This March design celebrity and charismatic podcaster Roman Mars gave the first ever TED talk on vexillology (the scholarly study of flags and their design), entitled Why city flags may be the worst-designed thing you’ve never noticed.
This marked a milestone in visibility for vexillology. Mars calls his design podcast 99% Invisible, and “99% Invisible” is actually not a bad characterization of vexillology. A young field, it sprang up in the late 1960s when political scientist Whitney Smith and collaborators began to develop a systematic approach to the subject, founded the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA), and organized annual meetings. It wasn’t until 1994 that NAVA’s annual journal Raven began showcasing academic vexillological research. Despite a core of dedicated researchers, this interdisciplinary enterprise still for the most part flies under the radar.
Two days ago a video of the talk became available on ted.com and YouTube, and we noticed a spike in traffic to this our website. (Welcome, TED visitors!) Why? Because much of Mars’ talk featured excerpts from a recorded interview with Ted Kaye, a founder of PFA and the compiler of the most influential resource for flag design advice, a NAVA booklet entitled Good Flag, Bad Flag: How to Design a Great Flag. (Bafflingly, NAVA has removed this booklet from the public portion of their website, but you can still find a copy of it here on the PFA site — in English and five other languages — as well as elsewhere on the net.)
Mars brought an almost evangelical zeal to teaching the audience about the Good Flag, Bad Flag principles. The crux of the talk is that these principles of good design are important not just for city flag design but for city design more generally:
Roman Mars: 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.
Ted Kaye: 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.”
Roman Mars: 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.
Here’s the TED talk on YouTube. Enjoy!