I started listening to 99% Invisible after Radiolab covered Roman Mars and his clean, minimal, informative and interesting design podcast, on their podcast. It was a “Castception”, if you will. I’m self-employed, but what that really means is I spend late nights away from the world, in my office, listening to podcasts about big ideas; and Roman Mars is a big idea guy. (Side note, before I move forward: He’s also the type of person who passes along the favor, which is how I discovered Song Exploder. Nice move, Mr. Mars.)
When I started listening to 99% Invisible, I knew I was listening to a designer, from a cut of the same cloth. The way Mars spins his fabric, the launching of every clip, the silences in between quotes and sounds that tap like little needles – you know you’re dealing with a craftsman. He designed a podcast the way I’d want it to be the most audibly pleasing, right down to the even, but firm vocal tone.
So, of course I was excited when I landed on his website to find a TED Talk. Rather than just hearing about visual design elements, for the first time, I’d be able to see pictures of the concepts he was describing. To me, that’s what makes his podcast so great: Within your imagination, and the way he explains design, you understand exactly what he means. By adding a visual element to his podcast, Mars becomes a design-entertainment showman, with a nostalgic, quiet magicianship. Those pauses and quips come alive on video – and there was no better topic than…
You may not think flags are a big deal, but I’m a flag snob. My journey started when I was in elementary school, and my hometown of Atlanta hosted the Centennial Olympic games. I remember being obsessed with all the flags of different countries, and felt a certain sense of pride about being part of the United States, for the first time ever. When athletes won an event, they’d wrap themselves in the American flag, and I felt proud. That’s when I knew flags were a big deal – a flag could make me feel magical, and put a smile on my face. Why? Because it was my flag, of course.
To me, a flag is central to the idea of extending the walls we put around ourselves; whether they be real or the imagined borders on maps. Flags define the division lines of countries, states, provinces, cities, in the air, and over the oceans. They serve a certain, specific purpose, to quickly and easily, from a distance, define who you are.
I find this topic especially poignant right now given the controversy surrounding the Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, née “The Confederate Flag.” No matter where you stand on the Confederate Flag, the discussion alone shows the power of a flag, and what happens when the borders that flag represents, well… stop existing. We keep trying to have a discussion about what the Confederate Flag means, because it’s a flag that lost its border, and therefore, a central part of its meaning. Flags have power, even when they’re only creating chaos, which brings me to…
In his TED Talk, Mars covers flag design, especially regarding how some (AHEM… most) cities suffer from flags that appear they were designed by someone artistic and creative, like Stevie Wonder. City flags, according to Mars, tend to be rendered by the tortured souls of local city government. That doesn’t end well. I don’t want to ruin the video, but just so you get the gist, here are the 5 Rules of NAVA Flag Design:
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
After I watched the TED Talk, I looked up Nashville’s flag, because I wanted to be proud of my city. Needless to say, Nashville, we have a problem.
We have tiny lettering, a seal, and fine lines that no one can really see – along with our city name, and county. Everything here in front of you is flag sin. I know it’s not an ecumenical thing to say, but this thing is an abomination.
Nashville falls into what vexillologists call a “seal on a bedsheet”, or an S.O.B. Imagine you were 200 feet away from this flag, would you be able to see the fine lines? No, you would not, because seals were designed to be stamped on wax, and dipped in fine ink, before being impressed onto paper – one foot in front of your face.
Surely the flag must have some meaning though, right? Actually, it doesn’t, according to the Nashville city website,
“The history and meaning of the old Nashville City emblem of the Native American Indian holding the skull is not known.”
That’s a pretty damn specific thing to have on your flag, representing a city and metro area of 1.8 Million, that means uh… well… nothing in particular. Especially when our city has such a proud heritage, and meaning. We’re the Athens of the South. Music City. The City with Probably At Least 200 Titans Fans Left. Whatever you’d like to call Nashville, it’s not a city without symbols. I mean, for fuck’s sake, even a piece of peppered hot chicken on a white background would be better than this. A depiction of a half-full bushwhacker and a tourist in an ill-fitting cowboy hat? Anything but this.
How did we end up with that seal, and ultimately, that flag? It was Nashville’s first city vote; no – seriously. It was a bunch of politicians just saying, “Well, now that we’ve unified Nashville and Davidson County, let’s get this flag bullshit out of the way. It’s not very important anyway.” So we got a stupid flag.
It’s time to fix that. We have too much heritage in Nashville to waste it on a stupid flag. Observing our existing color scheme as our starting point, or ‘the good flag inside the bad flag, desperately trying to get out‘, I took a stab at what a Nashville flag could look like.
The navy blue line on the bottom represents the Cumberland River, cutting through the south side of our city limits.
The gold line across the top is a nod to our golden age of art, and how we’ve become known for art as Athens was. Athens had sculpture, and we have music. We’re “Music City” AND “The Athens of The South” – Parthenon and all.
The three flourishes in the center might be familiar to you – because it’s a simple quarter rest. Nashville is music city, so I wanted to add a musical element in, but putting in a music note just seemed cheesy, and easy. Moreover, the rest is more about what this city is: A laid-back Southern town, with a slow pace.
The whole picture though, is actually meant to emulate our Parthenon, the white space in the middle being empty space, and the quarter rests acting as columns, and the gold and navy acting as the top and bottom in their dual role.
I mean, shit, if you’re going to go through all the trouble of building a Parthenon, and celebrating your art, I can’t think of a good reason to have a Native American guy holding a human skull on your flag. It just doesn’t make sense. Make it look like a damn Parthenon.
So, if you’re reading this, and you’re in Nashville, here are the names and emails of your city council members. Write an email to them and let them know it’s time to submit a resolution. Nashville needs a new flag. I’m not saying it has to be the one pictured above – but we need one. Badly. Let’s get this done.