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.

Brendan Patrick Hennessy’s Flog

Torontonian Brendan Patrick Hennessy blogs about flags on a site named, appropriately enough, Flag Log.  He writes:

Flag Log is a blog about flags (or “flog”). Come to this flog if you want to see a bunch of cool pictures of flags.

More than just a bunch of cool pictures, it is actually quite a treasure trove of vexillological information:

The National Flag Chart is very nice, showing flags in their proper proportions, in both civil and state versions (when they differ for a country), divided into a main chart for independent countries and an appendix for “non-independent territories”.  But wait, there’s much more!  Hennessey provides this chart not just for the current year, but for each year going back all the way to 1870 — each annual chart ending with a historical notes section showing all the changes that took place that year.  For example, we learn that on May 7, 1870 the then-independent country of Sarawak made this change:


Blog entries are indexed by flag colours (it’s Canadian, remember) and by country, so you can browse all the entries about orange flags, or having to do with Burma (or if you prefer, Myanmar).  Unfortunately this doesn’t apply to flag chart entries though, so searching for the Burma tag won’t bring up this beautiful historical flag from the 1870 chart:


There are many more tags than meet the eye under the browsing index.  For example, going to will bring up the entry about our favorite flag, and to will bring up that posting, but also postings about the proposed state of Jefferson, an evocative black and white photo by Sean Dalin of a fraying US flag flying in Cannon Beach, and a piece on Matthew Norquist’s 2013 proposed redesign of the Oregon state flag.

Photo by Sean Dalin
Photo by Sean Dalin
Proposed Oregon flag.  Matthew Norquist, 2013.
Proposed Oregon flag. Matthew Norquist, 2013.

Though technically not part of Flag Log, Hennessy shows his talent for flag design on his Toronto Street Flags page:  proposed flags for some of Toronto’s more prominent thoroughfares.  For example:

A flag for Davenport Road, Toronto. "A white crescent on black, from the English Davenport family's coat of arms. The blue triangles symbolize Davenport's ancient glacial lakeshore, and the sandy orange triangles symbolize its long history as a well worn native trail. The flag uses diagonal lines to symbolize how the road doesn't follow Toronto's usual grid system." Design by Brendan Patrick Hennessy.
A flag for Davenport Road, Toronto. “A white crescent on black, from the English Davenport family’s coat of arms. The blue triangles symbolize Davenport’s ancient glacial lakeshore, and the sandy orange triangles symbolize its long history as a well worn native trail. The flag uses diagonal lines to symbolize how the road doesn’t follow Toronto’s usual grid system.” Design by Brendan Patrick Hennessy.

To conclude, as I can’t resist: Anyone interested in flags should check out Hennessy’s Flag Log for a good flogging!

Shahee Ilyas’ Flags by Colors Game

This is so cool!  Can you guess which flag is which just by the colors and their proportion?

Shahee Ilyas' Flags by Colour (
Shahee Ilyas’ Flags by Colour (

Visit to use the interactive version, or to buy a poster version.  Nice work!


2007 Shahee Ilyas | This work by Shahee Ilyas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.
Special thanks to Ayesh. All original flags are from Wikipedia contributors. Some information is obtained from other public domain sources such as The World Factbook database.

Twitter, Facebook, and Beyond

We’re now carrying the flag on Twitter as well as Facebook:

And, while you’re at it, send a note to to get our bimonthly newsletter, The Vexilloid Tabloid, delivered to your inbox.

The Portland Pedalpalooza  Bike Festival uses the flag of Portland (along with Cascadia’s) to promote an eclectic mix of over 260 events. (Source: Portland Mercury 6/4/2014)
The Portland Pedalpalooza Bike Festival uses the flag of Portland (along with Cascadia’s) to promote an eclectic mix of over 260 events. (Source: Portland Mercury 6/4/2014)

Join our mailing list


The Vexilloid Tabloid is the bimonthly newsletter of the Portland Flag Association, edited by Ted Kaye.  Each issue features the What’s That Flag? quiz, Flags in the News (news stories featuring flags), Flutterings (highlights from the last PFA meeting), and Portland Flag Miscellany (news about Portland’s city flag), as well as feature articles on flag-related topics by PFA members and other contributors.

We announce each issue here on as a blog post, and add it to the online archive (where you can find all back issues). We also send it out to our email subscribers list as a PDF attachment.  If you would like to be added to that list, just email

How did Portland get such a nice flag?

99logoOur very own Ted Kaye sat down with popular design podcaster Roman Mars to talk flag design and tell the story of the Portland flag: how a good design was botched by bureaucrats, and many years later — with some activist vexillology on the part of its designer Douglas Lynch and the PFA — ultimately restored.  For this work, Lynch received the Vexillonnaire Award from the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA) in 2003 — and Portland received what has become one of the most loved municipal flags in the country.

Check out Roman Mars’ podcast 99% Invisible, Episode 140: Vexillonaire (also cross-posted on Slate Magazine’s design blog The Eye as Portland’s Quest for a Better City Flag).  And to learn more about vexillonnaires, jump to the last page (p. 16) of NAVA News Issue 179.

Ted Kaye on South Sudan’s New Flag

Our very own Ted Kaye is on the 7/13/11 episode of Ian Chillag and Mike Danforth’s podcast How To Do Everything, discussing the new flag of South Sudan and principles of good flag design:

Flag of South Sudan
The flag of South Sudan