Introducing Design with Vexillology

As I planned to introduce some elements of design to my new 6th grade group, I turned to my personal guide through the world of design, Roman Mars and 99 Percent Invisible. The stories in their podcast are always captivating, and eye opening about all of the tiny designed elements that make up our world. I knew I’d find a good story there to share with my students…however 6th graders don’t have the attention span to listen to a 20 minute podcast…neither do I really some days. So I turned to Roman Mars’ Ted talk on the design of flags. In it, he lays out his hatred of poorly designed local city and municipal flags. He doesn’t just complain though, he offers a solution in the form of a set of flag design rules laid out by the North American Vexillological Association.

These design rules are simple, and clear:

  1. Keep it simple: The flag should be simple enough that a child can draw it from memory.
  2. Use meaningful symbolism: The flags images, colors, or patterns should relate to what it symbolizes.
  3. Use 2-3 basic colors: Limit the number of colors to three, which contrast well and come from the standard color set. 
  4. No lettering or seals: Never use writing of any kind or an organizations seal.
  5. Be distinctive or be related: Avoiding duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections.

These simple rules are quick, and easy to introduce to a group of students. In fact they are all described in great detail with examples in ‘Good Flag, Bad Flag‘, a 15 page primer in flag design published by NAVA. This provides a really great framework for a quick and easy design lesson: Design a flag for your school, classroom, neighborhood, etc.

So I did this quick lesson with a group of my 6th graders. I wanted to have them experience the practice of using a design rules to develop a unique flag for either the school, or the city of Philadelphia, which itself is in need of a new flag.

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Building from the Ted Talk, I encouraged (but did not require) that students draw the flag on a 1″x1.5″ square cut from a notecard. As noted by Ted Kaye in the Roman Mars Ted talk, that is the size a flag appears when seen from a typical distance. IMG_4355There were lots of ideas, lots of great flags, and a few that failed to listen to many of the design rules, but the gears were turning and the conversations were happening. What is the best symbolism to represent our school? If we threw away our blue and grey colors and had to pick our own colors, what would you choose?
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My effort with teaching design is to have my students look at the world in a different way. Roman Mars and I have the same mission in this sense:

“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. When you decode the world with design intent in mind, the world becomes kind of magical. Instead of seeing the broken things, you see all the little bits of genius that anonymous designers have sweated over to make our lives better. And that’s essentially the definition of design: making life better and providing joy”
– Roman Mars

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The level with which the students connected to this lesson was pretty shocking. I was expected a bit of ‘this is stupid and boring’, but after breaking down what makes a good flag, and what makes a bad flag, we had a blast digging through different flag designs and showing off the best and worst we could find.

This project can easily to be extended in the makerspace classroom, using tools like the vinyl cutter to cut stickers that my students love to put on their computers, or to cut fabric that can be stitched together into a full scale flag.

It was a quick and easy lesson, and surely all of my students will now never look at a flag the same ever again. In fact, they might be critical of all of the terribly designed flags in the world, and perhaps do something about it.

I’ve prepared a slideshow of good flags and bad flags to show to students, or to use to quiz them after reviewing the design rules. See that here. Or, if you like to Kahoot in your classroom, I’ve put together this Kahoot too.