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  • 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

  • and 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) (Applause)

  • Yeah!

  • 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)

  • Which -- 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: Sssssound.

  • RM: All right, got it? Here we go.

  • Three, two.

  • This is 99% Invisible. I'm Roman Mars.

  • 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.

  • 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: Like, 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: Okay. 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: Okay, here we go. Okay.

  • 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 okay. 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,

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • Here's the full list of NAVA flag design principles.

  • Narrator: The five basic principles of flag design.

  • 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 okay.

  • 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 U.S. 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 U.S.

  • 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.

  • 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