Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
A graphic designer in Milwaukee takes action after his city’s flag is called “one of the biggest train wrecks.”
Steve Kodis will be the first to admit it: Until two years ago, he had no idea what the official flag of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, looked like. In fact, he wasn’t aware his home city even had one.
When he finally saw it, the 29-year-old graphic designer wasn’t impressed. The flag, adopted in the mid 1950s, features a drawing of a gear surrounded by a mix of other symbols, including a boat, a stalk of wheat, a stereotypical depiction of a Native American, and—wait, is that a flag within a flag? It’s what Roman Mars, host of the podcast 99 Percent Invisible, has dubbed “one of the biggest train wrecks in vexillological history.” (Vexillology is a fancy name for the study of flags.)
“I looked at it, and I was like, 'Ugh,’” Kodis tells CityLab. “We can have something so much better. We deserve something so much better.'"
So Kodis led an initiative last year calling on Milwaukee residents to come up with a new one. He partnered with a local nonprofit, Greater Together Milwaukee, and solicited roughly 1,000 entries. This past weekend, he and a panel of historians and other designers narrowed it down to five finalists, whose designs will be up for public voting in May.
But Milwaukee isn’t the only city with a terrible flag. More than 30 city flags have ignited calls for a much-needed facelift. Many are championed by passionate individuals like Kodis, while others cries for change come from civic organizations and city arts commissions. Ted Kaye, a flag expert who wrote the design guide Good Flag, Bad Flag and who is helping some cities with their redesigns, says there are many instances of flag-fixing going on right now: A 13-year-old graphic designer is creating a flag for Syracuse, New York. The office of cultural affairs in Columbia, Missouri, has held a flag design contest. And there’s a public call out to replace San Marco’s “banner of boringness” in Texas. Even Mars is calling for his city of San Francisco to change its flag.
Some cities first took notice of this issue when they saw their flags ranked as among the worst in the country in a 2004 survey by the North American Vexillological Association. Five hundred people were asked to rank 150 city flags, and the association found that on a scale of 1 to 10, the average score was a 4.3. Three-quarters of all city flags scored below a 5.
Then things really took off after Mars’ podcast and TED talk on why city flags suffer from poor design went public. The talk, filmed last March, has garnered nearly 5 million views on TED’s website and on YouTube. In fact, it’s what inspired Kodis to start his campaign. “He ended by saying there is a horde of bad city flags and they must be stopped. He called on people to upgrade their city’s flag, and many people have responded to his challenge,” says Kaye.
Not every city has a flag, but many of the ones that do get a bad rap for violating the basic principles of flag design:
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.
3. Use two 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, or an organization's seal.
5. Be distinctive or be related: Avoid duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections.
Some, like Milwaukee’s flag, are too cluttered and too complicated. Others are indistinguishable from another city’s banner. Many are what Kaye calls “SOB”s: seals on a bedsheet. “The vast majority of American city flags violate the principle of flag design, which is no lettering and no seals,” he says. “A seal is meant to be seen close-up, on one side of a paper, and not moving. A flag is meant to be seen on fabric, at a distance, on both sides, and flapping in the breeze.”
Unless you live cities like Washington, D.C., or Chicago, whose flags are proudly displayed everywhere—on T-shirts, souvenirs, storefronts, and even as tattoos—there’s a good chance you’ve rarely noticed your city’s official flag. "I have a theory that the best marker for civic adoption of a great city flag is when it starts appearing as tattoos," Kaye tells CityLab.
If residents pay so little attention to their city’s flags, why does their design even matter? Kaye calls this a vicious cycle of bad design: If a city has a poorly designed flag, it doesn’t get flown. That means it’s unknown to most people. Austin’s flag, for example, can be found in the city’s history center but hardly anywhere else, according to the center’s manager. “It had been sitting in a ... city clerk’s office [since] the ‘70s, and we decided it would be better served flat and framed then folded in a brown paper sack in someone’s desk drawer,” he told a local news channel last year.
But just like national flags bring entire countries together, an official flag can do a lot for cities. It communicates a city’s identity; it can unify residents to come together to solve larger issues; it distinguishes a city from its neighbors; and it stirs emotions. Consider this, says Kaye: When a policeman dies in the line of fire in Chicago, the academy might opt to lay a city flag over his or her casket rather than the U.S. one.
Rallying people behind his campaign wasn’t hard, Kodis says, despite a small handful of people who prefer to keep the Milwaukee flag as is. People from the design community took interest, as did elementary-school kids. High-schoolers also showed up at workshops that he held.
Getting the city to officially adopt the new flag after the public has voted on it may be a different story. In Milwaukee, there have been at least two failed attempts to change the city flag: once in 1975 and more recently in 2001, at which time the city decided that none of the hundred or so submissions from a design contest were good enough. But this time, Kodis says, he’s already got support from a few city council members.
“Potentially, the wrong folks have been curating the conversation—people who don’t necessarily have the understanding of these basic principles of flag or graphic design,” he says. (That might explain why flags that were adopted in the early 1900s generally feature a seal on a blank background, says Kaye, who is part of the judging panel in Milwaukee’s flag design contest.)
Kodis, who quit his job at a design firm to devote time to seeing this project through, says he’s confident. “I started the initiative with the simple belief that Milwaukee deserves a great flag,” he tells CityLab. “By doing so, I have attracted people who also believe that, and they have made it their cause.”