Category Archives: design

The unexpected greatness of Bulgaria’s local flags

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:


Flag of Los Angeles


Flag of New York

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. Continue reading


Pinterest or Communism? Glass windows behind an Iron Curtain

The perception of Communism–particularly coming from the US, the global capital of red-baiting–is one of deprivation. Life under Marxist-Leninist command economy is miserable, repressive, defined by scarcity, and above all, drab. Those who could escape forced collectivizations had to deal with the more quotidian, grinding horror of state-enforced tedium.

That’s the message echoed in a title like “The Bleak Banality of Shopping in Communist Europe.” A piece that was recently shared with me by a fellow Amerikanka, the article highlights a new photobook, Window-Shopping through the Iron Curtain, detailing the lives of consumers within the Soviet bloc.

However, looking at the actual photos, it looks less like the hellish drudgery one might expect from Communism’s reputation. Instead of bleak banality, the photos look beautiful, in a very contemporary way. Shopping in Communism looks more like something out of one of Wes Anderson’s wet dreams. Continue reading

Flag Politics & The Balkan Flag-Based Sports Catastrophe

slavic flags

Flags with pan-Slavic-inspired patterns. Top Row: Russia, pan-Slavic flag Middle Row: Bulgaria, Slovakia, Slovenia Bottom Row: Serbia, Czech Republic, Croatia

I love flags. Flags are endlessly fascinating—each one is not only a piece of design work, but carries with it centuries of history. For instance, here in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, many of the flags are similar tricolors of white, blue, and red. Sometimes, they’re exactly like the flag of Russia with different seals on them. These flags all share the same genealogy, laying claim to a shared historical heritage. You can see the same history at work in the flags of many Arab states.

bosnia kosovo flags

Flags of Bosnia & Herzegovina (l) and Kosovo (r)

In the same way that these flags indicate a national kinship, some attest to a willful separation. The flags of Bosnia & Herzegovina and Kosovo share similar design elements, none of which look remotely like the Pan-Slavic colors of the former Yugoslavia. Here, the blue and gold represent an EU future rather than a Balkan past, reflecting the acrimony tied up in their nationhood. If the design elements seem designed by consensus—anodyne white stars, shapes indicating national boundaries—it’s because they essentially were, indicating the external actors like the UN and NATO which led to the original Balkanization.

Suffice to say, there’s a lot of history that goes into making a flag, and around here, a lot of it is painful—and continually contested. Vexillology doesn’t often make the news, but a Balkan sporting event is just the sort of thing to turn a flag into an international incident.

That’s what happened last week, during a football* match in Belgrade. Serbia and Albania were playing a qualifying match for the 2016 European cup when a consumer drone flew over the field carrying an Albanian nationalist banner. A Serbian player grabbed the flag and tried remove it from the field, and all hell broke loose. Continue reading