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Ratios of flags

Last modified: 2014-02-22 by rob raeside
Keywords: ratio of flags | flag ratios | naval ensign | off-centered | scandinavian cross | golden section |
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Summary of Ratios of Flags

My "holy book" (Whitney Smith, Flags Through the Ages and Across the World) quotes for the United States' flags a 10:19 ratio, really closer to the 1:2 traditional ratio of the British flags, from which the "Star Spangled Banner" comes.
In fact there are three main "threads" in the world of flags:

British flags have a 1:2 ratio (United Kingdom, Australia, Bahamas, Canada, Ireland and with the little correction of 10:19 United States and of course Liberia);

French flags have a 2:3 ratio (France, Italy, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Algeria, Spain and the most of Latin-American flags);

German flags have a 3:5 ratio;

Moreover some nations have unusual ratios, as Denmark (28:37) or Belgium (13:15).
Alessio Bragadini

The British ensigns (including the Union Jack) ratio varied with the standard breadth of the textile industry, but always retaining a length of 18:


Year Ratio of Length to Breadth
1687-17xx 11:18
17xx-1837 10:18 (5:9)
1837-present 9:18 (1:2)

On the other hand, I'm not sure how strict this regulations would be followed in civilian rebellions taking place in faraway Australia, nor how fast they were enforced throughout the empire...

I don't know at what point after 1837 the proportions were actually regulated. Possibly not until the reorganisation of Squadron colours in 1864.
David Prothero, 03 June 1999

The Golden Section

Many flags, picture frames, book covers, etc., are proportioned in accordance with what artists and mathematicians call "the golden section." This relationship exists when the length and width of a rectangle are divided into extreme and mean ratio, or when the parts follow (or approximate) the formula:

L² = W (L + W)

Another way to look at it is if the length and width roughly equal 62 and 38 percent of their sum respectively.
Lou Stewart, 1998 January 30

If you solve the equation Lou Stewart gave analytically,

L * L = W * ( L + W )

you'll find a solution:

L = alpha * W


alpha = (1 + sqrt(5))/2 = 1.618 [sqrt being the square root]

Mathematically, there's another solution to this equation, namely

alpha = -0.618

but I don't think we're looking for a flag with a negative length.
So, the ratio is 1.618:1.

This ratio was already known to the Greeks, and the Acropolis reflects this ratio in many ways (correct me if I'm wrong).
Filip Van Laenan, 1998 January 30

Let's try it this way:
the first format to think of is 1:1 (A:B), then we put the B as a new A, and A+B as a new B. So next we'll get 1:2, and next 2:3 and 3:5 and 5:8 and 8:13 and 13:21 and 21:34 and 34:55 and 55:89 and so on... We'll get closer and closer to 1.618 or something like that, the golden section. It has been used a lot in art and Kepler spoke of 'divina proportio'. It is mostly a proportion that 'looks nice'. Many mathematicians and physicists have written about it.
Ole Andersen, 1998 January 30

1.1618 is phi the golden ratio and is, like pi, irrational. However, if we look at the Fibonacci series we'll see that the difference between each number gets closer and closer to the ratio first over then under. The series is 1 1 2 3 5 8 13 21 ... where each number is the sum of the previous two. You will also note that the numbers are not far from many flag ratios 5:8 8:13 13:21 etc.
Rich Hansen, 1998 January 30

A more interesting approach uses the Golden Ratio's connection to the Fibonacci sequence: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13,, in which each new member of the sequence is the sum of the preceding two. Then, you can generate successive (and closer) approximations to the Golden Ratio as 1/1, 2/1, 3/2, 5/3, 8/5, 13/8,... where the numerator is just the member of the sequence that is one ahead of the denominator. (The two... approximations above are derived from this method, just a bit further along in the sequence).

An awful lot has been written about the Golden Ratio (also called 'The Divine Proportion'). It crops up in nature: shapes of shells, arrangements of sunflower seeds; in architecture (the most aesthetic shapes are ones having proportions equal to the Golden Ratio), and flags! It was known to the Ancient Greeks (look at a picture of the Parthenon), and probably earlier. Interesting it should show up in flag design too!

anonymous, 1999 February 03

At least one flag used the "golden proportions" as an integral part of its design: Saarland
Dave Martucci, 1998 January 30

No. There wasn't such flag manufactured in Saarland. I don't know where the document which mentioned this was to be found, but all the projects of laws of 1947 mentioned a flag with the proportions 1 x 1,5, not 1 x 1,61803398875. If such flag was proposed in Saarland, this was really absurd and ridiculous: how can you draw precisely such a flag, and above all how can you manufacture such a flag: it is impossible and not practical! If the flag existed it was only a proposition, not a real flag.
Pascal Vagnat, 1999 February 05

New Brunswick's isn't a national flag, but its 5:8 ratio is the closest approximation you can get to the golden ratio with one-digit numbers. The designer probably considered this when choosing the ratio. Any other flags with this ratio were probably designed with the golden ratio in mind.
Dean Tiegs, 1999 February 05

Artists Bruno Tuukkanen and Eero Snellman had the Golden Ratio in their mind when they designed the Finnish flag. Ratio 11:18 = 0.6111 which differs very little from 0.6180
Ossi Raivio, 1999 February 06

Chuvash Republic - the designer of this flag artist Mr. E. Jurjev has specially made ratio of width and lengths of a flag as golden ratio.
Mikhail Revnivtsev, 12 August 2005

Vertical Proportions of Flags

The proportions of vertical stripes on French naval flag are 30:33:37, to enable good visual effect of flag when flying. Portugal, too, obviously, has an off-centered pattern and I suppose the Scandinavian cross flags have the same reason for the vertical bar shifted right.

Željko Heimer, 23 September 23 1995

Bangladesh, North Korea, Nauru, Turkey and the Japanese Ensign all shift their designs to the hoist. Whitney Smith's book mentions that Bangladesh does this so that the flag will look proper while flying. There is no reason given for the others and in the case of Nauru especially I suspect that the star is toward the hoist for some other reason.
Nathan Augustine, 27 September 1995

Why keep the right proportions?

Since we are talking about flag proportions, I was wondering if the proportions are ever symbolic in and of themselves, or always more or less arbitrary. (Let's leave oddballs like Nepal and Qatar out for the moment.) This question arises from the question of why it's so important to keep the proportions right. For instance, Ron pointed out that many of the errors are caused by standardizations of the flag manufacturing process. Earlier, someone said that all the flags of the former Soviet Union kept to the proportions of the old Hammer and Sickle. Similarly, looking at my flag chart, all the flags of the former Yugoslavia seem to be more or less the same proportions. I'm willing to bet that this is a result less of nostalgia for the old days and more of the fact that it was easier to leave the settings on the flag-making machines as is....

Thus, I ask again, why is it important to keep proportions straight? Colors and symbols have meanings which it would wrong to alter, but if proportions are chosen arbitrarily...
Josh Fruhlinger, 29 January 1996

One pair of flags that differ only in their proportions are those of Indonesia (2:3) and Monaco (4:5). Of course, I don't know whether the proportions have significance in themselves, but they have significance in relation to each other in that they are the only way to distinguish the two flags.

I'm having a hard time thinking of a real-world situation in which these two countries' flags could be confused, though. (Shipwrecked sailors wash up on an unfamiliar shore; "What country are we in?" "Must be Indonesia -- look at that flag." "Yes, and that big building up there must be the famous Djakarta Casino!")
Bruce Tindall, 29 January 1996

The UJ family is shaped 1:2 and I suppose that with "commercial reasons" a flagmaker has to provide the correct ratio for those and other flags, otherwise he'll keep sitting on his stuff (standardization of production would suggest a general 2:3 ratio and I think there is quite a bunch of 2:3 flags just for this reason).

I place my questions earlier: at the time before mass production, when design and measurements of a flag are layed down. I'd like to look over the shoulders of those in past and present who are in charge of creating a flag or who elaborate the demands for the designers. Why did they choose 1:2 or 2:3? I tried to give some reasons for the 2:3 / 3:5 choice but very probably there are more. Seafaring nations may have old maritime flag traditions for example. Maybe some documents could tell more about it.
Martin Karner, 13 January 2005

It seems that manufacturers like to pick a ratio, and make all their flags 2:3, or all 1:2 or whatever. Remember the comments about the latest Georgia State flag: they said if it was 1:2, it would be longer than the US flag, since the Stars & Stripes is de facto made in 2:3. Canadian (or at least British Columbia) city flags are primarily made in 1:2, even if the Heralds' illustration shows a 2:3 flag.

2:3 Canadian flag
[Canadian flag 2:3]
image by Martin Grieve, 4 December 2005
modified by Dean McGee, 13 January 2006

While a display like the UN's may look better with the flags to a uniform size, many designs look 'wrong' when they're in the wrong proportion. British Columbia's flag is often made in 1:2, which stretches out the setting sun to look like a banana with a crown, and Canadian flags in 2:3 have too much white above and below the Maple Leaf.

The original message centred around a Bahamian-flagged cruise ship which belonged to an American-run company. They probably ordered their flags from a company which uses 2:3 as its standard, or maybe they order their flags 4" x 6" without thinking about proportions. I have to say that to my eye, horizontally striped flags like Bahamas, Malaysia and US are not as noticably 'wrong' when the proportions are wrong.
Dean McGee, 13 January 2006

According to "major" flag makers I have spoken with about this very subject, the issue is "automation" for lack of a better word.

It is rare in the west nowadays for a flag maker to have large numbers of folks who are genuinely skilled in the craft of making fully sewn flags with the exception of perhaps said company's national flag. When flag makers do have such folk on staff, those capable of making other things, they pay a premium price to keep them around. The cost is passed down to the customer.

Automation means certain standards are set for all flags whether proportionally correct or not.

I have seen (probably) the same afore mentioned Bahamas ensign while I was in Venice. When I got up close to the cruise ship, I noticed that the canton was printed and the rest of the parts were joined together. This was a much cheaper way of making the ensign a opposed to having everything custom sewn.

Most likely, the Bahamian ensign in Venice was American made, meaning it was fairly inexpensive compared to European flags.

It has been a while since I was in the Bahamas, but when I was there, I rarely saw any kind of flag or ensign proportioned 1:2. Almost everything with the exception of a very few government flags were 2:3 or 3:5 and Annin or Dettra made. Come to think of it, I don't recall ever seeing a 1:2 Bahamian red ensign in Bahamian waters.
Clay Moss, 13 January 2006

I can tell some ideas on the flag size question for Austria-Hungary, and I think that flag ratio is somewhat related to this.

Austro-Hungarian maritime flags originally were made of stripes of 48 cm height, called "Kleid" (plural "Kleider"), so the height of the flag was a multiple of 48 cm (approx.) [bmg77]

This is most probably typical for other countries as well, that one unit was based on a more or less standardized measure of cloth available. The other side would be any measure convenient for manufacture, either determined by the length of available cloth, or by the size of the manufacturing facilities, or simply by some easily measurable proportion (1:2 or 2:3 rather than say 4:7).
Marcus E.V. Schmöger, 5 February 2006

There was a question why flags are lowered during the night and I guessed that this has to do primarily with the preservation of the flag material. Since the winds on the sea and in coastal regions are harder and more constant, flags are lowered when they are not seen, i.e. on the high seas and during the night. In landlocked countries the flags are not lowered at night because the winds are less hard. This corresponds perfectly to your remarks. In addition to Marcus' production points we thus have three climatic factors which may have been in favour of longer flags in maritime regions: the rough winds which consume the cloth from the fly towards the hoist, the easiness to repair a long flag and the absence of the problem that a long flag flies less easily than a short one.
Martin Karner, 6 February 2006

Longer flags (e.g., 1:2) may have been more useful for seafaring nations because of the old method of repairing weather-damaged flags on board ship (which was IIRC to cut off a strip from the fly to repair any damage). A long flag could therefore be repaired more readily. On land, this became less of a problem because new flags could be more readily obtained, and the dynamics of flag-flying (which ISTR say that a shorter flag will fly more easily) may have come into play in the design. For that reason, it would make sense if countries with naval traditions favoured longer flags, and landlocked countries favoured shorter flags. Of course, this doesn't explain why countries like the Netherlands prefer shorter flags, but it might explain the UK and its possessions, and also countries like Switzerland.
James Dignan, 5 February 2006

It is thought that British naval flags attained a ratio of 1 : 2 through carelessness. 17th century English naval ensigns were made from material that was about eleven inches wide. It was stipulated that the length of a flag should be eighteen times the number of widths of material used to make the flag. The ratio at that time was therefore 11 : 18. Over the years, for reasons that I have never seen explained, the width of the material used to make flags was reduced, but no corresponding adjustment was made to the stipulated length. The length of the flags thus increased relative to their width. By about 1840 the width of the material had been reduced to nine inches, giving a ratio of 8 : 18. Standard sizes were now introduced, in which the length was twice the width.
David Prothero, 6 February 2006

According to Pepys writing in the last half of the 17th Century "It is in general to be noted that the bewper (bunting) from which colours are made being 22 inches (approx 56cm) in breadth and half of that breadth or 11 inches in ordinary discourse by the name of a breadth being wrought into colours, every such breadth is allowed half a yard (18 inches or approx 46cm) for its fly".

If the flag sizes given for 1742 may be cited as evidence the 'breadth' had decreased to 10 inches by that date, and a surviving 20 foot x 40 foot White Ensign of 1787 (not counting an Establishment of 1822) seems to indicate that the breadth had reduced yet again to its modern width of 9 inches by the later 18th Century?
Christopher Southworth, 6 February 2006