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TED2015

Roman Mars: Why city flags may be the worst-designed thing you've never noticed

March 25, 2015

Roman Mars is obsessed with flags -- and after you watch this talk, you might be, too. These ubiquitous symbols of civic pride are often designed, well, pretty terribly. But they don't have to be. In this surprising and hilarious talk about vexillology -- the study of flags -- Mars reveals the five basic principles of flag design and shows why he believes they can be applied to just about anything.

Roman Mars - Digital storyteller
With his show 99% Invisible, Roman Mars discovered new ways to jolt public radio out of its old paradigms, while at the same time spinning riveting tales of design. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I know what you're thinking:
00:12
"Why does that guy get to sit down?"
00:14
That's because this is radio.
00:17
(Music)
00:20
I tell radio stories about design,
00:23
and I report on all kinds of stories:
00:27
buildings and toothbrushes
00:29
and mascots and wayfinding and fonts.
00:30
My mission is to get people to engage
with the design that they care about
00:33
so they begin to pay attention
to all forms of design.
00:37
When you decode the world
with design intent in mind,
00:40
the world becomes kind of magical.
00:45
Instead of seeing the broken things,
00:47
you see all the little bits of genius
00:49
that anonymous designers have sweated over
00:52
to make our lives better.
00:54
And that's essentially
the definition of design:
00:57
making life better and providing joy.
00:59
And few things give me greater joy
01:02
than a well-designed flag.
01:05
(Laughter) (Applause)
01:07
Yeah!
01:09
Happy 50th anniversary
on your flag, Canada.
01:13
It is beautiful, gold standard. Love it.
01:15
I'm kind of obsessed with flags.
01:19
Sometimes I bring up the topic of flags,
01:21
and people are like,
"I don't care about flags,"
01:23
and then we start talking
about flags, and trust me,
01:27
100 percent of people care about flags.
01:31
There's just something about them
that works on our emotions.
01:33
My family wrapped my Christmas presents
as flags this year,
01:37
including the blue gift bag
01:40
that's dressed up as the flag of Scotland.
01:44
I put this picture online,
and sure enough,
01:47
within the first few minutes,
someone left a comment that said,
01:50
"You can take that Scottish Saltire
and shove it up your ass." (Laughter)
01:53
Which -- see, people are passionate
about flags, you know?
01:56
That's the way it is.
02:00
What I love about flags
02:02
is that once you understand
the design of flags,
02:03
what makes a good flag,
what makes a bad flag,
02:06
you can understand
the design of almost anything.
02:08
So what I'm going to do here is,
02:11
I cracked open an episode
of my radio show,
02:13
"99% Invisible," and I'm going
to reconstruct it here on stage,
02:16
so when I press a button over here --
02:19
Voice: S for Sound --
02:21
Roman Mars: It's going to make a sound,
02:23
and so whenever you hear a sound
02:25
or a voice or a piece of music,
02:26
it's because I pressed a button.
02:28
Voice: Sssssound.
02:30
RM: All right, got it? Here we go.
02:32
Three, two.
02:36
This is 99% Invisible. I'm Roman Mars.
02:39
Narrator: The five basic
principles of flag design.
02:48
Roman Mars: According to the North
American Vexillological Association.
02:51
Vexillological.
02:54
Ted Kaye: Vexillology
is the study of flags.
02:56
RM: It's that extra "lol"
that makes it sound weird.
02:59
Narrator: Number one,
keep it simple.
03:02
The flag should be so simple
that a child can draw it from memory.
03:04
RM: Before I moved to Chicago in 2005,
03:07
I didn't even know cities
had their own flags.
03:09
TK: Most larger cities
do have flags.
03:11
RM: Well, I didn't know that.
That's Ted Kaye, by the way.
03:13
TK: Hello.
RM: He's a flag expert.
03:16
He's a totally awesome guy.
03:18
TK: I'm Ted Kaye. I have edited
a scholarly journal on flag studies,
03:19
and I am currently involved
with the Portland Flag Association
03:23
and the North American
Vexillological Association.
03:26
RM: Ted literally wrote
the book on flag design.
03:29
Narrator: "Good Flag, Bad Flag."
03:32
RM: It's more of a pamphlet, really.
It's about 16 pages.
03:34
TK: Yes, it's called
"Good Flag, Bad Flag:
03:36
How to Design a Great Flag."
03:39
RM: And that first city flag
I discovered in Chicago
03:41
is a beaut:
03:44
white field, two horizontal blue stripes,
03:45
and four six-pointed red stars
down the middle.
03:48
Narrator: Number two:
use meaningful symbolism.
03:52
TK: The blue stripes represent
the water, the river and the lake.
03:54
Narrator: The flag's images,
colors or pattern
03:58
should relate to what it symbolizes.
04:00
TK: The red stars represent
significant events in Chicago's history.
04:02
RM: Namely, the founding of Fort Dearborn
on the future site of Chicago,
04:05
the Great Chicago Fire,
04:09
the World Columbian Exposition,
which everyone remembers
04:12
because of the White City,
04:14
and the Century of Progress Exposition,
04:17
which no one remembers at all.
04:19
Narrator: Number three,
use two to three basic colors.
04:21
TK: The basic rule for colors
is to use two to three colors
04:24
from the standard color set:
04:27
red, white, blue,
green, yellow and black.
04:30
RM: The design of the Chicago flag
has complete buy-in
04:33
with an entire cross-section of the city.
04:35
It is everywhere;
04:37
every municipal building flies the flag.
04:39
Whet Moser: Like, there's probably
at least one store on every block
04:41
near where I work that sells
some sort of Chicago flag paraphernalia.
04:44
RM: That's Whet Moser
from Chicago magazine.
04:48
WM: Today, just for example,
I went to get a haircut,
04:50
and when I sat down in the barber's chair,
04:53
there was a Chicago flag on the box
that the barber kept all his tools in,
04:56
and then in the mirror there was
a Chicago flag on the wall behind me.
05:00
When I left, a guy passed me who had
a Chicago flag badge on his backpack.
05:04
RM: It's adaptable and remixable.
05:09
The six-pointed stars in particular
show up in all kinds of places.
05:10
WM: The coffee I bought the other day
05:14
had a Chicago star on it.
05:16
RM: It's a distinct symbol
of Chicago pride.
05:18
TK: When a police officer
or a firefighter dies in Chicago,
05:21
often it's not the flag of the
United States on his casket.
05:24
It can be the flag of the city of Chicago.
05:28
That's how deeply the flag has gotten
into the civic imagery of Chicago.
05:31
RM: And it isn't just that people
love Chicago and therefore love the flag.
05:36
I also think that people love Chicago more
05:41
because the flag is so cool.
05:44
TK: A positive feedback loop there
between great symbolism and civic pride.
05:47
RM: Okay. So when I moved back
to San Francisco in 2008,
05:52
I researched its flag,
05:55
because I had never seen it
05:56
in the previous eight years I lived there.
05:58
And I found it, I am sorry to say,
06:01
sadly lacking.
06:04
(Laughter)
06:07
I know.
06:10
It hurts me, too.
06:12
(Laughter)
06:14
TK: Well, let me start from the top.
06:15
Narrator: Number one, keep it simple.
06:17
TK: Keeping it simple.
06:19
Narrator: The flag should be so simple
that a child can draw it from memory.
06:20
TK: It's a relatively complex flag.
06:24
RM: Okay, here we go. Okay.
06:26
The main component
of the San Francisco flag is a phoenix
06:28
representing the city
rising from the ashes
06:30
after the devastating fires of the 1850s.
06:33
TK: A powerful symbol for San Francisco.
06:36
RM: I still don't really dig the phoenix.
06:38
Design-wise, it manages
to both be too crude
06:40
and have too many details
at the same time,
06:43
which if you were trying for that,
06:46
you wouldn't be able to do it,
06:48
and it just looks bad at a distance,
06:49
but having deep meaning
puts that element in the plus column.
06:51
Behind the phoenix,
the background is mostly white,
06:55
and then it has a substantial
gold border around it.
06:58
TK: Which is a very attractive
design element.
07:02
RM: I think it's okay. But --
(Laughter) --
07:04
here come the big no-nos of flag design.
07:08
Narrator: Number four,
no lettering or seals.
07:10
Never use writing of any kind.
07:13
RM: Underneath the phoenix,
there's a motto on a ribbon
07:14
that translates to
"Gold in peace, iron in war,"
07:17
plus -- and this is the big problem --
07:21
it says San Francisco across the bottom.
07:23
TK: If you need to write the name
07:26
of what you're representing on your flag,
07:28
your symbolism has failed.
07:30
(Laughter) (Applause)
07:32
RM: The United States flag
doesn't say "USA" across the front.
07:36
In fact, country flags,
they tend to behave.
07:40
Like, hats off to South Africa
and Turkey and Israel
07:43
and Somalia and Japan and Gambia.
07:46
There's a bunch
of really great country flags,
07:48
but they obey good design principles
because the stakes are high.
07:51
They're on the international stage.
07:55
But city, state and regional flags
07:58
are another story.
08:00
(Laughter)
08:03
There is a scourge of bad flags,
08:04
and they must be stopped.
08:07
(Laughter) (Applause)
08:10
That is the truth and that is the dare.
08:12
The first step is to recognize
08:15
that we have a problem.
08:18
A lot of people tend to think
that good design
08:24
is just a matter of taste,
08:27
and quite honestly,
sometimes it is, actually,
08:28
but sometimes it isn't, all right?
08:31
Here's the full list of NAVA
flag design principles.
08:35
Narrator: The five
basic principles of flag design.
08:38
Number one.
TK: Keep it simple.
08:42
Narrator: Number two.
TK: Use meaningful symbolism.
08:44
Narrator: Number three.
TK: Use two to three basic colors.
08:46
Narrator: Number four.
TK: No lettering or seals.
08:49
Narrator: Never use
writing of any kind.
08:51
TK: Because you can't
read that at a distance.
08:53
Narrator: Number five.
TK: And be distinctive.
08:55
RM: All the best flags tend
to stick to these principles.
08:57
And like I said before,
most country flags are okay.
09:00
But here's the thing:
09:03
if you showed this list of principles
to any designer of almost anything,
09:04
they would say these principles --
simplicity, deep meaning,
09:08
having few colors or being
thoughtful about colors,
09:12
uniqueness, don't have
writing you can't read --
09:14
all those principles apply to them, too.
09:17
But sadly, good design principles
are rarely invoked
09:19
in U.S. city flags.
09:23
Our biggest problem
seems to be that fourth one.
09:24
We just can't stop ourselves
09:27
from putting our names on our flags,
09:28
or little municipal seals
with tiny writing on them.
09:31
Here's the thing about municipal seals:
09:34
They were designed
to be on pieces of paper
09:37
where you can read them,
09:39
not on flags 100 feet away
flapping in the breeze.
09:41
So here's a bunch of flags again.
09:44
Vexillologists call these SOBs:
09:46
seals on a bedsheet -- (Laughter) --
09:49
and if you can't tell
what city they go to,
09:52
yeah, that's exactly the problem,
09:55
except for Anaheim, apparently.
09:56
They fixed it. (Laughter)
09:58
These flags are everywhere in the U.S.
10:01
The European equivalent
of the municipal seal
10:04
is the city coat of arms,
10:07
and this is where we can learn
a lesson for how to do things right.
10:09
So this is the city
coat of arms of Amsterdam.
10:13
Now, if this were a United States city,
10:15
the flag would probably look like this.
10:17
You know, yeah. (Laughter)
10:19
But instead, the flag of Amsterdam
10:22
looks like this.
10:24
Rather than plopping
the whole coat of arms
10:27
on a solid background and writing
"Amsterdam" below it,
10:29
they just take the key elements
of the escutcheon, the shield,
10:32
and they turn it into the most
badass city flag in the world.
10:35
(Laughter) (Applause)
10:39
And because it's so badass,
10:45
those flags and crosses
are found throughout Amsterdam,
10:47
just like Chicago, they're used.
10:50
Even though seal-on-a-bedsheet flags
are particularly painful
10:53
and offensive to me,
10:56
nothing can quite prepare you
10:58
for one of the biggest train wrecks
in vexillological history.
11:00
Are you ready?
11:05
It's the flag of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
11:06
(Laughter)
11:09
I mean, it's distinctive,
11:17
I'll give them that.
11:21
Steve Kodis: It was adopted in 1955.
11:23
RM: The city ran a contest
11:26
and gathered a bunch of submissions
11:27
with all kinds of designs.
11:29
SK: And an alderman
by the name of Fred Steffan
11:31
cobbled together parts of the submissions
11:35
to make what is now the Milwaukee flag.
11:38
RM: It's a kitchen sink flag.
11:41
There's a gigantic gear
representing industry,
11:44
there's a ship recognizing the port,
11:47
a giant stalk of wheat
11:50
paying homage to the brewing industry.
11:51
It's a hot mess,
11:53
and Steve Kodis, a graphic designer
from Milwaukee, wants to change it.
11:55
SK: It's really awful.
12:00
It's a misstep on the city's behalf,
12:02
to say the least.
12:04
RM: But what puts
the Milwaukee flag over the top,
12:06
almost to the point of self-parody,
12:09
is on it is a picture of the Civil War
battle flag of the Milwaukee regiment.
12:11
SK: So that's the final element in it
12:18
that just makes it
that much more ridiculous,
12:20
that there is a flag design
within the Milwaukee flag.
12:22
RM: On the flag. Yeah. Yeah. (Laughter)
12:27
Yeah.
12:30
(Music)
12:31
Now, Milwaukee is a fantastic city.
12:33
I've been there. I love it.
12:36
The most depressing part
of this flag, though,
12:38
is that there have been
two major redesign contests.
12:40
The last one was held in 2001.
12:43
One hundred and five
entries were received.
12:46
TK: But in the end, the members
of the Milwaukee Arts Board
12:48
decided that none of the new entries
were worthy of flying over the city.
12:51
RM: They couldn't agree
to change that thing! (Laughter)
12:54
That's discouraging enough
to make you think
12:58
that good design and democracy
13:00
just simply do not go together.
13:02
But Steve Kotas is going
to try one more time
13:05
to redesign the Milwaukee flag.
13:07
SK: I believe Milwaukee is a great city.
13:10
Every great city deserves a great flag.
13:12
RM: Steve isn't ready
to reveal his design yet.
13:15
One of the things about
proposing one of these things
13:17
is you have to get people on board,
13:20
and then you reveal your design.
13:22
But here's the trick:
13:24
If you want to design a great flag,
13:25
a kickass flag like Chicago's or D.C.'s,
which also has a great flag,
13:27
start by drawing a one-by-one-and-a-half-
inch rectangle on a piece of paper.
13:31
Your design has to fit
within that tiny rectangle.
13:35
Here's why.
13:37
TK: A three-by-five-foot flag
13:39
on a pole 100 feet away
13:41
looks about the same size
13:43
as a one-by-one-and-a-half-inch rectangle
13:45
seen about 15 inches from your eye.
13:50
You'd be surprised by how compelling
and simple the design can be
13:53
when you hold yourself to that limitation.
13:57
RM: Meanwhile, back in San Francisco.
14:01
Is there anything we can do?
14:03
TK: I like to say
that in every bad flag
14:05
there's a good flag trying to get out.
(Laughter)
14:07
The way to make
San Francisco's flag a good flag
14:10
is to take the motto off
14:12
because you can't read that at a distance.
14:14
Take the name off,
14:16
and the border might even be made thicker,
14:18
so it's more a part of the flag.
14:20
And I would simply take the phoenix
14:22
and make it a great big element
14:24
in the middle of the flag.
14:26
RM: But the current phoenix,
that's got to go.
14:27
TK: I would simplify
or stylize the phoenix.
14:30
Depict a big, wide-winged bird
14:33
coming out of flames.
14:36
Emphasize those flames.
14:37
RM: So this San Francisco flag
was designed by Frank Chimero
14:39
based on Ted Kaye's suggestions.
14:42
I don't know what he would do
if we was completely unfettered
14:43
and didn't follow those guidelines.
14:46
Fans of my radio show and podcast,
14:48
they've heard me complain about bad flags.
14:50
They've sent me other suggested designs.
14:52
This one's by Neil Mussett.
14:54
Both are so much better.
14:55
And I think if they were adopted,
14:58
I would see them around the city.
15:01
In my crusade to make
flags of the world more beautiful,
15:04
many listeners have taken it
upon themselves
15:07
to redesign their flags
and look into the feasibility
15:09
of getting them officially adopted.
15:12
If you see your city flag and like it,
15:15
fly it,
15:18
even if it violates
a design rule or two.
15:20
I don't care.
15:22
But if you don't see your city flag,
15:23
maybe it doesn't exist, but maybe it does,
15:26
and it just sucks,
15:28
and I dare you to join the effort
to try to change that.
15:30
As we move more and more into cities,
15:35
the city flag will become
15:38
not just a symbol of that city as a place,
15:39
but also it could become
15:43
a symbol of how that city
considers design itself,
15:45
especially today, as the populace
is becoming more design-aware.
15:49
And I think design awareness
is at an all-time high.
15:53
A well-designed flag could be seen
as an indicator of how a city
15:55
considers all of its design systems:
15:59
its public transit,
16:02
its parks, its signage.
16:04
It might seem frivolous, but it's not.
16:06
TK: Often when city leaders say,
16:09
"We have more important things to do
than worry about a city flag,"
16:11
my response is,
16:15
"If you had a great city flag,
16:17
you would have a banner
for people to rally under
16:19
to face those more important things."
16:22
RM: I've seen firsthand
what a good city flag can do
16:26
in the case of Chicago.
16:29
The marriage of good design
and civic pride
16:30
is something that we need in all places.
16:33
The best part about municipal flags
16:35
is that we own them.
16:37
They are an open-source,
16:39
publicly owned design language
of the community.
16:41
When they are done well,
16:44
they are remixable, adaptable,
16:46
and they are powerful.
16:49
We could control the branding
and graphical imagery
16:50
of our cities with a good flag,
16:52
but instead, by having
bad flags we don't use,
16:54
we cede that territory to sports teams
16:57
and chambers of commerce
and tourism boards.
16:59
Sports teams can leave
and break our hearts.
17:02
And besides, some of us
don't really care about sports.
17:05
And tourism campaigns
can just be cheesy.
17:08
But a great city flag
17:11
is something that represents
a city to its people
17:13
and its people to the world at large.
17:15
And when that flag is a beautiful thing,
17:17
that connection is a beautiful thing.
17:19
So maybe all the city flags
can be as inspiring as Hong Kong
17:22
or Portland or Trondheim,
17:26
and we can do away with all the bad flags
17:28
like San Francisco, Milwaukee,
17:30
Cedar Rapids,
17:33
and finally, when we're all done,
17:34
we can do something
about Pocatello, Idaho,
17:37
considered by the North American
Vexillological Association
17:39
as the worst city flag in North America.
17:43
(Laughter) (Applause)
17:48
Yeah.
17:55
That thing has a trademark
symbol on it, people. (Laughter)
17:58
That hurts me just to look at.
18:01
Thank you so much for listening.
18:05
(Applause)
18:07
["Music by: Melodium (@melodiumbox)
and Keegan DeWitt (@keegandewitt)"]
18:13

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Roman Mars - Digital storyteller
With his show 99% Invisible, Roman Mars discovered new ways to jolt public radio out of its old paradigms, while at the same time spinning riveting tales of design.

Why you should listen

From its humble beginnings in his home, Roman Mars’ podcast and radio show 99% Invisible accumulated a massive following to become a broadcast and internet phenomenon. Its premise -- 10- to 20-minute episodes focused on a single compelling story -- subverts public radio’s reliance on long, strictly formatted shows, and has garnered national praise.

Over a series of three runaway crowdsourced fundraising campaigns, 99% Invisible generated over $1.2 million, making Mars the most successful crowdfunded journalist in Kickstarter history.

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