Popular radio host and flag aficionado Roman Mars describes the value of well-designed municipal flags in one of the many thought-provoking TED talks in the video above.
In it, he cites top vexillologists (people who study the science of flags and their emblems — yes, that’s really a thing), lists their five principles of effective flag design and provides a bit of a rogues gallery of some of the worst violators of those principles.
Among the rogues included — first appearing right around the eight-minute mark — is none other than the Portland city flag.
Portland’s flag is one of those guilty of being what vexillologists deride as an “SOB,” a “Seal On a Bedsheet,” Mars says. (There are some alternative variants of the above design circulating around, but they all include those same basic elements.)
“[S]adly, good design principles are rarely invoked in U.S. city flags,” Mars says. “Our biggest problem seems to be that … we just can’t stop ourselves from putting our names on our flags. Or like 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 a flag 100 feet away flapping in the breeze.”
So what about those five principles? They are:
- A flag should be so simple a child can draw it from memory.
- Use meaningful symbolism.
- Use two or three basic colors.
- No lettering or seals.
- A flag should be distinctive.
Portland’s flag actually does some of these things reasonably well. The image of a mythological phoenix rising from the ashes represents the city’s revival after the Great Fire of 1866, and the ships and fish presumably illustrate the city’s maritime heritage. That’s meaningful symbolism. And the flag consists of just a few basic colors, so there’s that.
But it’s not so simple a child could draw it. Flags that accomplish this goal typically consist of bold, basic shapes. Mars uses Chicago’s city flag as an example of a successfully designed one:
Portland’s flag obviously fails according to the fourth principle, considering it consists almost entirely of a seal and lettering, and it’d be hard to call it distinctive when so many other flags are seals-and-letters on blue backgrounds — including the Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont state flags, among others.
Simply put, Mars cites vexillologists who argue a strong flag should be designed on a 1-inch-by-1.5-inch rectangle, a space which intentionally limits the inclusion of text and fine details, as well as offers a decent glimpse of how a normal-sized flag would look at a distance.
While Mars doesn’t dwell on Portland’s flag in particular, he does offer an example of how another city successfully incorporated elements from its coat of arms into a well-designed flag, and includes a few prospective redesigns of another city’s flag, giving us a hint of how Portland’s could be done.
In the case of Amsterdam, Mars provides images of what the city coat of arms looks like (top), how a typically unimaginative American city might make a flag out of it (middle), and then how Amsterdam actually — and effectively — used a distinct element from it to design a flag (bottom).
Then there’s the flag of San Francisco, which like Portland’s, also prominently features a phoenix rising from the ashes (in the California city’s sake, it was originally meant as a reference to the residents’ resilience following a series of great fires around 1850, although that resilience was later also tested by significant earthquakes, too).
Mars notes that he lived in San Francisco for years and didn’t realize the city even had a flag. He compares that with how city flags were widely displayed all around Chicago and Amsterdam, and says if flags don’t resonate enough with residents for people to fly them and share them, it’s a sign they’re not designed effectively.
And if people don’t want to associate with a city flag — or perhaps worse, don’t realize it exists — why bother having one?
Mars offers a few examples of how San Francisco’s flag, currently a serial violator of sacred flag design principles, could be remade — and by extension, may offer a rough blueprint for how Portland’s phoenix-topped flag could also be redrawn.
The top one is San Francisco’s actual flag, the middle one is an alternative designed by Frank Chimero based on some recommendations by noted vexillologist Ted Kaye, and the bottom one is a redesign by Neil Mussett.
Why does a city flag matter?
Mars explains his perspective on it this way:
“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 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 can control the graphical branding and 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, chambers of commerce and tourism boards. Sports teams can leave and break our hearts, and in fact, 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.”
In Portland, there’s already an appreciation for what Mars is talking about here.
Less than three years ago, the city unveiled a new slogan it hoped could serve as a rallying cry and central part of an adaptable branding scheme for the city. That slogan — “Yes. Life’s good here.” — hasn’t really taken off like the city originally hoped, but the motivations behind its simplicity and flexibility are the same as those Mars uses to argue for well-designed flags.
And in fairness to Portland, the old “SOB” approach to flag-making isn’t found just in the state’s largest city. It’s rampant across Maine.
Scanning the flags cataloged by retailer CRW Flags, it seems the flags of Augusta, Auburn, Bangor, Biddeford, Eastport, Kittery, Lincoln, Lisbon, Thomaston and Wiscasset — as well as the aforementioned state flag — are all Seals On Bedsheets, with a number of other towns boasting flags that aren’t much better.
But there are a few shining examples of effectively designed flags in the state as well, considering the five principles cited above.
There’s Bath’s recently adopted flag, for instance, which is bold, easy to replicate and pays obvious homage to the city’s long shipbuilding heritage and river access.
Then there’s a hidden gem of a flag up in the rural town of Washington — again, simple and distinct, with just a couple strong colors.
Could Portland learn from these smaller Maine municipalities, apply a similar logic as it used in drafting a new slogan and give its city flag an overhaul?
Vexillologists seem to be saying yes. Portlanders are probably saying, “Wait, we have a city flag?”