A Flag Unfurls


It's no secret that we're fans of Roman Mars and his podcast 99 Percent Invisible. So, when he gave a TED talk earlier this year on city flags and vexillology in general, of course I was all (eyes and) ears. I marveled at Chicago's beautiful flag and winced at San Francisco's awkward mess of one (they're working on it). I laughed out loud at the hopelessly awful flag of Pocatello. I didn't even know that Portland had a flag (with an interesting design history to boot!). But mostly I was inspired, because I'm a sucker for radical simplicity and symbolic meaning in design. And it turns out that's what flag design is all about.

According to vexillologist Ted Kaye, there are five "rules" of good 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.

So when a group of friends organized a summer camp on Orcas Island and put out a call for a camp flag, I jumped at the chance to apply those rules and design one. Here's what I came up with for Camp Killer Whale:


Ok, ok, so I bent Rule #3 a bit. (But even Mr. Mars himself acknowledges that there are beautiful exceptions to these rules.) Let me plead my case: It’s still pretty simple, right? As for symbolism, the four stripes represent the four lines of latitude that span Portland and Orcas Island (45, 46, 47 and 48 degrees N). The blue stripe represents the sky, the green stripe the island, and the black and white stripes evoke an orca leaping out of the sound. One could also read “north” in the upward pointing arrows (the direction we all traveled to get to camp), or see the shape of any one of the North Cascade peaks visible from the island.

Designing the flag was a cinch compared to manufacturing the real thing. First I had to find suitable fabric (thank you Goodwill Bins) and launder it twice (thank you Goodwill Bins). Then I had to remember that constructing something in real life requires a lot more forethought and patience than designing on the computer. But several hours of cutting, sewing, un-sewing and re-sewing later, the flag entered the physical realm.

When I got to camp there were problems with the flag pole, so the Camp Killer Whale flag mostly hung from a little kiosk outside of the lodge (see above). But on the second-to-last day, the ranger came by with some heavy machinery and restrung the rope, so the flag did get a little chance to billow in the wind. It was a stirring sight.


Ady Leverette was a designer and a principal at Fat Pencil Studio between 2011 and 2018.