Good Flag, Bad Flag

I recently received a 1,019-word email from Friend of IBD Howard Aprill on the subject of flag design. Howard does this sort of thing because he blames us for the fact that he now notices design stuff and reads blogs, and he wants to get back at us for wasting his time.

I received Howard’s email about a month ago and I just finished reading it, so I thought I’d share parts of it with you. Evidently, Howard stumbled across a website for the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA), which I was disappointed to learn has nothing to do with making people angry. Turns out, according to the organization’s website, vexillology is “the scientific and scholarly study of flag history and symbolism.”

NAVA’s website (which, ironically, is a jumbled mess, full of boxes and centered type) links to a pdf of a brochure called “Good Flag, Bad Flag: How to Design a Great Flag.” The brochure contains this sage advice, with Howard’s comments in parentheses:

  1. Keep it simple. (Duh.)
  2. Use meaningful symbolism. (Double duh.)
  3. Use 2–3 basic colors. (Makes sense to me but I’m interested in your thoughts on this.)
  4. No lettering or seals. (Apparently this is the Comic Sans equivalent of the flag world.)
  5. Be distinctive or be related.

These points are consistent with the advice graphic designers and interpreters offer—essentially, keep it clean, use a defined color palette, and above all be meaningful. (Though I would argue, related to point #4, that it would be okay for an organization devoted to the conservation and understanding of sea mammals to use a seal in its design.)

Even better than NAVA’s five design principles, NAVA’s website features a link to the results of a 2004 survey that ranks the design of flags from 150 U.S. cities. The ratings go from #1, Washington, DC (on the left, above) to #150, Pocatello, Idaho, where they are as proud of their mountains as they are their Microsoft WordArt.

Howard’s hometown of Milwaukee ranks 147th on the list. While he recognizes that the flag, designed in the 1950s, violates all stated and most unwritten rules of design (and a couple international laws related to the Geneva Convention), Howard offers this impassioned defense:

I think it’s a time capsule that captures the essence of post World War II Milwaukee. You notice that it’s busy filled with LOTS of things. Well that’s how folks felt about their town. The gear represents industry (at one time we actually MADE things in this town), the Native American head represents our original inhabitants, the ship represents the busy port, the golden barley stalk on the left represents our beer brewing industry. It even features the old County Stadium for the Milwaukee Braves. You have to understand, the Braves moved here from Boston in 1953 and this town was INSANELY proud to get a big league team.

I told Howard that I hope Milwaukee gets a big-league baseball team again some day.

The NAVA flag brochure says, “All rules have exceptions…but depart from these five principles only with caution and purpose.” The brochure holds up the Colorado state flag (pictured at the top of the post) as an example of a successful departure. It violates the rule of not using type in a flag, but does so elegantly and simply. I’d say that while the folks in Milwaukee departed from the rules with purpose, they also did so with reckless abandon.

Ultimately, flag design and interpretive design have a lot in common, in that they strive to be impactful, accessible, and meaningful. Because he makes the point far better than I could, I leave you with this thought from Howard:

In my opinion the challenges and components of flag design are very related to what we do in interpretation—trying to give relevance and meaning, building connections, tangibles (a piece of cloth) vs. intangibles (love of country, sacrifice, etc). We’ve all seen good flags and bad flags, just like we’ve all seen good interpretive panels and bad interpretive panels. I dare say there are things we can take away from the study of vexillology and apply to interpretation.

We’re Going to Disney World!


French philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote about a philosophical construct called the simulacrum, which holds that we are further removed from reality each day and that our culture is increasingly based on representations or copies of real things rather than real things themselves. He goes on to say that we will one day be saved from evil computers and their robots by Keanu Reeves. I may be confusing some of Baudrillard’s key points, but as you’ll see if you keep reading, my brain is a little fried at the moment.

Last week, my wife and I took our kids (Joel, age six, and Maya, age three) to Disney World in Florida for the first time. After months of planning, a long day of travel, and a morning schedule blown to smithereens by our failure to account for daylight savings, we arrived, along with roughly 8 billion other visitors, at the Magic Kingdom. We pulled up to the brightly colored entrance just off the highway, wallets open in preparation to fork over whatever toll the parking troll demanded.

There was a stiff breeze blowing, which made for a hair-raising plane landing the day before, and which was bending and ruffling the abundant foliage lining the highway that morning. One of the few items of the landscape not being blown by the wind, ironically, was a series of structures atop the tollbooth—rigidly constructed to look like flags being blown by wind. Sheila, my wife, asked, “Why don’t they just put real flags up there?”

All I could think was, Jean Baudrillard would love this.

It’s been well-documented that as a purely visual experience, Disney World is rich—saturated, consistent, and expertly crafted. With that as a given, I was struck by the second-most frequent question my kids asked during the week: “Is that real?” (The first-most frequent question was “Can we have ice cream?”) Almost invariably, the answer to both questions was No.

No, Maya, that’s not a real elephant.

No, Joel, we’re not really in a space ship going to Mars with Gary Sinese.

No, Maya, that’s not a real castle. Well, okay it’s a real building and it’s shaped like a castle but … just be quiet and eat your ice cream.

No, Joel, you can’t have more ice cream. You just had some back at the castle. The fake castle. The real building shaped like a fake castle. Be quiet and let’s go get ice cream.

No, Shea, this isn’t a real baseball game. It’s just spring training. Yes, it will still hurt if you get hit in the head with a foul ball.

One of the attractions at the Magic Kingdom is a 3D movie called Mickey’s PhilharMagic, the effects of which are as convincing as any I’ve ever seen (though I’ve not seen Avatar yet). Throughout the movie, my daughter kept reaching out, grabbing at specters of Donald Duck and floating wizard hats. When a loud noise or sudden movement scared her, I’d say, “Don’t worry, it’s not real.” This settled her down until the image of water coming at the audience on screen was accompanied by actual mist being sprayed on the audience. Maya looked at me after the show as if to say, “I don’t know what’s real and what’s not anymore, but you owe me ice cream.”

tree_of_lifeDisney’s Animal Kingdom presents an impressive interpretive experience, including talented interpreters and the opportunity to witness live, exotic animals roaming quasi-free on the immense park grounds. The centerpiece of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, however, is a structure called the Tree of Life, which is neither a real tree nor actually alive.

Epcot Center features something called the World Showcase, which gives visitors tiny, bite-sized tastes of life in other countries. I have never been to Germany, but I have a distinct impression of the country based on several layovers in the Frankfurt airport, select scenes from the movie European Vacation, and a meal I had with my family as a child at Epcot Center’s German pavilion. (Based on each of these, I’d really like to go there one day.) Here’s the fascinating thing: Of the 10 countries Disney chose to represent at Epcot, one of them was the USA. Granted, the World Showcase gives you only a superficial, cursory look at each of the countries represented within, but I can’t begin to imagine what a person would gain from a superficial, cursory look at the country they’re already in.

Baudrillard maintains that we are removed from reality by our perception of the world through symbols and even language, that we no longer interact directly with the real world but through filters. We interact with representations of the world, but not the world itself. If this is true, then Disney has mastered and made the most of this fact. The perfectly controlled Disney experience—“wild” animals there for your viewing pleasure, a Happy Meal portion of American culture, and flags that blow even when there is no wind—is summed up by a most pervasive symbol—the ubiquitous Mickey ears on shirts, balloons, napkins, ticket stubs, and even a notable water tower just outside the park.

You see the Mickey ears and you can’t help but think, This is fun. And you know what? It was.

Chicago Reprise

Just when you thought that you had heard enough about the Lewis/Caputo vacation to Chicago, I go and drop this post. I will do my best to avoid direct references to pizza and sausage since we are now in a post-sleeved-meat detox (which began on Monday), as appropriately coined by Paul’s wife Sheila. The Lipitortinis have really helped with the cleansing process.

Much like Paul’s “Live from Chicago” post, Observations: Type on a Curve, Which Way Goes the Dollar?, Proud to Be an American Cubs Fan, and One Creepy Bear, I had a few additional observations that I wanted to share with you.


DSC02921Architectural Boat Tour of Chicago: Our experienced guide brought about the element of discovery to us like no other tour I have ever been on. She also brought lots of cookies and lemonade. Her passion allowed her to transfer a boatload of information into an interpretive experience. It was a very tourist thing to do in Chicago but the guide transformed it from a touris trap into a memorable experience. Of course the skyline was great participant as well. Despite what you see here, the tour was great.


An alternative to Papyrus: Paul is to Comic Sans as Shea is to Papyrus. I have a sick obsession with Papyrus and in Chicago finding Papyrus was as difficult as finding a place serving New York style pizza (sorry pizza reference). I only found it in two places. We did find an interesting Papyrus-esqe type at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Paul and I discussed that on the initial design drafts Papyrus was likely used but a great design decision was made switching to this organic type.


Sky Deck Logo: We write about logos often and here’s an interesting one. The jury is still out on it for me. What do you think about it?


Here’s a picture of my daughters on the sky deck.


Zookeeper Note: I love the function of this simple sign. Suction cups allow it to be easily moved and updated. It also allows for it to be re-hung upside down and possibly stolen (not that a thought like that would cross the minds of two design geeks). The message is timely, appropriate and cute. And what’s not cute about breeding hippos. The aggressive element to me was not the message but the over-centering.


Sense of place at Wrigley Field: Visitors come to interpretive sites because they are special places. Simple things can be done to make a site special or unique. The flags flying atop the scoreboard at Wrigley Field are a simple element that make it a special place. In today’s world of jumbo-trons and high-tech, high-definition, super scoreboards the Wrigley board stands out as unique, providing visitors to the park with a nostalgic feel. The flags serve a purpose as well. Each series of flags represent the divisions of the National League. The flags for each team also fly in order, from top to bottom, representing the current standings within the division.You will notice (and to avoid an additional comment from Paul) the NL East division (on the far right of the board) has the flag of the Philadelphia Phillies flying on top.

It is undetermined if the Caputos and Lewis families will ever be together in full force again. Perhaps if our wives read this blog, they could answer that question for us. Until then like gravity it will remain a mystery.

It has been determined that I will never be allowed to own an iPhone.