Vexillonaire | 99% Invisible

Here’s a trick: if you want to design a kickass flag, start by drawing a one-by-one-and-a half inch rectangle on a piece of paper.

A design at these dimensions held 15 inches from your eye looks about the same as a three-by-five foot flag on a flagpole a hundred feet away.

[From left: flags of Chicago and Washington, D.C., as rendered by 99% Invisible producer Avery Trufelman]

Your design has to work within that tiny rectangle, because unlike other designed objects, a flag is usually seen at a distance. It is also often in motion and partially obscured.

[Credit: hugovk]

Given those limitations, it’s surprising how simple and compelling.

Vexillologists—those who study flags—tend to fall into one of two schools of thought. The first is one that focuses on history, category, and usage, and maintains that vexillologists should be scholars and historians of all flags, regardless of their designs.

The other school of vexillology, however, maintains that not all flags are created equal, and that flags can and should be redesigned, and improved.

Ted Kaye of the Portland Flag Association—the largest subnational flag organization in the country—is one such vexillologist. Kaye has a word for these activist vexillologists of his ilk who go out into the world and lobby for more beautiful flags: “vexillonaires.”

[Flag of the Portland Flag Association.]

You’ll remember from episode #6 that the principles of flag design, according to the North American Vexillological Association, are:

  1. Keep it simple

  2. Use meaningful symbolism

  3. Use two to three basic colors

  4. No lettering or seals of any kind.

  5. Be distinctive

For some reason, cities of the United States seem to have a lot of trouble with principle #4.

The city of Portland, Oregon, didn’t have an official flag until 1969, when a group proposed a flag to the commercial club of portland. Portland’s mayor at the time brought in the Portland Arts Commission, which brought in local graphic designer Doug Lynch to work on the flag. Lynch asked the stakeholders what was important to them in a flag, and also did his own search for powerful visual imagery for the city.

Lynch came up with an abstract flag design, with blue lines representing the Columbia and Williamette rivers, bordered by stripes of gold representing commerce or grain growing along the rivers, all flowing into a white four-pointed star representing the city. The background color, green, represents the forests.


The city council took Lynch’s flag design and plopped a city seal on it. The flag was rarely flown.

[Portland’s first city flag. Courtesy of Ted Kaye.]

Nearly thirty years later, Doug Lynch, then in his mid-eighties, went to a meeting of the Portland Flag Association. Lynch explained the story of his botched flag to the gathering of vexillologists. At the end of the presentation, Lynch talked all about the changes he wanted to make to the flag (including taking the seal off), and regretted that there was nothing he could do about it.

The vexillologists—nay, vexillonaires—sprang into action. This elite team of historians, manufacturers, and designers agreed to come together on behalf of fixing Portland’s flag. They went to Portland city council and testified on the flag’s behalf. The new/old flag was adopted a week later, and it’s been representing Portland ever since.

[Portland’s new and improved city flag.]

Roman Mars spoke with vexillologist and vexillonaire Ted Kaye at his home in Portland. When Roman arrived, he found that Ted had flown the San Francisco flag in Roman’s honor, because that’s what kind of guy Ted Kaye is.


[Credit: Roman Mars]


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