By Erik Jones
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.
I’ve gone through most of my life completely oblivious to design.
The fact that every single image and object around me has been obsessed over and tweaked by people who want to make the world better through design is just something that literally never occurred to me.
As it is for so many people, this ignorance was swiftly remedied when I started listening to 99% Invisible, a podcast from Roman Mars all about fascinating stories involving design. The show touches on the full spectrum of design, but the first two episodes that got me hooked were about the wacky waving inflatable tube men you see all along busy roads and buildings that used to be pizza huts.
So if you want to become more “design aware”, binging on a half dozen episodes of 99% Invisible is probably one of the very best ways. But to focus on the quote at the top, sometimes you need to have a certain thing to really appreciate, before the wider world of design becomes more accessible and interesting.
For that one thing, why not start with flags? Everybody knows them, everybody ignores them, and besides maybe national flags, nobody appreciates them.
As for me, flags are something I never really cared about until recently, and again, Roman Mars is the person who set me straight.
Below is a playlist that is all but guaranteed to make you more passionate about flags and design. Just look at what it did to me. I’ve lived in New York my whole life and my opinion of our State Flag has always been “eh who cares”. Now just look at the header image to see what I think.
I blame Mars, and as you’ll see below, CGP Grey, for my strong but justified opinions.
Before getting to the playlist, there are two terms that come up a bunch in the video and podcasts that are worth defining. Vexillology and vexillologist. Respectively, they are the study of flags and the people who study and obsess over them. There is even a North American Vexillological Association and their simple tenets for flag design play a central role (including in my grade of F I give NY). Their five rules for flag design are:
1. Keep it simple
2. Use Meaningful Symbolism
3. Use 2-3 basic colors
4. No lettering or seals
5. Be distinctive or be related
1- TED Talk from Roman Mars–The worst-designed thing you’ve never noticed. (watch)
If you’ve never listened to the podcast, this video will give you a taste at Mars’ ability to draw people into any topic. He will not only convince you that flags are awesome and important, but he’ll give you a sense of how something so simple with some colors and shapes can make such a difference in the real world around us. Plus, you’ll immediately look up your state or city flag on Wikipedia and probably want to take your red marker out too.
Hello Internet is a popular podcast that involves lengthy discussions between two well known YouTubers, CGP Grey and Brady Haran, who are characterized by their ability to argue about anything and make it interesting. During this episode, there is an impromptu review of the U.S. state flags. I listened to this before watching the above TED Talk and I expected to be quite bored. Instead, I found myself fascinated by the topic and by how angry and passionate CGP Grey could get about flag design. Their conversations meander across random topics (which appeals to me but not everyone), so to get the entire flag discussion, listen from 51:30 to 1:20:25.
3- read through and look at the fantastic collection of infographics about world flags put together by design company ferdio (look)
Did you know purple is almost entirely absent from any national flag? Or that national flags have many different aspect ratios? Or that Denmark has the oldest flag by a wide margin and that most flags are relatively new? These are just some of the cool facts to learn about flags in this fascinating collection of infographics called flag stories. The website itself has a pretty slick design, which makes sense, because that’s kind of ferdio’s thing.
So much more to learn
Design is obviously (well maybe not to me a few years ago) a gigantic topic. There’s graphic design which the flags touch on, but there’s also web design, product design, and architecture, just to a name a few other areas that I’m now noticing and slowly learning about.
Are you passionate about something design related? Please share in the comments and help other curious people continue learning!
-If you want more Roman Mars talking flags, check out these two episodes of 99% Invisible. Ep 6–99% Symbolic (which was short and almost entirely repurposed into the TED Talk) and Ep 140–Vexillonaire (which contains a pretty great story about the Portland, Oregon flag).
-If you want more Hello Internet talking flags, you are in luck because it has turned into a regular discussion point on the show. Check out Ep 18–Monkey Copyright from 29:45 to 46, Ep 38–The F-Word from 49:20 to 141:30 (starting at just before 129 minutes they discuss the Roman Mars Ted Talk and how making a flag design video is now forever ruined for CGP Grey) and Ep 46–Superbowl of flags from 21:20 to 52. The show notes for each of those episodes contain more interesting links to the flag topics they talk about.
-And of course there is a subreddit for vexillology.