As I’ve said in previous posts, I love flags. Fluttering all around us, they combine design, history, and politics–what could be more interesting than that? I know that I may be in the minority on this, but I think vexillology–the study of flags–is just about the coolest thing. You may not think so, yet, but I’d invite you to check out this TED Talk from the host of design podcast “99% Invisible,” and you might come away with a better idea of what I’m talking about.
The talk is called “the worst-designed thing you’ve never noticed,” which refers to civic flags. The world around, the flags of cities and regions tend to be hideous, designed-by-committee affairs. For a flag lover like me, one of the joys of moving to a new continent is seeing so many new designs. Moving to Bulgaria, I was impressed by how good the municipal shields and local flags are here. Instead of being the worst-designed thing around, Bulgaria’s local and regional civic iconography is pretty cool.
What’s the big deal with municipal design, anyway?
Every city has its own seal and flag, but like so many things about the places where we live, they may get ignored in the rush of everyday life. Unless someone lives in a city with an extraordinary sense of civic pride invested in its flag–basically just Chicago and Washington, DC–they may have no idea what their flag even looks like. I didn’t know what my hometown’s flag looked like for a long time, but it looks like this:
It’s not pretty, and it resembles most US city flags. A tricolor composed of not-very-appealing colors, with a seal in the middle that has at least 5 design elements too many:
American municipal seals will generally include between 3 and 5 design motifs in honor of local industry, several human figures (Greek goddesses or settlers & indians), regional fauna, an eagle, farm equipment, mottos in at least 2 languages, and the date of founding. The result usually looks like this:
It’s one thing for a seal to be stamped on top of an official document. Unfortunately, most US state flags plop these unsightly seals on monochrome, usually blue, fields. This design motif is disparagingly known as “blobs on bedsheets,” for obvious reasons. The US isn’t alone in this; Mexico’s state flags follow almost the same styling, except the favored color is white.
Europe generally doesn’t fare much better. US seals show their age, mostly looking like the 18th century wood-block prints they initially were. European regional and municipal flags betray their medieval origins by usually being mish-mashes of elements like cups, crowns, and castles; crazy blends of animals, crosses, and heraldic elements, or uninspired color bands festooned with shields. The best European city flag, Amsterdam, is the result of taking the most distinct element from a typical European municipal coat-of-arms
and making that the entire flag:
People with an eye for design will single out Chicago, the District of Columbia, Amsterdam, and a few other exceptions as examples of terrific municipal design. There are probably only a handful of people who associate Bulgaria with terrific municipal design–one of whom lives in my apartment. However, Bulgaria deserves to rank great civic art alongside terrific yogurt and cheap domestic beer as points of national pride. Here’s why.
Bulgaria’s great municipal design
While most of Europe and North America’s civic design is notable for its atrocious clutter, Bulgaria has somehow ended up with excellent local symbols. The only European country I can think of that beats Bulgaria in the department of civic symbols is Russia, which has absolutely insane and terrific municipal design–though it competes for best municipal flags in the world with Japan’s cities and prefectures.
Going by the rules of flag design (check them out here!), a great civic design should be only a handful of colors, avoid lettering, use meaningful symbolism, and be simple enough for a child to draw. With that in mind, compare the above seal of New York City, the so-called cultural capital of the world, to the seal of Chiprovtsi at the right. Chiprovtsi is a city in northwest Bulgaria, known for its incredible carpets and its presumably above-average mining. There’re 2 carpet motifs on the bottom, around 2 hammers. In the middle are a lion and a wild deer, within a shield. The two colors are warm and natural, like the Balkan mountains in which Chiprovtsi is nestled.
A defender of New York’s seal may argue that the city has a long and illustrious history to account for. The city needs to broadcast its indigenous/Dutch/ American history, alongside its windmills, beaver pelts, and excellent barrels. Trying to represent everything is recipe for a cluttered and unappealing design. New York City has a wealth of globally recognizable landmarks that can stand in for this history, like the Statue of Liberty. Gotham would be far better off borrowing an element from the statue, like the crown or torch, and stylizing it in a way that’s interesting but recognizable. They could take inspiration from the seal of Petrich, Bulgaria:
Petrich uses a single striking image of a warrior woman at the battlements, seemingly modeled off of the Motherland Calls memorial in Volgograd, Russia, which stands in commemoration of victory in the Battle of Stalingrad. The statue’s artist, Yevgeniy Vuchetich, was inspired by the ancient Greek work Nike of Samothrace, so the Balkans can ultimately lay claim to some part of the statue’s design. Petrich’s version adds a traditional Bulgarian folk belt to the figure as a touch of charming local color.
This sort of design, with a few simple drawings inside a shield, is typical of Bulgaria’s civic art. Here’s an example from the city of Jebel:
A mountain, leaves, and a spring. Here’s the seal of Lovech:
Here is Stara Zagora, with a design that’s taken from a 12th century bas-relief discovered in the city:
Stara Zagora is considerably more complex that Dobrich or Lovech–a child would have a hard time reproducing those lions. However, particularly compared to the black-on-white civic seals to which I’m accustomed as a US American, these seals pop with color. Maybe there’s less pressure on a small Bulgarian city, so you can have unobtrusive, but distinct and often gorgeous designs like these:
Compare the seal of the city of Los Angeles above to the city of Pomorie, on the Black Sea, at right. It takes some meaningful elements–viticulture, life by the sea–and reduces them to something recognizable, but so simple that a child could draw. Now, I know what some of you “ironic” Millennials out there will say: “that’s gross, it’s too 70s.” Well, all I can say is that fashion and design tastes are cyclical. In 5 years, the 1970s that take their turn being the hottest thing around, so who will look archaic then? Didn’t you see Her, did you notice how everything was 70s-inspired?
The closer you get to the Black Sea, the more you see certain design elements shared in common. The shield of Varna, Bulgaria’s second-biggest city, is typical:
That’s in honor of Sozopol’s illustrious anchor-related history. If you want to see some of the oldest anchors in the world, you’ve come to the right place. A Museum on the south Black Sea coast, in nearby Ahtopol, boasts a collection of anchors that puts any other collection of stability-related artifacts and ephemera to shame.
As far as vexillology, Bulgarian cities use the shields as a central part of their flag design. Bulgaria’s cities and oblasts find a way to balance the civic seals, rather than automatically make them the centerpiece. Here are two more mid-sized cities, Burgas and Malko Tûrnovo:
The Tûrnovo seal in particular is impressive for reducing a meaningful symbol, what looks like a cornice in a church, lit up with candles, into something very striking and angular. Somewhere, a graphic designer in Silicon Valley is trying to come up with something like this for an app.
Unlike American city flags, which plop complex seals on a tricolor and call it a day, Bulgaria’s civic designers tend to have made good aesthetic allowances. See how the not-so-great seal of Gabrovo:
was stylized to become part of the pretty cool flag of Gabrovo:
In transferring the seal, the maker simplified it substantially and played to the strengths of the design. That’s the sort of design sense that’s sorely lacking from most civic design, which Bulgaria’s municipal art demonstrates in spades.
How did Bulgaria get such cool city seals?
If I was attempting a Malcolm Gladwell-esque explanation, by way of specious links to history, I’d venture that it had something to do with Communism’s less-is-more attitude, in contrast to the opulence of feudalism and the austere, literal imagery of Puritan settler-colonialism. However, like the work of Malcolm Gladwell itself, this theory doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Most of Eastern Europe’s other regional flags are flawed in the same way others are; Belarus, which is still communist, has hideous flags.
Still, though they’ve undergone small and large tweaks, the designs for Bulgaria’s civic seals mostly date back to the Communist era. That’s why there are so many hammers and cogwheels, like on one of my personal favorites, the seal of Pernik:
That seal doesn’t just mean business, it means industry, baby. And leave it to capitalism to try to wring a bunch of razzle-dazzle out of an image. Compare the current seal of Silistra: with the pre-1990 seal of Silistra:
The latter is a masterpiece of Red design. A river, a Commie wheat sheaf, and a cogwheel, a.k.a. everything a seal needs. The newer one has added a pelican, an ornate city hall, an Orthodox cross, and a ruin. It lost the city name, which is usually a good idea, but added a Latin inscription, thereby undoing the one positive change.
If Communism is responsible for Bulgaria’s terrific municipal design, it’d be part of the greater trend by which socialist art and advertising is coded as bleak, banal, and miserable, while a more objective eye would take a more nuanced view. Just like the horrors of Eastern bloc shopping actually look like a hip Wes Anderson wet-dream, Bulgaria’s civic iconography, rather than drab and uninspired, looks lively, cute, and attractively minimalist. Most Bulgarians may not know it, but their municipal design is something most other cities would envy, if only it got noticed.
- One last comparison before we go. Who wore their phoenix better? Municipality Antonovo, Bulgaria; vs. San Francisco, California, USA:
or, the city by the bay:
Neither one is going to win any awards, but that’s not why we’re here. This is about, like, the vexillology, guy. Antonovo’s green (chartreuse?) field isn’t doing it any favors, visually, although San Francisco should pick either gold or white and commit to it. However, Antonovo’s shield, while a little too busy, is more unified than San Francisco’s flag, which has two languages and the city name written in big blue letters. As far as the phoenixes go, San Francisco’s looks like a turkey sitting on a red crown, while Antonovo’s looks more majestic, and the sun looks cool. What looks like a peaked Kaiser helmet is a little confusing, but that’s cryptozoological creatures fer ya.
Best “city flag with a phoenix” goes to Antonovo. What do you think?
- I hope someone else, ever has noticed this, but given the unique overlap of interests involved I’m not sure. Still, does anyone think the shield of Dupnitsa:
- I made this I while back, based on the coat-of-arms of Sofia, and I can’t imagine where else I’ll get to share it:
Further Links and Resources:
I was lucky to find the best resource for Bulgarian flags, shields, and coats-of-arms, the Bulgarian Heraldry and Vexillology Society (in English, too!)
A photo gallery of regional shields, at “Family Crest” (Семеен Герб)
A photo gallery of flags of Bulgarian cities, at Tangram.bg
Flags of the World (FOTW), the internet’s top vexillology site–the IMDB of flags.