99% Symbolic

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

VOICEOVER:
The five basic principles of flag design-

Roman Mars:
According to the North American Vexillological Association. Vexillological.

Ted Kaye:
Vexillology is the study of flags.

Roman Mars:
It’s the extra ‘lol’ that makes it sound weird.

VOICEOVER:
Number One: Keep it simple. The flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory.

Roman Mars:
Before I moved to Chicago in 2005, I didn’t even know cities had their own flags.

Ted Kaye:
Most larger cities have flags.

Roman Mars:
Well, I didn’t know that. That’s Ted Kaye, by the way.

Ted Kaye:
Hello!

Roman Mars:
Flag expert. Totally awesome guy.

Ted Kaye:
I’m the editor of a scholarly journal on flags called “Raven: A Journal of Vexillology.”

Roman Mars:
And that first city flag I discovered in Chicago is a beaut. A white field, two light blue horizontal stripes, and four six-pointed red stars across the middle.

VOICEOVER:
Number two.

Ted Kaye:
The blue stripes represent the water: the lake and the rivers.

VOICEOVER:
Use meaningful symbolism.

Ted Kaye:
The red stars represent significant events in Chicago’s history

Roman Mars:
The design of the Chicago flag has complete buy-in from an entire cross-section of the city. It’s everywhere. Every municipal building flies the flag. Every 20-year-old’s messenger bag and hoodie has one. It’s a distinct symbol of Chicago’s pride.

Ted Kaye:
When a police officer or firefighter dies in Chicago, it’s not a United States flag on the casket, it’s the City of Chicago flag. That’s how deeply it’s gotten into the city’s civic imagery.

Roman Mars:
And it isn’t just that people love Chicago and therefore love the flag. I also think that people love Chicago more because the flag is so cool.

Ted Kaye:
A positive feedback loop there between great symbolism and civic pride.

Roman Mars:
So when I moved back to San Fransisco in 2008, I researched its flag because I had never seen it before in the previous 8 years I lived here. And I found it… I’m sorry to say, sadly lacking.

Ted Kaye:
Well let me start at the top.

VOICEOVER:
Number One.

Ted Kaye:
Keeping it simple.

VOICEOVER:
So simple that a child can draw it from memory.

Ted Kaye:
It’s a relatively complex flag.

Roman Mars:
The main component of the San Francisco flag is a phoenix representing our rising from the ashes after the great fires of the 1850s.

Ted Kaye:
A powerful symbol for San Francisco.

Roman Mars:
I really don’t dig the phoenix. Designwise it has too many details and too many colors and it doesn’t really work at a distance. But having deep meaning puts that element in the “plus” column. Behind the large phoenix, the background is mainly white. The flag also has a substantial gold border around it-

Ted Kaye:
Which is a very attractive design element

Roman Mars:
It does look pretty good. But here come the big no-nos in flag design.

VOICEOVER:
No lettering or seals. Never use writing of any kind.

Roman Mars:
Underneath the phoenix, there’s a motto on a ribbon that translates to “Gold in peace, iron in war.” Plus, and this is the big problem, it says “San Francisco” across the bottom!

Ted Kaye:
If you need to write the name of what you’re representing on your flag, your symbolism has failed.

Roman Mars:
The United States Flag doesn’t say ‘USA’ across the front. But the good news is, this name thing might not be completely our fault.

Ted Kaye:
A city flag, in a state that has its own name on the state flag, would tend to echo that.

Roman Mars:
Yep. The California bear flag says ‘California Republic’ on it. So maybe we can blame this all on our capital city, Sacramento. Which is awesome, because I love blaming Sacramento for things.

Ted Kaye:
I like to say that in every bad flag, there’s a good flag trying to get out. Well, the way to make San Francisco’s flag a good flag would be to take the motto off, because you can’t read that at a distance. I would take the name off and the border might even be made thicker, so that it’s more a part of the flag, and I would just simply take the phoenix and make it a great big element in the middle of the flag.

Roman Mars:
The current phoenix has got to go.

Ted Kaye:
I would simplify or stylize the phoenix. Depict a big, wide-winged bird coming out of a flame. Emphasize the flame.

Roman Mars:
So the next time you find yourself with a vexillologist – I am never going to say that right – a flag expert, park yourself there. You’re in for a good time.

VOICEOVER:
By the North American Vexillological Association… (laughs)

Roman Mars:
See? It’s not just me. It’s not just me!

99% Invisible was produced by me, Roman Mars, with support from Lunar. It’s a project of KALW, the American Insitute of Architects in San Francisco, and the Center for Architecture and Design. To look at pictures of flags and a guide on how to design a good one, go to 99% Invisible.org.

Credits

Additional Voice Acting by Mae Mars

  1. I never thought I would be a flag enthusiast (especially after that Big Bang Theory episode where Sheldon has his own flag show) but this episode of 99% Invisible, along with Vexillonaire, has shown me the way. It’s a bit of a curse in a way because now I see bad flags everywhere, especially my own beloved Wisconsin’s state flag. It is just the state seal. Do you know how I can recognize it on a flagpole? It has the word’s “WISCONSIN” & “1848” printed on it in giant white letters thanks to an amendment to the state’s flag law in 1979.

    Thank you & also curse you, Roman Mars, for opening my eyes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All Categories

Playlist