Mars (and Kaye) Bring Vexillology To TED

Roman Mars

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% Invisibleand “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.

Whitney Smith
Whitney Smith

Two days ago a video of the talk became available on 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.)

Ted Kaye
Ted Kaye

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!

New Wave: Facts About Flags [book review]

By Ted Kaye
Originally published in The Vexilloid Tabloid #31, December 2011

New Wave -- Facts about Flags.  5”x7”, full color, 144 pages   Black Dog Publishing (2011) ISBN:  978-1-907317-30-9
Libby Waite (Ed.).  New Wave: Facts about Flags. 5”x6.5”, full color, 160 pages Black Dog Publishing (London, 2011) ISBN: 978-1-907317-30-9

Many of us like to give flag books as gifts to those who don’t yet fully understand why flags appeal to us.  Here’s one that merits a place in the “present drawer”.

New Wave is not the typical flag book—a compilation of flags of the world arranged by country.  While it devotes a few pages in the back to national flags and some sub-national sets (Brazil, Canada, Spain, U.S.A.), it is more a book about flags.  Sections cover:  The History of the Flag, Colours, National Flag Stories, Twentieth Century Flags, Flag Families, Religious Flags, Protest Flags, Flag Etiquette, Flags at Sea, Sports Flags, Popular Culture, Sovereign Flags, and Flag Terms.

A pocket-sized paperback, New Wave uses a bold graphic style with large blocks of color and a very dynamic layout.  It would engage both a younger reader and an adult.  It has color on every page.  While a British book, hardly any aspects of it would jar an American or Canadian reader.  And though Max and Patrick found some factual errors in our last meeting, it is well-researched and quite accurate.  Interestingly, no author is credited, as if the book were a team effort at its London publishing house.

New Wave is part a compilation of flag trivia, part a mini-reference book, and part a series of short articles on several flag-related topics.

The fun section on Fictional Flags probably makes it the only flag book with an illustration of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock.  In a shout-out to vexillologists, the flag of FIAV is included among the International Flags.

Its own blurb correctly says “Spanning geography, politics, history, culture, design, and art and presented in an accessible and refreshing format, New Wave is an entertaining exploration of the diversity of flags, as well as the rituals and communication aspects that inform them.”

(For more information, check out Black Dog Publishing’s page for this book.)

The Vexillum: The Original Vexilloid

Vexillology: The study of flags.  Coined by Whitney Smith in 1957, as a combination of the Latin word Vexillum and the Greek suffix -ology.

Vexillum (pl. vexilla):  In ancient Rome, a square military banner hung from a crossbeam carried on a staff.   It’s the diminutive of velum (“sail”), itself derived from Proto-Indo-European *weg- (to weave a web) or *weǵʰ- (to ride), thus “that which propels”.

Vexilloid: Another term coined by Whitney Smith, which he defined as “an object which functions as a flag but differs from it in some respect, usually appearance. Vexilloids are characteristic of traditional societies and often consist of a staff with an emblem, such as a carved animal, at the top.”  Smith derived the word from one of its primary examples, the vexillum.

(For more about flag-related terminology, check out “Let’s raise the flag to the word Vexillology” on Bill Casselman’s Words of the World blog.)

Here’s the oldest (and only) surviving vexillum:

Vexillum-Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts.png
The only extant Roman vexillum, 3rd century AD. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Russia. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Ted Kaye on the air

Ted Kaye’s 15 minutes of fame—  in small portions….
Ted Kaye’s 15 minutes of fame— in small portions….

Your loquacious Vexilloid Tabloid editor has recently been interviewed on Slate (Mike Pesca’s podcast “The Gist”); 99% Invisible (the “tiny radio show about design” by Roman Mars); and National Public Radio’s All Things Considered (“What does its chosen banner say about ISIS”).  In the interviews he discussed the flags of the UK (after Scotland…), New Zealand, Ukraine (and breakaway territories), the Islamic State, and—most importantly—Portland!

To record the 4-minute NPR/ATC segment,  he visited the studios of Oregon Public Broadcasting, and spoke from there to Tess Vigeland, former OPB reporter and now a guest host of All Things Considered at NPR West in Los Angeles.