Great flags are big ideas distilled to the elemental. If their designers are allowed.

by Tom Davis

City flags as a proxy for design in general.

Let’s face the facts… groups and committees frequently make terrible choices, especially when they try to micromanage design. Sometimes they get it right, but they rarely make the daring or thrilling decision based on emotion. That is one reason committees exist, to take the emotion out of a decision. They generally either make the “safe choice” or the choice that pleases the most people. There is no better proof of this than the vast array of truly insipid or bewildering flags for cities across the US.

This was brought home to me by my favorite podcaster Roman Mars. I love flags and his podcast Vexillonaire (Episode 140 - November 11, 2014) was a clear commentary on how great flags are great and bad flags are bad. And the flags of US cities are a wonderful laboratory for seeing how design can go so wrong.

Even better than the podcast episode was when he did it on stage for TED2015 in March of 2015. The visual format bring the designs to life (or death). Even if you don’t really care about city flags or any flags, this talk will show you how design goes wrong when the wrong people start making the little decisions. It also shows you how a city flag can get it right.

The great flags are elemental. They might be “busy” like the US or UK flags, but those become unique and recognizable as a unit with meaning coming from their still simple elements. Or, like the Texas, Tennessee or South Carolina flags, they are both simple and meaningful. You should never have to write anything on a flag… unless you are just intent on taunting.

Does Dallas need a new flag?

Obviously someone in Dallas (other than me) was paying attention to Roman Mars. A few months after the TED video someone in Dallas started a sort of campaign to change the Dallas city flag. There are probably several campaigns like this around the country. It is easy to see the bad in so many city flags.

I like the proposals. You can see the current and a proposed flag in this excellent blog post from the Portland Flag Association.

The Dallas city flag is not as bad as the examples Roman Mars showed. But the it still has the city seal in it. Which vexillologists rightly will tell you is a terrible design element. Way too detailed for how a flag is used. Plus… show me something you have that no one else has. Every governmental organization has a seal.

What about Pegasus. It is an undeniable symbol of Dallas. It has rotated above Dallas for over 80 years. Many people think it is too corporate, derisively saying it fits Dallas’ money driven culture. But they don’t really understand the history with Mobil more accurately Magnolia Oil. The Magnolia Building still stand today as the Magnolia Hotel with Pegasus still on top. You will see Pegasus used more in reference to Dallas than it is used in Mobil branding.

The Pegasus debate is where the committee fails us. When the committee convenes to decide on a new city flag, it will avoid Pegasus naysayers and go to the bland.