The Colors of the Union: 304888344611713860501504000000 Ways to Make a Flag

In 2002, my former employer Rem Koolhaas designed a European flag. His idea: a kind of bar code with the colors of the flags of the member states of the European Union, arranged from east to west. One of the places where the design was used is the Museumpark in Rotterdam.

A brilliant idea, in my opinion: it symbolizes variety and unity and it is immediately recognizable. The flag may only be a bit hard to draw without errors, but that’s true for many flags. (How are the American stars arranged? And did we start with a red or a white stripe?)

Unfortunately, the Barcode was never introduced by the European Union as the official flag, so we are still stuck with the uninspiring blue flag with twelve golden stars. (Twelve? Why on earth twelve?)

Another dimension

The tricky part of the Barcode design is that, when new countries continue to join, the lines will become very thin. The original flag was made in 2002 from the then fifteen Member States; meanwhile, the Union has 28 members, nearly twice as many.

I therefore wondered whether it would be interesting to consider the third dimension as well. Twenty-eight flags can be arranged on a field of 4 x 7. This can be done in many different ways. I’m not a mathematician but I suspect the total number is 28! or 304888344611713860501504000000 ways.

28 flags of the European Union member states (2015)


I tried to arrange the flags in such a way that they were starting to “interact with one another”. Endless shuffling led to the arrangement above with, from left to right and from top to bottom the flags of Greece, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Hungary, Luxembourg, Austria, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, Czech Republic, Estonia, Spain, Slovenia Bulgaria, Cyprus, Sweden, Latvia, Slovakia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, Belgium, Malta, France, Italy, Ireland, Romania and Portugal.

Note, for example, the horizontal white path that connects the upper flags. Or the white space created by the flags of Estonia and Slovakia placed above each other. Or the diagonal from the Union Jack which continues in the Czech triangle.

Color variations

Still, it’s more difficult than I expected to forge the 28 flags together into an abstract design. That is partly because of the many color differences between the different flags: the red of Denmark is not that of Germany, not to mention the red of Estonia. Koolhaas solved that problem by limiting the number of colors.

Crosses, blazons and maps

It’s also remarkable that even the crosses on the Scandinavian flags have different dimensions.

But the biggest problem is that some flags are more recognizable than others. It’s fairly simple to merge flags with three horizontal or vertical bands into an abstract pattern. But the flags of Greece, Britain and the Scandinavian countries still stand out. The little blazon in the flags of, for instance, Spain and Portugal and in particular the map of of Cyprus keep attracting attention. About that last issue something can be done:

The simplified version

Adobe to the rescue

For further abstraction I used Photoshop’s crystallize filter:


And there we have our desired symbol of European unity in diversity. But unfortunately, very difficult to draw. Okay, let’s stick to Koolhaas’ Barcode.

Such a relief!

So my search has not provided a new flag for the European Union. But at least it resulted in some works to hang on the wall. I particularly like this relief version:

Flags of the European Union: such a relief…

Update: after Brexit

When I made the above flag compositions in 2015, a Grexit seemed the greatest threat to European unity. But in the end it was Great Britain that left the Union. On June 23, 2016, the British, well, 52 percent of those who showed up in the referendum, voted for Brexit. And on January 31, 2020, the exit was officially a fact. Splendid isolation.

The fact that this made my flag composition outdated in one fell swoop is perhaps the least dramatic consequence of the UK’s EU referendum. But it remains a shame, especially because the whole concept is difficult to use for a federation of 27 members. Maybe the Scots will get out of the UK and back into the EU. In that case it is easy; after all, the Scottish flag is already in the Union Jack.

But the continent of Europe is of course larger than the European Union. And although history shows that there may also be some fluctuation in the total number of countries on our continent, I hope that my follow-up flag project, the Flags of Europe, will stay up to date a bit longer.

Print of a colorful piece of art with the colors of 48 European countries as wall decoration in a modern interior
The follow-up: 48 flags

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