Why city flags may be the worst-designed thing you’ve never noticed | Roman Mars

I know what you’re thinking: “Why does that guy get to sit down?” That’s because this is radio. (Music) I tell radio stories about design, and I report on all kinds of stories: buildings and toothbrushes,
mascots and wayfinding and fonts. My mission is to get people to engage
with the design that they care about so they begin to pay attention
to all forms of design. When you decode the world
with design intent in mind, the world becomes kind of magical. Instead of seeing the broken things, you see all the little bits of genius that anonymous designers have sweated over
to make our lives better. And that’s essentially
the definition of design: making life better and providing joy. And few things give me greater joy than a well-designed flag. (Laughter) Yeah! (Applause) Happy 50th anniversary
on your flag, Canada. It is beautiful, gold standard. Love it. I’m kind of obsessed with flags. Sometimes I bring up the topic of flags, and people are like,
“I don’t care about flags,” and then we start talking
about flags, and trust me, 100 percent of people care about flags. There’s just something about them
that works on our emotions. My family wrapped my Christmas presents
as flags this year, including the blue gift bag
that’s dressed up as the flag of Scotland. I put this picture online,
and sure enough, within the first few minutes,
someone left a comment that said, “You can take that Scottish Saltire
and shove it up your ass.” (Laughter) See, people are passionate
about flags, you know? That’s the way it is. What I love about flags is that once you understand
the design of flags, what makes a good flag,
what makes a bad flag, you can understand
the design of almost anything. So what I’m going to do here is, I cracked open an episode
of my radio show, “99% Invisible,” and I’m going
to reconstruct it here on stage, so when I press a button over here — Voice: S for Sound — Roman Mars: It’s going to make a sound, and so whenever you hear a sound
or a voice or a piece of music, it’s because I pressed a button. Voice: Sound. RM: All right, got it? Here we go. Three, two. This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. (Music) Narrator: 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. RM: It’s that extra “lol”
that makes it sound weird. Narrator: 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 do have flags. RM: Well, I didn’t know that,
that’s Ted Kaye, by the way. TK: Hello. RM: He’s a flag expert,
he’s a totally awesome guy. TK: I’m Ted Kaye, I have edited
a scholarly journal on flag studies, and I am currently involved
with the Portland Flag Association and the North American
Vexillological Association. RM: Ted literally wrote
the book on flag design. Narrator: “Good Flag, Bad Flag.” RM: It’s more of a pamphlet, really,
it’s about 16 pages. TK: Yes, it’s called “Good Flag, Bad Flag:
How to Design a Great Flag.” RM: And that first city flag
I discovered in Chicago is a beaut: white field, two horizontal blue stripes, and four six-pointed red stars
down the middle. (Sound) Narrator: Number two,
use meaningful symbolism. TK: The blue stripes represent
the water, the river and the lake. Narrator: The flag’s images,
colors or pattern should relate to what it symbolizes. TK: The red stars represent
significant events in Chicago’s history. RM: Namely, the founding of Fort Dearborn
on the future site of Chicago, the Great Chicago Fire, the World Columbian Exposition,
which everyone remembers because of the White City, and the Century of Progress Exposition,
which no one remembers at all. Narrator: Number three,
use two to three basic colors. TK: The basic rule for colors
is to use two to three colors from the standard color set:
red, white, blue, green, yellow and black. RM: The design of the Chicago flag
has complete buy-in with an entire cross-section of the city. It is everywhere; every municipal building flies the flag. Whet Moser: There’s probably
at least one store on every block near where I work that sells
some sort of Chicago flag paraphernalia. RM: That’s Whet Moser
from Chicago magazine. WM: Today, just for example,
I went to get a haircut, and when I sat down in the barber’s chair, there was a Chicago flag on the box
that the barber kept all his tools in, and then in the mirror, there was
a Chicago flag on the wall behind me. When I left, a guy passed me who had
a Chicago flag badge on his backpack. RM: It’s adaptable and remixable. The six-pointed stars in particular
show up in all kinds of places. WM: The coffee I bought the other day
had a Chicago star on it. RM: It’s a distinct symbol
of Chicago pride. TK: When a police officer
or a firefighter dies in Chicago, often it’s not the flag
of the United States on his casket. It can be the flag of the city of Chicago. That’s how deeply the flag has gotten
into the civic imagery of Chicago. RM: 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. TK: A positive feedback loop there
between great symbolism and civic pride. RM: OK, so when I moved back
to San Francisco in 2008, I researched its flag, because I had never seen it
in the previous eight years I lived there. And I found it, I am sorry to say, sadly lacking. (Laughter) I know. It hurts me, too. (Laughter) TK: Well, let me start from the top. Narrator: Number one, keep it simple. TK: Keeping it simple. Narrator: The flag should be so simple
that a child can draw it from memory. TK: It’s a relatively complex flag. RM: OK, here we go, OK. The main component
of the San Francisco flag is a phoenix representing the city
rising from the ashes after the devastating fires of the 1850s. TK: A powerful symbol for San Francisco. RM: I still don’t really dig the phoenix. Design-wise, it manages
to both be too crude and have too many details
at the same time, which if you were trying for that, you wouldn’t be able to do it, and it just looks bad at a distance, but having deep meaning
puts that element in the plus column. Behind the phoenix,
the background is mostly white, and then it has a substantial
gold border around it. TK: Which is a very attractive
design element. RM: I think it’s OK, but — (Laughter) here come the big no-nos of flag design. Narrator: Number four,
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. (Laughter) (Applause) RM: The United States flag
doesn’t say “USA” across the front. In fact, country flags,
they tend to behave. Like, hats off to South Africa
and Turkey and Israel and Somalia and Japan and Gambia. There’s a bunch
of really great country flags, but they obey good design principles
because the stakes are high. They’re on the international stage. But city, state and regional flags
are another story. (Laughter) There is a scourge of bad flags — (Laughter) and they must be stopped. (Laughter) (Applause) That is the truth and that is the dare. The first step is to recognize
that we have a problem. (Laughter) A lot of people tend to think
that good design is just a matter of taste, and quite honestly,
sometimes it is, actually, but sometimes it isn’t, all right? (Laughter) Here’s the full list of NAVA
flag design principles. Narrator: The five
basic principles of flag design. Narrator: Number one.
TK: Keep it simple. Narrator: Number two.
TK: Use meaningful symbolism. Narrator: Number three.
TK: Use two to three basic colors. Narrator: Number four.
TK: No lettering or seals. Narrator: Never use writing of any kind. TK: Because you can’t
read that at a distance. Narrator: Number five.
TK: And be distinctive. RM: All the best flags tend
to stick to these principles. And like I said before,
most country flags are OK. But here’s the thing: if you showed this list of principles
to any designer of almost anything, they would say these principles —
simplicity, deep meaning, having few colors
or being thoughtful about colors, uniqueness, don’t have
writing you can’t read — all those principles apply to them, too. But sadly, good design principles
are rarely invoked in US city flags. Our biggest problem
seems to be that fourth one. We just can’t stop ourselves
from putting our names on our flags, or little municipal seals
with tiny writing on them. Here’s the thing about municipal seals: They were designed
to be on pieces of paper where you can read them, not on flags 100 feet away
flapping in the breeze. So here’s a bunch of flags again. Vexillologists call these SOBs: Seals on a bedsheet — (Laughter) and if you can’t tell
what city they go to, yeah, that’s exactly the problem, except for Anaheim,
apparently, they fixed it. (Laughter) These flags are everywhere in the US. The European equivalent
of the municipal seal is the city coat of arms … and this is where we can learn
a lesson for how to do things right. So this is the city
coat of arms of Amsterdam. Now, if this were a United States city, the flag would probably look like this. You know, yeah. (Laughter) But instead, the flag of Amsterdam looks like this. Rather than plopping
the whole coat of arms on a solid background and writing
“Amsterdam” below it, they just take the key elements
of the escutcheon, the shield, and they turn it into the most
badass city flag in the world. (Laughter) (Applause) And because it’s so badass, those flags and crosses
are found throughout Amsterdam, just like Chicago, they’re used. Even though seal-on-a-bedsheet flags
are particularly painful and offensive to me, nothing can quite prepare you for one of the biggest train wrecks
in vexillological history. (Laughter) Are you ready? It’s the flag of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Laughter) I mean, it’s distinctive, I’ll give them that. Steve Kodis: It was adopted in 1955. RM: The city ran a contest and gathered a bunch of submissions
with all kinds of designs. SK: And an alderman
by the name of Fred Steffan cobbled together parts of the submissions
to make what is now the Milwaukee flag. RM: It’s a kitchen sink flag. There’s a gigantic gear
representing industry, there’s a ship recognizing the port, a giant stalk of wheat paying homage to the brewing industry. It’s a hot mess, and Steve Kodis, a graphic designer
from Milwaukee, wants to change it. SK: It’s really awful. It’s a misstep on the city’s behalf, to say the least. RM: But what puts
the Milwaukee flag over the top, almost to the point of self-parody, is on it is a picture of the Civil War
battle flag of the Milwaukee regiment. SK: So that’s the final element in it that just makes it
that much more ridiculous, that there is a flag design
within the Milwaukee flag. RM: On the flag. Yeah. Yeah. (Laughter) Yeah. (Music) Now, Milwaukee is a fantastic city. I’ve been there, I love it. The most depressing part
of this flag, though, is that there have been
two major redesign contests. The last one was held in 2001. 105 entries were received. TK: But in the end, the members
of the Milwaukee Arts Board decided that none of the new entries
were worthy of flying over the city. RM: They couldn’t agree
to change that thing! (Laughter) That’s discouraging enough
to make you think that good design and democracy
just simply do not go together. (Laughter) But Steve Kotas is going
to try one more time to redesign the Milwaukee flag. SK: I believe Milwaukee is a great city. Every great city deserves a great flag. RM: Steve isn’t ready
to reveal his design yet. One of the things about
proposing one of these things is you have to get people on board, and then you reveal your design. But here’s the trick: If you want to design a great flag, a kick-ass flag like Chicago’s or DC’s,
which also has a great flag, start by drawing
a one-by-one-and-a-half-inch rectangle on a piece of paper. Your design has to fit
within that tiny rectangle. Here’s why. TK: A three-by-five-foot flag
on a pole 100 feet away looks about the same size
as a one-by-one-and-a-half-inch rectangle seen about 15 inches from your eye. You’d be surprised by how compelling
and simple the design can be when you hold yourself to that limitation. RM: Meanwhile, back in San Francisco. Is there anything we can do? TK: I like to say that in every bad flag
there’s a good flag trying to get out. The way to make
San Francisco’s flag a good flag is to take the motto off
because you can’t read that at a distance. Take the name off, and the border might even be made thicker,
so it’s more a part of the flag. And I would simply take the phoenix and make it a great big element
in the middle of the flag. RM: But the current phoenix,
that’s got to go. TK: I would simplify
or stylize the phoenix. Depict a big, wide-winged bird coming out of flames. Emphasize those flames. RM: So this San Francisco flag
was designed by Frank Chimero based on Ted Kaye’s suggestions. I don’t know what he would do
if we was completely unfettered and didn’t follow those guidelines. Fans of my radio show and podcast,
heard me complain about bad flags. They’ve sent me other suggested designs. This one’s by Neil Mussett. Both are so much better. (Laughter) And I think if they were adopted, I would see them around the city. In my crusade to make
flags of the world more beautiful, many listeners have taken it
upon themselves to redesign their flags
and look into the feasibility of getting them officially adopted. (Music) If you see your city flag and like it, fly it, even if it violates a design rule or two. I don’t care. But if you don’t see your city flag, maybe it doesn’t exist, but maybe it does, and it just sucks, and I dare you to join the effort
to try to change that. 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. TK: 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.” (Music) RM: 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. When they are done well, they are remixable, adaptable,
and they are powerful. We could control the branding
and graphical imagery of our cities with a good flag, but instead, by having
bad flags we don’t use, we cede that territory to sports teams and chambers of commerce
and tourism boards. Sports teams can leave
and break our hearts. And besides, some of us
don’t really care about sports. And tourism campaigns can just be cheesy. But a great city flag is something that represents
a city to its people and its people to the world at large. And when that flag is a beautiful thing, that connection is a beautiful thing. So maybe all the city flags
can be as inspiring as Hong Kong or Portland or Trondheim, and we can do away with all the bad flags like San Francisco, Milwaukee,
Cedar Rapids, and finally, when we’re all done, we can do something
about Pocatello, Idaho, considered by the North American
Vexillological Association as the worst city flag in North America. [Proud to be Pocatello] (Laughter) (Applause) Yeah. (Applause) That thing has a trademark
symbol on it, people. (Laughter) That hurts me just to look at. (Laughter) Thank you so much for listening. (Applause) [Music by: Melodium (@melodiumbox)
and Keegan DeWitt (@keegandewitt)]


  • Sef Iscool

    I'm watching this instead of thinking about my now ex girlfriend who broke up with me 2 hours ago.

  • MichaelTheReject

    There's less red flags in the world than there are with Pocatello's flag

  • That guy named morgoth

    The Kfar-Sava flag is also terrible

  • Wayward Sister

    My city flag changed 2-3 years ago and I HATE it … so sad

  • Alessandro Marchetti

    Fun fact:
    In 2017, Pocatello Idaho changed their flag. And, let's be honest, they chose an incredibly good flag:

  • Delkanaut

    My small town of 300 or so doesn't have an official flag, but as this town is in Minnesota our flag might as well be the Norwegian flag…

  • Brett Greving

    chicago flag — it's all over the city

  • Lukas Gauvreau

    A flag is as important now as a coat of arms would’ve been for royalty in olden times. Recognizable design that can be easily replicated has always been a key to a good design.

    Maybe if people designing the flags thought of it more as a representation of their family and themselves they might make a better design that would be liked or at least approved by the populace. Lol idk anything about flags other than this video but that’s my two cents on the topic

  • jai

    cool talk format

  • Spencer Graham-Thille

    France has the best flag.

  • Spencer Graham-Thille

    I would argue that Orange should be in the main color set over black.

  • Camilla Fadda

    it's so weird to actually see his face while he speaks

  • Iam Joergen


  • LynxChan

    'Sup fellow Nerdfighters.

  • Andrew Pitts-Nordera

    Saudi Arabia's flag has words but it works because the calligraphy is art and symbolic

  • Tunadasavage 9

    who’s here from Vlog Brother’s new video about flags??… no one….only me…ok

  • MollieVX

    My question is… Does every City/state need a flag? My country doesn't do that and i was surprised that others do.

  • JDizaster

    "Gimmick infringement!"
    -Sheldon Cooper

  • The Fandom Chicken

    Is anyone else here from Vlogbrothers?

  • Exploring And Such

    Look up zimbabwe county flags.

  • Cade Smith

    Tough crowd

  • Cade Smith

    This guy will have the coolest clan flag in the zombie apocalypse

  • Kitty Catrina

    Very disappointed the flag for buffalo doesnt have a buffalo on it🤦‍♀️

  • Arno Claesen

    fun with flags irl

  • Sydney Norkus

    Michigan's flag is on all sorts of crack, bro we have a deer and an elk on it extremely detailed, weird writing and lots more help sksk

  • Jodi_Pa

    In Germany City Flags are rare just because of our history.

  • Ben Rethmeier

    Cities don't need flags, how's that for simple and elegant design

  • Stephanie Thompson

    I really wish I could get a censored version of this to use in the classroom. Can't have the word @$$ in a middle school classroom.

  • Mikey Williams

    Anyone else getting weird vibes from this guy?

  • Happy Little Pineapple

    ‘A flag should be so simple a child could draw it from memory’

    South Africans looking awkward

  • SomeGuyThatPlaysLOL Does Stuff


  • Juliana Ulm

    Wow I’mbfrom Brazil and I just realized that our flag breaks onde of the rules (no lettering)

  • Jacob Shobe

    ok youtube I clicked it stop shoving this video down my throat now

  • ShadedDreamer

    I'm from Buffalo, NY and our flag is just…. Horribly Fugly if we are being completely honest.

  • Helena Singleton

    8:06 Hey, Tulsa (bottom right) changed its flag recently and its actually pretty nice now.

  • ItsTheWilly

    Yet the flag of California breaks almost all the rules and people still somehow like it.

  • hunterraoulduke

    Missouri has s seal on its flag but I think it looks pretty good over all.

  • Jordan Honeycutt

    Pocatello got a new flag. Thank you for fighting the good fight.

  • SinisterBun

    jacksfilms has entered the chat

  • Paige Splash

    Few, Colorado did okay.

  • Jimmy Wonder Boy Headrick

    The Baltimore flag could use a redesign. The George Washington "Battle" monument {which is almost unrecognizable unless you know what it's supposed to be) on a black and gold checkerboard-type pattern. It's ugly, so that's why you very rarely see it. The Maryland state flag isn't much better – there's entirely too much going on – checkerboard patterns with crosses. Imagine trying to draw that.

  • Alan Choi Chang

    this is like sheldons obsession with flags…

  • Vcast70

    Pocatellos flag has changed lol

  • first last

    So much judgement based on nothing and over something that doesn't matter. I think its a good idea to put the name of a state or city on a flag, who's going to be able to know otherwise. Someone please tell me what point city flags serve. I'm not willing to watch this whole thing. I skipped to near the end, something about rallying people behind flags to get them to volunteer, I don't get exactly how that would work, I don't really buy it.

  • Uku Sibul

    Fun with flags

  • Sarah

    The Rhode Island flag has a word on it but its otherwise simple and every one loves it

  • Guilherme Branco

    Not as bad as american city flags, but he should take a look at portuguese city flags which usually bear the coat of arms. Coimbra's flag especially, with its beautiful shock of purple and yellow gyronny…

  • TheNopeAndNeverKing

    Maryland has a pretty good one

  • Sigh

    shouldve touched on the flag of raleigh because it has grey text over dark red so you couldnt even read it way up close
    still a really really great show though uwu

  • You are an NPC, please reply.


    Fun With Flags 2?

  • Todd Shaw

    The Texas flag is good though, right?

  • Steven Kinsey

    The USA flag is the ugliest in the world and you can’t change my mind

  • Kareza Alonso

    It's been fixed: https://www.boisestatepublicradio.org/post/east-idaho-city-ditches-worst-flag-north-america#stream/0

  • Sam Deshler

    The Pocatello flag is so bad that it's almost good

  • Lauren Lizzzbeth

    He looks so calm but this must be incredibly stressful to keep up with.

  • grife97

    I don't know why there isn't a top comment like this:
    "Hello, I am Sheldon Cooper and this is fun with flags"

  • Grox

    laughs in European city flags

  • Trancendental

    Pocatello changed their flag since this video!

  • Rockwell Peterson

    You should see Rapid City, SD's flag

  • Silas Baker

    Proud To Be Pocatello Thats like a licence plate thing. Kinda like Beautiful British Columbia

  • Tom Perez

    For a good laugh, I suggest everyone look at the Tampa city flag

  • James Oxford

    who cares about a 170 year old fire. San Fran needs to ditch the phonex entirely.

  • Aisir

    7:10 Ukrainian anarchists have a pass here

  • Daniel Modesto

    I like brazil's flag and it has text on it 👀

  • Elijah Brown

    los angeles was so close. SO CLOSE

  • Bluebanana2121

    All I'm going to say is Provo.

  • EdgyMemeLord 420

    I dunno Nepal be having the best flag tbh 🤷‍♂️🤷‍♂️

  • Baguette Gott

    Wait a minute, the Amsterdam flag evokes one and only one association and that's the Nazis. That's… not good.

  • Boon Ming Ng

    Milwaukee has a new flag since Jun 2016!! And it's so cool!! Good for them!! 🙂

  • Brooks Van Pelt

    I'm getting hello internet vibes

  • konung

    "Hello, I am Sheldon Cooper and this is fun with flags"

  • Oliver B

    The conch republic flag may break a few rules. But it is very popular and is flown everywhere.

  • Issa Tomato

    Belize, Bhutan, Fiji, and Khazakhastan have left the chat.

  • Alex Wicker

    milwaukee managed to change their flag since this video, its much better now

  • Ike Smith

    I’ve lived in Milwaukee for 6 years and Ive never seen the flag..
    I consider myself lucky

  • Viking Cat

    what about the danish flag ? or my personal favorite the one from greenland.

  • Lucy

    what about the oakland flag its great

  • tommy karrick

    I’ve seen this ted talk so many times and it’s still one of my favorites, if not my favorite over all

  • Familyguygamer420

    i like flags with complicated designs.

  • Redmenace96

    Didn't think he was going to go Full Pocatello at the end….. and then it happened. Their grandparents felt that one.

  • sarah mc hugh

    Well, my city has the seal, but its not tiny, in fact the circle is so big that it's diameter is the same length at the rectangle's side. I suppose that both creates and solves a problem. (Stockton, if you wanna check it out)

  • RuleBritannia1987

    Over 4 years later and Milwaukee has the same flag.

  • Marco Storm

    who knew flags are cool wow

  • Keifu Chan

    "A flag should be so simple a child can draw it from memory" Yeaaah Japan!

  • sukron amin

    this guy make me to recall a scene on GoT , "oh i saw a deer. it is stanley baratheon."

  • Sellie Bus

    Dr Sheldon Cooper presents. Fun with Flags

  • wii8

    I think we can say the milwaukee flag redesign was a success, as i'm watching this video with a sicker of it on my laptop, now only if city hall would approve it.

  • UnicornBoomMc

    is the audio de-synced towards 7:05, it feels off.

  • Jude Warstler

    Got a Scottish soccer coach, our punishments are sprinting the diagonals of the field, they're called scottish flags

  • Lazy-Assed Wanderer

    Tulsa recently approved a redesign of their flag and it's way better.

  • Said Mukhamedov

    A Fucking leaf Pepelaugh

  • KnightOfSnakes

    15:49 clap

  • evie

    birmingham (eng) has a decent flag but i dont think ive ever seen it bc its not the middleages anymore

  • MagentaLooks

    For anyone interested, the City of Ottawa flag (Canada) is really beautiful with a bunch of obvious symbolism.

  • Pulse VII

    i want to appreciate the delectable coincidence of someone named after two places speaking about geography

  • Mad Max For PM


  • Conrad Boerner

    TED, you get my like for including the best City Flag, nay the best flag, The Portland City Flag.

  • Blackjack yt

    I am from milwaukee and i have never seen this

  • Rachel Hornak

    Phoenix, AZ has a flag and I didn't even realize it. It's because it's the best "bedsheet with a seal" ever. It manages to hit all the points except in color (It's a wine color instead of straight red). Our symbol is literally a little round stylized phoenix. It almost looks like the wu-tang clan's logo. And that bird is everywhere- random stickers, t-shirts, police cars, street signs… People even get tattoos with the city's bird in them.

    Now Maricopa County though…they need help.

  • Edward Cranium

    Ohio has the best flag ever.


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