How Roman Mars Brought Vexillology to the Public

From “After an awkward rehearsal in front of junior high schoolers, Roman Mars decided not to give the traditional TED Talk. Instead, he brought a table and all his radio gear — and put on a live radio show at TED2015. Photo: James Duncan Davidson/TED”

Vexillology may have more fame as an answer to a trivia question than as an serious topic of conversation, but Roman Mars is changing that.  In May we reported on the release, on and YouTube, of the video of his March 2015 TED Talk. On it’s titled Why city flags may be the worst-designed thing you’ve never noticed, and in five months has been viewed 1,365,861 times and counting. (On YouTube, perhaps because of its shortened title, The Worst-Designed Thing You’ve Never Noticed, it has a smaller but still respectable 343,109 views.) This makes Mars’ impassioned plea for better municipal flag design arguably the single most influential vexillological publication since the release in 1975 of Whitney Smith‘s masterpiece, Flags Through the Ages and Across the World (ISBN 0-07-059093-1).

Whitney Smith wrote the book on flags in 1975.
Whitney Smith wrote THE book on flags 40 years ago.

How did this come to be? Cloe Shasha wrote about this last month in the TED Blog in a piece entitled How Roman Mars fought the instinct to give the big, grand, sweeping TED Talk — and gave the talk he wanted. Anyone who has dealt with TED, or viewed many TED talks, knows that these performances are explicitly coached to fit into a particular format, what Shasha called “the stereotypical sage-on-a-stage TED Talk”. It is not so easy for TED presenters who are not comfortable with it to “give the talk they wanted”, so it is a testament to Mars’ negotiation skills that he managed to pull it off.

Ted Kaye on the radio. Last November he appeared on Episode 140 of Mars' hit podcast 99% Invisible,
Ted Kaye on the radio. Last November he appeared on Episode 140 of Mars’ hit podcast 99% Invisible, “Vexillonaire”.

Equally important, though, is the role Ted Kaye played as Roman Mars’ mostly uncredited partner in this talk. (Shasha mentions him and the PFA at the very end of her piece, along with Mars’ clarification, “I’m not the expert. I’m a journalist.”) Mars is a conversationalist and storyteller, not a monologist, and Kaye provided both the conversational partner (quite literally, through Mars calling up pre-recorded sound bites) and story (they ways in which flag design can so easily go wrong in his compendium of design principles, Good Flag, Bad Flag). And as Kaye often points out, GFBF is not the work of a solo author but a compilation:

These principles of good flag design distill the wisdom of many people who have written on the subject, including Philippe Bondurand, Frederick Brownell, William Crampton, Michael Faul, Jim Ferrigan, Richard Gideon, Kevin Harrington, Lee Herold, Ralph Kelly, Rich Kenny, David Martucci, Clay Moss, Peter Orenski, Whitney Smith, Steve Tyson, Henry Untermeyer, and Alfred Znamierowski. (From the back cover of GFBF.)

The individual cult of personality (aka, celebrity) encouraged by social media is both its strength and its weakness.  The huge popularity of TED stems as much from its insistence that its speakers not only be a “sage-on-a-stage” but also an engaging storyteller, one who is ultimately telling a story about his or her self, as from its “ideas worth spreading”. But this same focus on the individual as entertainer (and confessor) downplays the way in which all these talks rely on an often unseen and unacknowledged constellation of people who together with the performer, directly and indirectly, jointly produced the story.  Roman Mars’ TED talk is all the more remarkable in pushing back against this, and at least partially bringing to light the collaborative nature and social give-and-take of design or any production of knowledge.

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