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Perceptions of Colors on Flags

Last modified: 2016-03-05 by rob raeside
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The first tribands follow the dark-light-dark pattern - could it possibly be a matter of convention? The first tricolours - those of the Netherlands and France - follow this pattern, and the remainder could simply have found the symbolism and pattern attractive and followed suit?

There were good reasons for the earlier exceptions. The tricolour of Russia (on which of course, the flags of Bulgaria, Slovenia, Slovakia etc are taken) was based on that of the Netherlands, but was made deliberately different (blue-white-red having been tried but found insufficiently distinctive). While the Miranda tricolour now used by Columbia, Ecuador and Venezuela was based on a symbolism which demanded the yellow-red-blue.

The order of colours in the black. red and gold of Germany, if we accept that it was based on the Freicorps uniform, was based of the importance of its elements. The majority of the greatcoat was black, with red facings and gilt buttons.

If it helps, visually speaking dark colours advance and light colours recede so that if two identical objects were set at the same distance from the viewer, the light-coloured object would appear larger than the dark. Or if you prefer, a room painted white looks larger than one painted in dark red.
Christopher Southworth, 6 September 2003

Regardless of the background, a white stripe seems "open", to me, and a dark one "closed". On a lighter background a light colour appears to flow out; on a darker background the background seems to flow in. Curiously, this is not true in reverse for a dark coloured edge; they more or less "bounce" against the background.

Following that impression, I'd say even a flag with one light stripe on the outside does feel less well-defined, but having two light stripes leaves most of the flag open.

Still, it probably has to do something with the brightness. When I try to picture red on an equally green background, these colours being equally "grey", they seem to have none of the effects mentioned above.
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 7 September 2003

I presented a seminar last week to a group of visual perception researchers at the local university on the subject of the order of colours in the stripes in horizontal tribands (how it's rare to see light-dark-light, or darker colours at the top).

A quick summary of the talk is that there are four main possible reasons:

  1. Historical - for some forgotten reasons early flags (and before them coats of arms) were arranged that way, and the tradition has continued. Many countries have their own explanations for the colours of their flags, though it is rare for the order of stripes to be directly related to the meaning (for example, a country might have green, red, and white stripes representing the land, the people, and the rivers of the country, but they could arrange them in any order. Flags where the order is relevant, such as those of Ukraine and Colombia, are rarer).
  2. Aesthetic - these arrangements look more pleasing
  3. Practical - light against light/dark against dark combinations don't work, and pale blues and whites against the sky don't stand out clearly.
  4. Psychological - for some reason other arrangements seem wrong.

The general conclusion of my talk was that reasons 1 and 2 can be explained by reasons 3 and 4: There were probably practical or psychological reasons why early flags had this pattern, and aesthetically we regard these as the best patterns for flags because we tend to see more flags in these patterns and because there is some psychological reason why other patterns seem wrong.

The practical reasons don't explain the entirety of the reason for the patterns, as other flags have pale outer edges (in the case of Cyprus, the U.N., and a few other flags they even have pale charges on a pale background). However, there is an advantage with clarity and contrast not to have two similar colours next to each other.

Much of the reason is probably psychological - it's been mentioned that dark colors seem to 'defy gravity' when they are at the top of flags, but the reason's likely to be a little more subtle than that. In the natural world, during daylight, we tend to see a field of view where tones go from light above (the sky) to dark below (the ground). For that reason we tend to regard that arrangement of tones as being more natural (and therefore 'right').

None of these four types of explanation is entirely satisfactory, but taken all together they form at least a partial explanation for the preferences.
James Dignan, 8 October 2003

There is, however, one small exception to that general rule that James has so clearly articulated from his admirable artistic background and supremely good sense of taste and just plain old common sense.

When you look at a daytime sky, the band near the horizon, for maybe something like 15 or 20 degrees up, is actually just a shade or two lighter than the stratospheric sky above that vague line. I've never understood exactly why, though I'm sure the explanation is as simple and as complex as that for the "moon effect."
Bill Dunning, 9 October 2003

I suspect it is (as for the moon illusion, it was the subject of a very tedious fourth year psychology thesis which I did!). If any book can tell you about this horizon phenomenon, then it will be the very readable "Light and colour in the open air" by M.Minnaert. Sadly, I don't have a copy, and I think it's out of print.

Put simply, if you look obliquely, you're looking at an angle through the earth's atmosphere, so you're actually looking through more air than if you look directly overhead. More air = more scattering of light by dust particles, water particles etc = less colour.

The full moon, when it's close to the horizon, tends to look bigger than when it's directly overhead. There are lots of possible explanations (everything from colour of the sky to the effect of gravity on the shape of a person's eyeballs!), but much of the reason is probably that when the moon is close to he horizon it often appears alongside distant objects like church spires, trees, etc on the horizon. Since they appear to be very small, the moon is perceived as being comparatively large.
James Dignan, 8, 16 October 2003