One would be forgiven if they thought “vexillological” had anything to do with the vexy-ness of, say, Harley Quinn. As illogical and vexing as the DC comics anti-heroine may be (quite), the term actually refers to the study of flags.
Ergo, vexillologists are those who study flags. Bonus round: A vexillonaire is someone who is “a particularly passionate breed of vexillologist who actively goes out into the world and lobbies for better flag design,” which one would know if they had listened to Roman Mars purr it into ears during his 99 Percent Invisible podcast on the subject.
This is why I didn’t automatically delete the press release from the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA) when it arrived several weeks back. An organization with over 1,000 flag enthusiasts and scholars, NAVA thought I should know that a recent survey found that the flag for San Rafael scored an F.
Why does the city have a flag at all? And why is it (apparently) so crappy?
Since 2015, over 300 American cities and towns are known to have adopted new or redesigned flags to represent their communities, says NAVA. The effort is in part an exercise in civic branding and, I suppose (if one were to believe Eddie Izzard) a means of fending off colonists.
NAVA ran its online survey from Sept. 1 to Nov. 30, 2022. Over 2,800 people participated, rating the design of each flag using a low-to-high scale of 0 to 10, which was converted to a letter grade.
Over 60% of the flags got a D or an F, including fellow Marin County town Belvedere, whose flag was rated a D-. (It should be noted that the overall grade for the 312 flags included in the survey was D+.) Belvedere’s flag sucks because it looks like a whale impaled with a crutch.
“Studying the process of flag design and adoption helps us understand how flags connect people to their communities,” comments NAVA secretary Ted Kaye, who coordinated the survey and also appeared in the aforementioned 99 Percent Invisible episode. “But our members don’t just study flags—some become actively involved in flag design themselves.”
If an individual and their city are planning on seceding into its own nation-state, consider NAVA’s five basic principles from their “Good” Flag, “Bad” Flag design guide when designing a flag:
1. Keep it simple. (The flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory.)
2. Use meaningful symbolism. (The flag’s images, colors or patterns should relate to what it symbolizes for the community.)
3. Use two to three basic colors. (Limit the number of colors on the flag to three, which contrast well and come from the standard color set.)
4. No lettering or seals. (Never use writing of any kind on an organization’s seal.)
5. Be distinctive or be related. (Avoid duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections.)
6. And—if I may add a sixth principle—don’t be vexing.
NAVA publishes a quarterly newsletter, ‘Vexillum,’ and an annual scholarly journal, ‘Raven.’ It hosts a website and holds regular meetings of flag scholars and enthusiasts. NAVA welcomes anyone interested in flags as a member. For images of all the flags and the survey’s full results, visit nava.org/2022-survey. Also, of course, there’s a vexillology Reddit.
A version of this article was previously published at FMRL.com.