years my classes have included a brief to redesign not the flag*, but the NZ coat of arms, a hideously old fashioned colonial crest. I see this as an important idea in design education for a number of fairly obvious reasons; it has quite a bite in a declared bi-cultural society of Maori and Pakeha [white people] that is having big trouble making the transition to a multi-cultural society [Maori, Pakeha and everyone else] in the 21st century. The brief tends to give even the more astute students problems, as "what do I want from my country?" becomes "what do I want from me?" This is because genuine self-examination is something neither the modern individual nor the modern state is any longer adequately equipped for; it's a facility that has withered for lack of exercise. The state lies to us - why shouldn't we lie to ourselves?
From a purely formal point of view the NZ coat of arms is all too easy to improve on - in fact it's hard to see the difference between 1906 and 1960 in this respect, as the flags look just as bad as the coat of arms. Still, you'd be suprised how many students see this one as a really tough assignment.
*The NZ flag incidentally, has been 'up for grabs' in design terms for the decade I've been here - well would you want a British naval ensign as the über-symbol of your country? ...yes, I rather thought not, and neither would I... but the Maori flag, now that rocks! And suprise, suprise, it's not unlike what the Iraqis might have got with a more sensitive and intelligent handling of their own flags' redesign, as Shahla and others point out. That these things are supressed, [because by looking strong or even cool, they empower maginalised societies] is an ongoing testament to design's power and designer's powerlessness.
ben archer

The new design not only abandons the symbols of Saddam's regime. It also avoids the colors used in other Arab flags: green and black for Islam and red for Arab nationalism. The change recalls the U.S. agenda of creating a "New Iraq" that is exceptional in the Arab world.

In Arabic nations, the colors of flags have widely recognized meanings.
Green, white and black denote Islam ? harkening back to the battle banners of the medieval Islamic dynasties of the Fatimids, Ummayads and Abbasids. Green is said to have been the prophet Muhammad's favorite color.

the new design is disgraceful to the iraqi people.

I assume in the presentation they blamed the inaccuracy of the color printer that generated the comps.

i was hoping this excuse was specific to art school.
justin kay

Well, it looks like the folks at Slate.com have been reading Design Observer, judging from today's top story on its front page.

The pop-up slide show (which doesn't have a URL that I can find -- just go to Slate and click on "Paging Betsy Ross" and then "slide show," or Google the title if it's no longer there), which starts with the incendiary photographic comment on the flag design by an Iraqi citizen (already posted in this forum), evolves into a reasonably interesting (if brief) exploration into the difficulties and nuances of flag-designing in general.

Among the examples, check out the amusing Rem Koolhaas EU flag proposal (the writer of the article is an architecture critic, so of course he's gonna throw Koolhaas in there), as well as the rather intriguing Slovenian flag design.
Jon Resh

Actually, there is a new version that expresses perfectly the harmony of interests that are at play in the occupation of Iraq. You can see it here.
The REAL New Iraqi Flag

Unless this was mentioned before, nevertheless here's a interesting article on branding the nation: http://www.brandchannel.com/images/Papers/Journal_of_Brand.pdf. Great topic.

Unless this article was mentioned before, nevertheless here's a interesting article on branding the nation: http://www.brandchannel.com/images/Papers/Journal_of_Brand.pdf. Great topic.

As usual, I believe the best analysis of current events -- in this case, the graphic significance and symbolism behind the newly designed Iraqi flag -- comes from The Onion:



Jon Resh

Re: The Onion link
Based on this analysis the final design seems to be spot on with re: to The Nation Flag Committee's requirements posted earlier. Would love to hear Wally Olins' take on this....
Flag Fan

If the flag is meant to be a symbol of the new Iraq, how come the new government officials were presented on a stage in front of a background made up of a row of the old flags?
the ink wirer

the biggest difference between a flag and a logo (re your CEO analogy) is that a flag requires history. the indian flag was based on a highly emotive and unifying icon - the congress tricolour that had already become the visual emblem for the century-long independence movement.

i am not aware of the design consideration for the new iraqi flag, but i have not read anything about its design that refers to a similarly unifying and emotive historical symbol.

arvind lodaya

I agree that the flag is one of the most important design product. Because it symbolizes the spirit of the nationality first of all. That can be the reason that discontent or disagreement comes out easily when the flag is formed. As for Iraq,according to the government changes, a new hopeful flag is created. It has many important meanings in its details. Even though there are still disagreement, I think of that a new stage is opened in Iraq and nobody wants such that government to be come, so changing the flag of Iraq is deserved.

What about giving recognition to the indigenous people of Iraq - the Assyrians?

The Iranians must really hate the Iraqis: "The New Iraqi Flag" by Reza Alavi, Iran, awarded the First Prize at the 8th Tehran International Poster Biennial. (Posted in Observed Column, March 2, 2005)
William Drenttel

Design should be transcendent,
perhaps black and blue is better
for everyone? I dont think so.
My outsider proposal:
On top:
A red crescent on white signifying the islamic pan-arab and sunni minority on a white foundation based in peace.
Colored stripes border along the bottom in the following order from the bottom: Black,Blue,Green,Yellow
These representing:
Black-Past darkness and the Sacrifice of The Prophet Muhammad.
Blue-Water and Purification
Green-Our planet earth and the Shiite majority
Yellow-Sunlight and the Kurdish minority

The above flag was an interm flag established by the Iraqi Governing Council. It was used from 26 April 2004 through 28 June 2004. In reality this flag did not see wide spread use or distribution. Today, the only flag being flown is the old Iraq flag.

Scott Fisk

Greetings; Where do we send a design for the Iraqi Flag contest, and, or who do we contact? Any information will be helpful. Thank you. [email protected]
Gregory Reninger

Jobs | July 18