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

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


I know what you’re thinking: “Why does that guy get to sit down?” That’s because this is radio. (Music) I tell radio stories about design, and I report on all kinds of stories: buildings and toothbrushes,
mascots and wayfinding and fonts. My mission is to get people to engage
with the design that they care about so they begin to pay attention
to all forms of design. When you decode the world
with design intent in mind, the world becomes kind of magical. Instead of seeing the broken things, you see all the little bits of genius that anonymous designers have sweated over
to make our lives better. And that’s essentially
the definition of design: making life better and providing joy. And few things give me greater joy than a well-designed flag. (Laughter) Yeah! (Applause) Happy 50th anniversary
on your flag, Canada. It is beautiful, gold standard. Love it. I’m kind of obsessed with flags. Sometimes I bring up the topic of flags, and people are like,
“I don’t care about flags,” and then we start talking
about flags, and trust me, 100 percent of people care about flags. There’s just something about them
that works on our emotions. My family wrapped my Christmas presents
as flags this year, including the blue gift bag
that’s dressed up as the flag of Scotland. I put this picture online,
and sure enough, within the first few minutes,
someone left a comment that said, “You can take that Scottish Saltire
and shove it up your ass.” (Laughter) See, people are passionate
about flags, you know? That’s the way it is. What I love about flags is that once you understand
the design of flags, what makes a good flag,
what makes a bad flag, you can understand
the design of almost anything. So what I’m going to do here is, I cracked open an episode
of my radio show, “99% Invisible,” and I’m going
to reconstruct it here on stage, so when I press a button over here — Voice: S for Sound — Roman Mars: It’s going to make a sound, and so whenever you hear a sound
or a voice or a piece of music, it’s because I pressed a button. Voice: Sound. RM: All right, got it? Here we go. Three, two. This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. (Music) Narrator: The five basic
principles of flag design. Roman Mars: According to the North
American Vexillological Association. Vexillological. Ted Kaye: Vexillology
is the study of flags. RM: It’s that extra “lol”
that makes it sound weird. Narrator: Number one, keep it simple. The flag should be so simple
that a child can draw it from memory. RM: Before I moved to Chicago in 2005, I didn’t even know cities
had their own flags. TK: Most larger cities do have flags. RM: Well, I didn’t know that,
that’s Ted Kaye, by the way. TK: Hello. RM: He’s a flag expert,
he’s a totally awesome guy. TK: I’m Ted Kaye, I have edited
a scholarly journal on flag studies, and I am currently involved
with the Portland Flag Association and the North American
Vexillological Association. RM: Ted literally wrote
the book on flag design. Narrator: “Good Flag, Bad Flag.” RM: It’s more of a pamphlet, really,
it’s about 16 pages. TK: Yes, it’s called “Good Flag, Bad Flag:
How to Design a Great Flag.” RM: And that first city flag
I discovered in Chicago is a beaut: white field, two horizontal blue stripes, and four six-pointed red stars
down the middle. (Sound) Narrator: Number two,
use meaningful symbolism. TK: The blue stripes represent
the water, the river and the lake. Narrator: The flag’s images,
colors or pattern should relate to what it symbolizes. TK: The red stars represent
significant events in Chicago’s history. RM: Namely, the founding of Fort Dearborn
on the future site of Chicago, the Great Chicago Fire, the World Columbian Exposition,
which everyone remembers because of the White City, and the Century of Progress Exposition,
which no one remembers at all. Narrator: Number three,
use two to three basic colors. TK: The basic rule for colors
is to use two to three colors from the standard color set:
red, white, blue, green, yellow and black. RM: The design of the Chicago flag
has complete buy-in with an entire cross-section of the city. It is everywhere; every municipal building flies the flag. Whet Moser: There’s probably
at least one store on every block near where I work that sells
some sort of Chicago flag paraphernalia. RM: That’s Whet Moser
from Chicago magazine. WM: Today, just for example,
I went to get a haircut, and when I sat down in the barber’s chair, there was a Chicago flag on the box
that the barber kept all his tools in, and then in the mirror, there was
a Chicago flag on the wall behind me. When I left, a guy passed me who had
a Chicago flag badge on his backpack. RM: It’s adaptable and remixable. The six-pointed stars in particular
show up in all kinds of places. WM: The coffee I bought the other day
had a Chicago star on it. RM: It’s a distinct symbol
of Chicago pride. TK: When a police officer
or a firefighter dies in Chicago, often it’s not the flag
of the United States on his casket. It can be the flag of the city of Chicago. That’s how deeply the flag has gotten
into the civic imagery of Chicago. RM: And it isn’t just that people
love Chicago and therefore love the flag. I also think that people love Chicago more
because the flag is so cool. TK: A positive feedback loop there
between great symbolism and civic pride. RM: OK, so when I moved back
to San Francisco in 2008, I researched its flag, because I had never seen it
in the previous eight years I lived there. And I found it, I am sorry to say, sadly lacking. (Laughter) I know. It hurts me, too. (Laughter) TK: Well, let me start from the top. Narrator: Number one, keep it simple. TK: Keeping it simple. Narrator: The flag should be so simple
that a child can draw it from memory. TK: It’s a relatively complex flag. RM: OK, here we go, OK. The main component
of the San Francisco flag is a phoenix representing the city
rising from the ashes after the devastating fires of the 1850s. TK: A powerful symbol for San Francisco. RM: I still don’t really dig the phoenix. Design-wise, it manages
to both be too crude and have too many details
at the same time, which if you were trying for that, you wouldn’t be able to do it, and it just looks bad at a distance, but having deep meaning
puts that element in the plus column. Behind the phoenix,
the background is mostly white, and then it has a substantial
gold border around it. TK: Which is a very attractive
design element. RM: I think it’s OK, but — (Laughter) here come the big no-nos of flag design. Narrator: Number four,
no lettering or seals. Never use writing of any kind. RM: Underneath the phoenix,
there’s a motto on a ribbon that translates to
“Gold in peace, iron in war,” plus — and this is the big problem — it says San Francisco across the bottom. TK: If you need to write the name
of what you’re representing on your flag, your symbolism has failed. (Laughter) (Applause) RM: The United States flag
doesn’t say “USA” across the front. In fact, country flags,
they tend to behave. Like, hats off to South Africa
and Turkey and Israel and Somalia and Japan and Gambia. There’s a bunch
of really great country flags, but they obey good design principles
because the stakes are high. They’re on the international stage. But city, state and regional flags
are another story. (Laughter) There is a scourge of bad flags — (Laughter) and they must be stopped. (Laughter) (Applause) That is the truth and that is the dare. The first step is to recognize
that we have a problem. (Laughter) A lot of people tend to think
that good design is just a matter of taste, and quite honestly,
sometimes it is, actually, but sometimes it isn’t, all right? (Laughter) Here’s the full list of NAVA
flag design principles. Narrator: The five
basic principles of flag design. Narrator: Number one.
TK: Keep it simple. Narrator: Number two.
TK: Use meaningful symbolism. Narrator: Number three.
TK: Use two to three basic colors. Narrator: Number four.
TK: No lettering or seals. Narrator: Never use writing of any kind. TK: Because you can’t
read that at a distance. Narrator: Number five.
TK: And be distinctive. RM: All the best flags tend
to stick to these principles. And like I said before,
most country flags are OK. But here’s the thing: if you showed this list of principles
to any designer of almost anything, they would say these principles —
simplicity, deep meaning, having few colors
or being thoughtful about colors, uniqueness, don’t have
writing you can’t read — all those principles apply to them, too. But sadly, good design principles
are rarely invoked in US city flags. Our biggest problem
seems to be that fourth one. We just can’t stop ourselves
from putting our names on our flags, or little municipal seals
with tiny writing on them. Here’s the thing about municipal seals: They were designed
to be on pieces of paper where you can read them, not on flags 100 feet away
flapping in the breeze. So here’s a bunch of flags again. Vexillologists call these SOBs: Seals on a bedsheet — (Laughter) and if you can’t tell
what city they go to, yeah, that’s exactly the problem, except for Anaheim,
apparently, they fixed it. (Laughter) These flags are everywhere in the US. The European equivalent
of the municipal seal is the city coat of arms … and this is where we can learn
a lesson for how to do things right. So this is the city
coat of arms of Amsterdam. Now, if this were a United States city, the flag would probably look like this. You know, yeah. (Laughter) But instead, the flag of Amsterdam looks like this. Rather than plopping
the whole coat of arms on a solid background and writing
“Amsterdam” below it, they just take the key elements
of the escutcheon, the shield, and they turn it into the most
badass city flag in the world. (Laughter) (Applause) And because it’s so badass, those flags and crosses
are found throughout Amsterdam, just like Chicago, they’re used. Even though seal-on-a-bedsheet flags
are particularly painful and offensive to me, nothing can quite prepare you for one of the biggest train wrecks
in vexillological history. (Laughter) Are you ready? It’s the flag of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Laughter) I mean, it’s distinctive, I’ll give them that. Steve Kodis: It was adopted in 1955. RM: The city ran a contest and gathered a bunch of submissions
with all kinds of designs. SK: And an alderman
by the name of Fred Steffan cobbled together parts of the submissions
to make what is now the Milwaukee flag. RM: It’s a kitchen sink flag. There’s a gigantic gear
representing industry, there’s a ship recognizing the port, a giant stalk of wheat paying homage to the brewing industry. It’s a hot mess, and Steve Kodis, a graphic designer
from Milwaukee, wants to change it. SK: It’s really awful. It’s a misstep on the city’s behalf, to say the least. RM: But what puts
the Milwaukee flag over the top, almost to the point of self-parody, is on it is a picture of the Civil War
battle flag of the Milwaukee regiment. SK: So that’s the final element in it that just makes it
that much more ridiculous, that there is a flag design
within the Milwaukee flag. RM: On the flag. Yeah. Yeah. (Laughter) Yeah. (Music) Now, Milwaukee is a fantastic city. I’ve been there, I love it. The most depressing part
of this flag, though, is that there have been
two major redesign contests. The last one was held in 2001. 105 entries were received. TK: But in the end, the members
of the Milwaukee Arts Board decided that none of the new entries
were worthy of flying over the city. RM: They couldn’t agree
to change that thing! (Laughter) That’s discouraging enough
to make you think that good design and democracy
just simply do not go together. (Laughter) But Steve Kotas is going
to try one more time to redesign the Milwaukee flag. SK: I believe Milwaukee is a great city. Every great city deserves a great flag. RM: Steve isn’t ready
to reveal his design yet. One of the things about
proposing one of these things is you have to get people on board, and then you reveal your design. But here’s the trick: If you want to design a great flag, a kick-ass flag like Chicago’s or DC’s,
which also has a great flag, start by drawing
a one-by-one-and-a-half-inch rectangle on a piece of paper. Your design has to fit
within that tiny rectangle. Here’s why. TK: A three-by-five-foot flag
on a pole 100 feet away looks about the same size
as a one-by-one-and-a-half-inch rectangle seen about 15 inches from your eye. You’d be surprised by how compelling
and simple the design can be when you hold yourself to that limitation. RM: Meanwhile, back in San Francisco. Is there anything we can do? TK: I like to say that in every bad flag
there’s a good flag trying to get out. The way to make
San Francisco’s flag a good flag is to take the motto off
because you can’t read that at a distance. Take the name off, and the border might even be made thicker,
so it’s more a part of the flag. And I would simply take the phoenix and make it a great big element
in the middle of the flag. RM: But the current phoenix,
that’s got to go. TK: I would simplify
or stylize the phoenix. Depict a big, wide-winged bird coming out of flames. Emphasize those flames. RM: So this San Francisco flag
was designed by Frank Chimero based on Ted Kaye’s suggestions. I don’t know what he would do
if we was completely unfettered and didn’t follow those guidelines. Fans of my radio show and podcast,
heard me complain about bad flags. They’ve sent me other suggested designs. This one’s by Neil Mussett. Both are so much better. (Laughter) And I think if they were adopted, I would see them around the city. In my crusade to make
flags of the world more beautiful, many listeners have taken it
upon themselves to redesign their flags
and look into the feasibility of getting them officially adopted. (Music) If you see your city flag and like it, fly it, even if it violates a design rule or two. I don’t care. But if you don’t see your city flag, maybe it doesn’t exist, but maybe it does, and it just sucks, and I dare you to join the effort
to try to change that. As we move more and more into cities, the city flag will become
not just a symbol of that city as a place, but also, it could become a symbol
of how that city considers design itself, especially today, as the populace
is becoming more design-aware. And I think design awareness
is at an all-time high. A well-designed flag could be seen
as an indicator of how a city considers all of its design systems: its public transit, its parks, its signage. It might seem frivolous, but it’s not. TK: Often when city leaders say, “We have more important things to do
than worry about a city flag,” my response is, “If you had a great city flag, you would have a banner
for people to rally under to face those more important things.” (Music) RM: I’ve seen firsthand
what a good city flag can do in the case of Chicago. The marriage of good design
and civic pride is something that we need in all places. The best part about municipal flags
is that we own them. They are an open-source, publicly owned design language
of the community. When they are done well, they are remixable, adaptable,
and they are powerful. We could control the branding
and graphical imagery of our cities with a good flag, but instead, by having
bad flags we don’t use, we cede that territory to sports teams and chambers of commerce
and tourism boards. Sports teams can leave
and break our hearts. And besides, some of us
don’t really care about sports. And tourism campaigns can just be cheesy. But a great city flag is something that represents
a city to its people and its people to the world at large. And when that flag is a beautiful thing, that connection is a beautiful thing. So maybe all the city flags
can be as inspiring as Hong Kong or Portland or Trondheim, and we can do away with all the bad flags like San Francisco, Milwaukee,
Cedar Rapids, and finally, when we’re all done, we can do something
about Pocatello, Idaho, considered by the North American
Vexillological Association as the worst city flag in North America. [Proud to be Pocatello] (Laughter) (Applause) Yeah. (Applause) That thing has a trademark
symbol on it, people. (Laughter) That hurts me just to look at. (Laughter) Thank you so much for listening. (Applause) [Music by: Melodium (@melodiumbox)
and Keegan DeWitt (@keegandewitt)]

100 thoughts on “Why city flags may be the worst-designed thing you’ve never noticed | Roman Mars

  1. About the SF redesign, they have the yellow and black of the An-Cap flag which is the exact opposite of everything SF stands for.

  2. Thanks for such a concise critique of our cities' profoundly awful flag designs. I have two theories about flag designs.
    1. Flags were originally used in battle so the troops could tell the difference between friend and foe (and where headquarters was). Simplicity was, in this case, a sine qua non. Bad design caused terminal results.
    2. Most municipal flags are the work of a committee. Not even a committee of artists, but of politicians and political appointees (and/or their spouses.) This is where the insistence on seals and text come from. They are mostly the product of compromise. While compromise is admirable in resolving partisan issues, it is of no use in corporate design. This is one reason why most big corporations pay millions to a third-party design team to do the work for them. It is harder to reject a design that you have already paid millions for. Where your treasure is, there will be your aesthetics be, also, so to speak.
    This is why I would counsel any artist to avoid "design contests" or "fun/free" design projects. As one Dallas art director once observed, "If it's going to be free, it had better damn well be fun." If a city approaches you for a municipal flag, the first thing they had better hear from you is, "This is really going to cost you." That will send the bargain hunters fleeing.

  3. We in Milwaukee have a greatly improved flag now. I’m talking about the sunset one. Although I don’t know how we went so long with the old one.

  4. Living and growing up in Chicago I was in the opposite position to Roman. I thought all cities had their flag everywhere but I guess I was wrong. I’m now actually even more proud of our flag after watching this.

  5. Hmmm… Almost across the board, the ones he dislikes are the ones I preferred while watching this- and vice versa. Coat of Arms/Seals are the best (although best if not given more exposition)

  6. I've always liked the flag of my home town (Bremen) but I never knew that that is because it adheres to vexolology so greatly.

  7. 12:59 ‘A camel is a horse designed by committee.’ The Milwaukee flag seems to be an apt embodiment of this phrase.

  8. When i saw this video , imediately thought that the comments would be filled with dutch patriots drinking Heineken out of their clogs

    Honestly i can see why we the Flemish left the Netherlands like:' Hurr durr wij zijn Nederlandurrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrs.'

  9. God I'm so disappointed. Wyoming's flags all have seals on them including the state flag.
    (All the ones I've seen)

  10. All subjective. A city flag should have its name on it. The Amsterdam flag looks like a pirates flag or even a flag that looks drunk or even dead.

  11. Yeah I just looked up my home place ocean sides flag and I'm pretty disappointed how bad of a design it is another one of those flags that could be improved just by removing all the words and pictures off of it and just keeping the background and edges. I'm 14 years old and never seen it until now. They probably never show it anywhere either which doesn't make things any easier. :U

  12. It pains me to say this but the Melbourne flag is ugly. But the Victoria flag is just the Australian flag with a crown and I think they took one star off, I can’t remember.

  13. I really liked the flag of Constantinople, to bad it got fucked in 1453. Atleast Bonn (my home city) has a pretty good flag.

  14. My town's flag should be front and center at 8:11 It is our town seal (which is terrible in its own right) on a white background.

  15. Sorry, but how good can an expert on vexillology be, if he does not know about tincture, which is not only important to coats of arms, but also for flags.

  16. This inspired me to look up the flag of my city and I’m proud to say Indianapolis has what may be (though I’m obviously biased here) the best city flag in the United States

  17. I was just about to look up the flag of my city, to see if maybe something should be changed about it, just as he said the flag of Trondheim in my little Norway was good… mind blown

  18. St. Louis, Missouri has a good flag IMO, it meets all but one of these rules it has four colors red, white, blue, and yellow but it follows all the other rules it's simple, it has meaningful symbolism, there's no lettering or seals, and it's distinctive.

  19. Our county ones in england seem to have an obsession of putting multiples of things on everything, why you gotta have 3 pears Worcestershire, what's wrong with just one. And surrey looks like it should be an optical illusion. At least there isn't text on any of them

  20. Illinois has a SOB. Someone designed an EXCELLENT flag for the centennial of Illinois' statehood, and then they went back to the SOB. facepalm

  21. And sometimes your city is Kiev, where there are 2 variants of coat of arms(and so the same applies to flag), and it seems nobody really knows which is official.

  22. I work for the local city council and the municipal office doesn't even fly the flag of our city. It's also not featured on our official mail. The flag is a hodgepodge of colors combining all the themes associated with the villages near the city center that were absorbed to make 1 giant municipality. I'm embarrassed to even show it and none of my coworkers recognized it. It needs to change, badly.

  23. This is a little bit American oriented. In the Netherlands every province has a flag and as far as I can tell every municipality has a flag. For example that can mean 12 in one province. Then you can have towns or little villages within that municipality also with flags. That can mean villages with under 4000 or 3000 inhabitants with a flag and a weapon. The ones I've seen also follow these rules quite well.

  24. He doesn't mention Philadelphia, which also gets its wrong. The basic flag is fine (just two colors, azure and gold, representing the original Swedish settlers) but it's got the municipal seal in the middle of the center gold bar, complete with the unreadable motto. There is a version without the seal, which you see around town occasionally, and a change has been proposed that would replace the seal with the Liberty Bell, which is such an obvious improvement I'm surprised it hasn't already been done.

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