Vexillonaire

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

Roman Mars:
Here’s a trick. If you want to design a good flag, kickass flag, like Chicago’s or DC’s, start by drawing a one-by-one and a half-inch rectangle on a piece of paper. Your design has to work within that tiny rectangle. Here’s why.

Ted Kaye:
A three-by five-foot flag on a pole a hundred feet away looks about the same size as a one-by-one and a half-inch rectangle, seen about 15 inches from your eye.

Roman Mars:
So instead of starting with a big canvas or a wide cinema display-

Ted Kaye:
Try drawing your flag on a rectangle that’s one-by-one and a half inches. You’d be surprised at how compelling and simple the design can be when you hold yourself to that limitation.

Roman Mars:
That, my friends, is Ted Kaye.

Ted Kaye:
Ted Kaye. I live here in Portland, Oregon and I’m involved in the study of flags.

Roman Mars:
When I went to his house in Portland, he flew the San Francisco flag out front in honor of my visit. That’s the kind of guy Ted Kaye is.

Ted Kaye:
I’m involved with the Portland Flag Association. We are a loosely organized group of people interested in flags, and we are the largest sub-national flag organization in the country, with the largest membership.

Roman Mars:
Around 25 dues-paying members.

Ted Kaye:
The most frequent meeting schedule, and the greatest amount of publishing.

Roman Mars:
Unlike a lot of his fellow vexillologists, that’s a person who studies flags, Ted is especially interested in flag design. Many other vexillologists are more focused on history, protocol, and usage.

Ted Kaye:
There’s one school of thought that says we are flag scholars, and every flag is equally appropriate to study, and whether we like the design or not is immaterial. We should be dispassionate scholars.

Roman Mars:
But then there are people in the second group, like Ted – and me, at this point actually – who love beautiful flags and go out in the world and lobby for better ones.

Ted Kaye:
Those who are in the second camp have identified a name for those people, and that’s a vexillonaire, an activist vexillologist.

Roman Mars:
If you’ve listened to this show for a very, very long time, you know that when it comes to designing flags, there are rules.

Ted Kaye:
The principles being: keep it simple, use meaningful symbolism, use two to three basic colors, no lettering or seals, and be distinctive.

Roman Mars:
All the best flags tend to stick to these principles. But one rule, the fourth one …

Ted Kaye:
No lettering or seals …

Roman Mars:
That rule, for some reason, Americans just can’t grasp. We have tons of flags with writing and municipal seals on them, and that’s bad.

Ted Kaye:
Here’s why you shouldn’t have a seal on a flag. A seal is designed to be on a piece of paper, to be seen close up, to be seen flat, not moving, and on only one side of the paper.

Ted Kaye:
A flag is meant to be seen from a distance, on a piece of fabric, that’s moving, and might be seen on the front or the back. Seals don’t belong on flags. Seals belong on pieces of paper.

Roman Mars:
Damn right. One of the intriguing things about the fact that Ted Kaye and the largest sub-national flag organization are both based in Portland is that Portland didn’t have an official flag for the first 100 years of its existence.

Ted Kaye:
Portland had several flags that had been proposed and not officially adopted, even though people thought they’d been adopted.

Roman Mars:
But that was about to change in 1969.

Ted Kaye:
A group proposed a flag to the city.

Roman Mars:
The group was the Commercial Club of Portland. The proposed design consisted of a white field, that’s the background color, with a city seal in gold in the center, flanked by two red roses on either side, and then the words, “World Port of the Pacific” on top, and then the words, “City of Roses” below. Oh, my. I think I might have to go lie down.

Ted Kaye:
And Mayor Terry Schrunk, who was a very astute politician, looked at this design and said, “I’m not capable of deciding on a flag design for the city of Portland. This is a job for the Portland Arts Commission.”

Roman Mars:
Smart guy indeed. But this decision set into motion one of the greatest tragedies and redemptions in vexillological history. The Arts Commissions looked at an esteemed local artist named Doug Lynch to create a brand new design.

Ted Kaye:
He was a prominent graphic designer. They called him a commercial artist at the time.

Roman Mars:
Doug Lynch created a questionnaire, asking both the City Council and the Arts Commission which attributes should be on the flag.

Ted Kaye:
As you might expect, the members of the City Council had a different view of what a flag should look like from what the Arts Commission members looked like.

Roman Mars:
You don’t say.

Ted Kaye:
The city commissioners were … they wanted realism.

Roman Mars:
Ugh.

Ted Kaye:
They wanted the name of the city on the flag.

Roman Mars:
Ugh.

Ted Kaye:
They wanted a rose.

Roman Mars:
Eh.

Ted Kaye:
They wanted a mountain.

Roman Mars:
Jeez.

Ted Kaye:
They wanted lots of stuff on the flag.

Roman Mars:
Uhhh…

Roman Mars:
The arts commissioners said it should be abstract, it shouldn’t have words on it. Much more consistent with our modern perception of what good flag design is.

Ted Kaye:
Doug went into the fray and designed a flag that did not have a rose on it, did not have the name of the city on it.

Roman Mars:
It was an abstract design.

Ted Kaye:
Doug’s design was a… I would call it an offset cross.

Roman Mars:
If you go to our website or pull out your phone, you’ll see a variation of this flag that Doug Lynch proposed. It’s incorporated into the cover tile of this episode.

Ted Kaye:
Two lines crossing from top-to-bottom and left-to-right in the center, creating a void in the center that is called a hypocycloid, a four-pointed star. The blue lines that crossed represented the confluence of the Colombia and Willamette Rivers. The white hypocycloid represented the City of Portland at their confluence, and then those stripes were bordered by yellow stripes, gold stripes, which represented either commerce or grain, flowing along the rivers, and everything was on a background of green, representing the forests.

Roman Mars:
It’s really lovely.

Ted Kaye:
City Council said, “Thank you for your design,” and changed the upper left-hand corner from green to blue, and put the city seal on it, and adopted that flag.

Roman Mars:
I know all the graphic designers in the audience are digging half-moon-shaped scars in the meat of their palms upon hearing this violation. It’s almost more painful that this abomination was so close to being a really good flag, the one that Doug Lynch had originally submitted. It took a few years, but the City Council version of the flag made it out into circulation in 1973.

Ted Kaye:
But being a relatively poor design, with that city seal on it, most people can’t tell it’s the city seal even, it’s kind of a yellow-gold blob on blue, the flag was never widely flown.

Roman Mars:
Nearly 30 years later, Doug Lynch joined the Portland Flag Association.

Ted Kaye:
He was in his late eighties, and I invited him to come to one of our meetings and explain this whole story of how he had designed the flag, and how it was adopted, and how it was changed at the last minute.

Ted Kaye:
At the end of the presentation, Doug said, “If I had to do it over again, I would widen the blue stripes, move the center of the flag over a little, take that upper left-hand corner, which is blue, and change it back to green … ”

Roman Mars:
And he would take that city seal off the flag.

Ted Kaye:
“I would make all those. That’s how I would do the flag. But it’s been 30 years. It’s too late now.”

Roman Mars:
And they’re like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Wait a minute. We’re the largest sub-national flag organization in the country.”

Ted Kaye:
Look, Doug, it’s not too late. Sitting around the table are the person who’s written the history of the flag of the City of Portland, the person who’s written the guidebook on flag design, the person who actually manufacturers those flags, and you, who designed it. We ought to be able to get this changed.

Roman Mars:
And with the help of future Portland Mayor Sam Adams, they presented an ordinance to the City Council to update the flag.

Ted Kaye:
My son, Mason, who had written the history of the city flags of Portland, testified. I testified. Mike Hale, who was the owner of Elmer’s Flag and Banner, who manufactured it, testified. And Doug Lynch testified. Doug was a revered figure in design in Portland, and the commission, in effect, bowed and said, “You’re the right person to tell us what this design ought to look like. We agree with your design.”

Ted Kaye:
And the mayor, Mayor Vera Katz at the time, the mayor said, “That’s great. Come back next week and we’ll adopt it, but bring a real flag. Can you do that?” And Mike Hale, owner of the flag company, gulped and said, “Yes, we can do that.” So the next week, he’d had his seamstresses sew up a new City of Portland flag. We came to the City Council hearing. The council held a vote on the ordinance, five to zero, they adopted the flag, and Mayor Katz said, pointing to the old flag on the flag pole, “Take that down and put it in archives. Can you put that new flag up?” And so one of our members, John Hood went over and put the flag on the flag pole in the City Council chambers, being the first one to raise the official City of Portland flag.

Roman Mars:
The correct City of Portland flag. This current flag, with all the updates that Doug Lynch wanted, is the graphic that’s on the front of the podcast.

Roman Mars:
If you haven’t done so already, pull it out. Have a look. It’s handsome. It’s a good flag. Best of all, people in Portland actually use it. Especially if you go to a soccer game. If you don’t see your city flag anywhere in your hometown, maybe it needs a redesign too, but that’s just the vexillonaire in me talking.

  1. Kevin Winslow

    After finishing this podcast the only thing running through my mind was that 99pi need there own flag. Maybe through a design competition through a site such as 99designs?

  2. Stephanie

    I like the Hundertwasser NZ flag! Probably a little too kicky and not Union-Jack-y enough to get chosen though…

  3. SD

    That same photo (as cover image) appears on Wikipedia and is marked “(seen from back)”.

    1. AJV

      That doesn’t explain it: the green square should still be on top next to the flag pole. The flag really is upside down.

  4. JMS

    Eeww, Sam and Vera, two of the worst mayors Portland has had. I can’t say I’ve ever seen the flag, but now it will only serve as a reminder.

  5. Greg Smith

    Great episode.

    I can’t resist showing off the Scarborough flag here, because it’s awesome… even though Scarborough (a suburb of Toronto) isn’t actually a proper free-standing city anymore:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flag_of_Scarborough,_Ontario

    The cliffs in the flag are a defining geographic feature, kind of like a scaled-down version of the white cliffs of Dover.

    It’s also neat because it has a strong cohesiveness with the Toronto flag:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flag_of_Toronto

    Toronto’s is clever because the white lines suggest the distinctive shape of (new) City Hall, and also form the letter “T”.

    Maybe the prominent maple leaf in both of these flags is a bit on-the-nose, but hey.

  6. I live in Durham, North Carolina, and I love our city flag. Not only is it bright and distinguishable at a distance, it’s mainly displayed in a cool vertical format:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Durham,_North_Carolina#mediaviewer/File:Flag_of_Durham,_North_Carolina.svg

    “The City Flag was created by designer Al Nichols who was the winner of a flag contest held by the City of Durham. The simple, yet bold flag communicates the “New Spirit” of Durham.

    “The flag’s colors represent the following:

    Royal Blue – courage
    Red – action and progress
    Gold – high quality in all growth
    White – high ideals

    “The Seven Stars on Durham’s city flag are symbolic of the New Spirit of Durham in seven areas:
    the arts, commerce and industry; education; medicine, human relations; sports and recreation, and the preservation of Durham’s rich heritage. Also Durham’s birthday, April 26th, is under the constellation of Taurus, The Bull. A cluster of seven stars is located on the shoulder of the bull and is called the “Seven Sisters” or the Pleiades in Taurus.”

    1. Vatnos

      I love Durham’s flag too! One of my favorite flags in the country. Sadly, Chapel Hill and especially Raleigh have pretty bad flags (not a fan of NC’s either but I doubt it will ever change… it never has). I hope to see these cities put some effort into their flags in the future. Having a good flag can be a source of civic pride, for cities like Chicago and Washington DC.

    1. Brian

      Oh, you’re in Boise as well? I agree, the flag for the City of Trees isn’t all that great.

  7. Janey Skinner

    The South African flag is, to my eye, exceptionally beautiful – and it uses more than 3 colors.

    1. I agree with regard to South Africa’s flag. I would call these sensible guidelines rather than rules. And aside from having six colors, it follows the other guidelines in being simple yet distinctive.

  8. Roman, while Maryland’s flag doesn’t follow many of the basic rules for good flag design, it’s incredibly captivating and easily recognizable. What are your thoughts?

  9. Katrina

    City of Toronto flag… Follows the rules and looking good! If you’re not familiar with Toronto the shapes represent both the shape of New City Hall and the letter T.

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