In the past several years, the United States has seen a large-scale surge in the public’s interest in municipal and state flags and their quality, or rather lack thereof. As Roman Mars says, “there is a scourge of bad flags and they must be stopped”.
Mars made this statement during his 2015 TED talk titled “Why city flags may be the worst-designed thing you’ve never noticed” and he is one of the main reasons for the recent vexi-development. During his speech, Mars recreated an episode of his design-oriented radio show and he took American vexillography to court. His main complaint was against so-called SOB or “seal on a bedsheet” flags, a phenomenon the USA is especially infamous for. As the name suggests, SOBs usually manifest in the form of a monocolour field with a complex seal or coat of arms placed into its center, often accompanied by an obvious failure of symbolism: text stating who the flag is supposed to represent. These vexillographic “sins” were among the primary targets of Roman Mars’s presentation as opposed to good principles of flag design, both of which he demonstrated on several examples.
Vexillography is the art and practice of designing flags; it is allied with vexillology, the scholarly study of flags, but is not synonymous with that discipline. A person who designs flags is a vexillographer.
2004 NAVA Flag Survey
Mars’s speech used two important elements which helped him both identify good and bad flags and propose improvements. Firstly, he presented several examples of very bad and good flag design, such as the flag of Pocatello, Idaho, which was rated as the worst US flag in the North American Vexillological Association’s (NAVA) 2004 US city flag survey (Pocatello changed its flag in June of 2017, partly in reaction to Mars’s speech). Here we must elaborate a bit on the topic of the survey. It was conducted as a sequel to a previous similar survey on US state flags and it allowed both NAVA members and the general public to vote on the flags of 150 of the biggest American cities, rating them on a 1 – 10 scale. The results of the survey were not surprising to most vexillologists. Simple and striking designs like Washington D.C. and Chicago placed at the top of the charts while the lower ranks were dominated by SOBs and logo flags of cities such as the aforementioned Pocatello or the general mess that is the flag of Milwaukee.
The reaction of the public and city officials to the survey was twofold: while it gained major attention in the media, it failed to garner much momentum in city administrations. Many of the badly-rated cities reacted defensively and very little concrete progress was made (an exception is the city of Mesa which changed its fifth-worst rated flag into a well-designed vexillographical jewel). Nevertheless, the survey provided a basis on which Mars could work.
Good Flag, Bad Flag
1. Keep it simple
2. Use meaningful symbolism
3. Use 2 – 3 basic colours
4. No lettering or seals
5. Be distinctive or be related
These five principles, as Mars demonstrates on several flags, result in great flags that can become the staple of their community’s public life. They also provide a fantastic tool for potential flag designers without vexillographical experience to get involved and produce great results.
A New Era
NAVA’s flag ranking thus received the boost it needed from Mars’s innovative and captivating TED talk and brought the topic of flag design to public attention. Good Flag, Bad Flag then provided the knowhow for budding flag designers. Since then we’ve seen a plethora of new and improved flag designs fountain within the United States and Canada. The Portland Flag Association’s website documents 104 efforts to change or improve city flags of which some 30 have already adopted new designs (it’s worth noting that these statistics are as of February 2018 and both numbers have risen since). Thanks to an effort of both NAVA and Roman Mars, we thus stand at the dawn of what could potentially be a new era for US vexillography and vexillology. With luck, it’ll be able to shake off its bad name.
Do you think your flag needs changing? Which flag change has been your favourite? Get in touch and let us know!