99% Symbolic

Roman Mars (RM): This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
The five basic principles of flag design
RM: According to the North American Vexillological Association. Vexillological!
Ted Kaye (TK): Vexillology is the study of flags
Number One. Keep it simple. The flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory
RM: Before I moved to Chicago in 2005, I didn’t even know cities had their own flags.
TK: Most larger cities have flags.
RM: Well, I didn’t know that. That’s Ted Kaye, by the way.
TK: Hello!
RM:: Flag expert. Totally awesome guy.
TK: I’m the editor of a scholarly journal on flags called Raven: A Journal of Vexillology.
RM: 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.
Number two
TK: The blue stripes represent the water: the lake and the rivers.
Use meaningful symbolism
TK: The red stars represent significant events in Chicago’s history
RM: 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.
TK: 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’s flag. That’s how deeply it’s gotten into the city’s civic imagery.
RM: And it’s not just that people love Chicago and therefore love the flag. I also think that people love Chicago more because the flag is so cool.
TK: A positive feedback loop there between great symbolism and civic pride.
RM: 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, I’m sorry to say, sadly lacking.
TK: Well let me start at the top.
Number One
TK: Keeping it simple.
So simple that a child can draw it from memory.
TK: It’s a relatively complex flag.
RM: The main component of the San Francisco flag is a phoenix, representing our rising from the ashes after the great fires of the 1850s.
TK: A powerful symbol for San Francisco.
RM: Design-wise I really don’t dig the Phoenix. 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.
TK: which is a very attractive design element
RM: It does look pretty good. But here come the big no-nos in flag design.
No lettering or seals. Never use writing of any kind.
RM: 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!
TK: If you need to write the name of what you’re representing on your flag, your symbolism has failed.
RM: 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.
TK: A city flag, in a state that has its own name on the state flag, would tend to echo that.
RM: 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.
TK: 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. 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.
RM: But the current Phoenix has got to go.
TK: I would simplify or stylize the phoenix- depict a big, wide-winged bird, coming out of a flame. Emphasize the flame.
RM: 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.
By the North American Vexillologicaahaha!
RM: It’s not just me!
RM: 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.


Additional Voice Acting by Mae Mars

Comments (5)


  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.

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