This article is a guest piece, courtesy of Masao Okazaki. Scroll down to the bottom of the page to learn more about the author.
After Roman Mars gave a 2015 TED Talk on why flags in the United States are so poorly designed yet rarely noticed, many towns in North America recognized the importance of having flags that follow the 5 basic principles of flag design suggested by Ted Kaye in his 2013 book Good Flag, Bad Flag (GFBF). To design a “good” flag that successfully represents a city while being in motion and seen from afar, these principles are: “keep it simple,” “use meaningful symbolism,” “use 2 or 3 basic colors,” “no lettering or seals,” and “be distinctive or be related” (nava.org/good-flag-bad-flag). Because many communities have recognized that their flag isn’t “good,” is rarely used, has been forgotten, or has never existed, various attempts have recently been made to develop or improve city flags.
My recent research for the Portland Flag Association has found that in many US and Canadian communities, flags were designed and proposed by residents, were chosen with contests, or were produced by city governments. In this article, I’ll talk about flags officially adopted in 43 cities in 2018 (and mention several other cities that have come close).
How and why flags are designed
Although GFBF suggests 5 principles to design flags that they can be identified from a distance while in motion, the main role now played by North American city flags can be very different. City flags usually do fly, perhaps on a single tall pole in front of city hall. But a more common role of flags is to be displayed inside government offices, city council halls, and court rooms (and to be carried during the “parade of flags” of municipal government conferences). If the flag doesn’t have to move or to be understood from afar or its back side, a seal-on-a-bedsheet (SOB) is often made. Seals can be extremely complex and show many images for identification and representation, such as coats of arms and other heraldic elements, historic events, civic structures, maps, plants, animals, other flags, the date of establishment, and, of course, the names of the city. If a city has a seal (as most do), it can be placed on a navy-blue field (base or background) to easily, quickly, and cheaply produce a flag. Unfortunately, all SOB flags are “bad.”
An unusual yet interesting style of “bad” flags is “Massachusetts syndrome.” Because all towns in the commonwealth have been asked to display a flag in the State House’s Great Hall, most towns do have flags. However, a few towns have just recently designed extremely complex flags with the city’s name, photographs, paintings, and, apparently, a quilt. These flags are definitely “bad,” in a striking way, but might not be used for any other purpose.
Sadly, the most common role of North American city flags today is not to fly outside or to stand inside but to serve as a visual image on websites, business cards, documents, plaques, signs, doors, vehicles, and badges. Therefore, to serve this non-physical role, city flags are far from “good.” Often, the flag is produced as a logo-on-a-bedsheet (LOB) having colorful yet nonspecific elements, (often) a motto, and (of course) the city’s name placed on a white field.
The logo has often been professionally designed at a high cost (as much as USD 50,000) for branding, advertising, marketing, or self-promotion. Because of its cost and widespread use, a new logo is usually proudly announced by the city, but its appearance on a flag is often incidental.
An unfortunate recent example of an LOB is the flag of Des Moines, Iowa. The town’s previous flag had been rated, by the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA) in The American City Flag Survey of 2004, as the 14th best (of 150) US flag. But this “good” flag was replaced in 2008 by a “bad” LOB flag, which was believed to better represent the redeveloped city. Such LOB flags are increasingly common in Canada and the United States. However, logos don’t always make “bad” flags. The 2017 flag of St. George, Utah, contains only a part of the city’s logo and no text on a navy-blue field; like other good flags it is attractive and distinct. The city’s previous flag and logo contained only squiggly text.
How should flags be judged?
I enjoy finding flags and thinking how well they play their traditional role of being understood from afar while flying. So, when I view flags on the Internet, I shrink the image to be the size of my thumb at arm’s length and, for fun, see it in motion with the website Flag Waver. However, I think that too many people who design or judge flags look at them filling a computer screen. When seen at a such a large size, flags are allowed to contain images (objects and lines) and text that are too small, too detailed, or too complex to be understood from a distance.
Although I like to judge new flags adopted anywhere in Canada or the United States, I’ve lived for more than a decade in only one town, Rochester, Minnesota (my hometown), that tried to adopt a new flag in 2018. Therefore, while I know a bit about some things (basic vexillology but not heraldry), I rarely know what residents of other towns want when they’re developing flags. The residents might want their flag to be at least attractive, to represent their town, and be a source of civic pride, unity, historical knowledge, and respect (and to be produced only quickly and at a little or no cost). The city government, of course, might have different reasons for having a flag. Furthermore, whether the government and the residents know or care about GFBF principles is unclear, despite GFBF and Roman Mars’s TED Talk being referred to by most flag contests. And, of course, a flag can still be effective for various roles without meeting some or all GFBF principles. Therefore, when new city flags appear “bad” to me, I might not know how they’ve satisfied the government and residents enough to be officially adopted.
A similar problem might affect designers who enter the flag contests of cities they’ve never lived in or even visited. Of flags entered in Rochester’s unofficial flag contest, I felt that many, especially those designed by non-residents, were too generic, showing nothing special about my hometown, and could have been used by almost any city that has ground, plants, water, and sky (or hills, buildings, streets, and residents). In contrast, non-resident designers might include elements that refer to the city’s history, geography, or demographics (found with Wikipedia) but are unwanted, forgotten, or considered unimportant by residents.
Thanks to the Internet, a person living anywhere on Earth can view and judge a new flag of a small town in North America. But what should be said about such a flag? On social media websites (such as Facebook groups associated with NAVA and Flags of the World), self-proclaimed vexillologists apparently achieve a strange satisfaction by posting comments that a new flag is “TEH UGLIEST EVER!!!” “horrible,” or “disgusting” or by posting an animated GIF of a comical, exaggerated emotional reaction or an emoji of vomiting. If the “flag enthusiast” makes such comments, I think he (usually “he”) hasn’t seen nearly enough flags and needs to see a doctor (either a psychiatrist or a gastroenterologist). Some commenters also like to suggest that a flag is “slightly commie” or “too third-world” (possibly a code for “too Islamic”) and to show which flags the new one, in a way, resembles. (I wonder if residents of a small, rural town are concerned that their flag resembles one of the several million flags in the world?) When I say in this article what I think about the new flags of 2018, I’ll try my best not to insult cities and their residents (other than saying their flag is “bad”) and not to be such an inexperienced, unhealthy judge.
The new flags of 2018
Of the city flags adopted in 2018, at least 14 were developed by the town itself and included new designs, revisions of existing designs, SOBs, or LOBs. Unfortunately, I think most of these flags are “bad.” For example, LOB flags were adopted by Minot, North Dakota (with only the city’s name and a flying star), Georgetown, Texas (with a big cursive “G”), and Greenwood, Arkansas (with a clock tower, motto, year of establishment, and flags of the USA, Arkansas, and the National League of Families of POW/MIA). Davis, California, adopted an old, unofficial LOB flag only after the winner of an unofficial flag contest was proposed. The flag of Bensenville, Indiana, includes a “B” logo surrounded by apparently meaningless white horizontal lines to form a Band-Aid–like image. The new flag of Rapid City, South Dakota, has a detailed drawing of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, names of the city and state, and a city nickname. However, Rapid City’s excuse for this flag was that improvement was less important than many other tasks. Such an opinion is posted in newspaper websites by the residents of many towns, who don’t want any time or money “wasted” on flags.
Cities that adopted SOB flags were Butler, Alabama (with a map that appears on the state seal), Kalama, Washington (the city’s seal and flag were simultaneously designed), and Fort Payne, Alabama (whose flag combined 2 contest-winning flags by placing a bilingual seal over a fairly attractive background with mountains and sky). The flag of Burns Lake, British Columbia, has the city’s name and a seal containing poorly contrasting shades of blue. The flag of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, is also an SOB but at least has an “improved” version of an earlier seal. Rather than being an SOB or LOB, the flag of Williamsburg, Massachusetts, has a severe case of “Massachusetts syndrome.” Because the flag in upright while hanging vertically from the hoist, it is taller than it is long and its painted, multicolored imagery and the city name are understood in only that position. The flag probably cannot be flown from a standard flagpole.
Of the flags designed by a city itself (or a related organization), one I thought was “good” was that of Metairie, Louisiana, which includes gold fleurs-de-lis and coeurs-de-lis (lily hearts) and blue and red right-triangle fields. Also “good” was the flag of Wheeling, West Virginia, which resembles, but is distinct from, Chicago’s flag by having 5 “navigation” stars for historical events and horizontal bars for rivers and creeks. A small change was made to the 55-year-old flag of Madison, Wisconsin, with was the 11th best flag in the US by NAVA’s 2004 survey; its Zia sun symbol was changed to a black cross representing lakes and the state capitol.
Several flags officially adopted by cities had been designed and proposed by residents. The flag of Claypool, Indiana, was the result of a contest among 4th-grade elementary school students. However, its graphic elements cannot be understood without being explained: 3 stars represent agricultural crops, vertical lines represent (but don’t resemble) railroad tracks, and the field’s color represents basketball. Flags I found to be too simple were those of Cedar Bluff, Alabama (including an evergreen, a white sphere, and a blue field that can represent any city with trees), and Clinton, Indiana (which has indistinct blue and green bars and a steamboat paddlewheel, which I thought was a spider’s web). The flag of Folsom, California, is not “bad,” but I don’t like its simple dark imagery and, as a non-resident, find its symbolism (representing rivers, Folsom Prison, and Johnny Cash) too hard to understand and appreciate. (Maybe I have to listen to more Johnny Cash.) Definitely “good” flags were adopted by Euclid, Ohio (which has 3 points on its fly representing an E), and Hutchinson, Kansas (which has, from its hoist, vertical bars of 1/6, 1/3, and 1/2 of its length). I found both of these flags to be simple, unusual, and distinct.
Contests for flags can be official and run by the city government, semi-official and run by a local institution (such as an arts board, historical society, or chamber of commerce), or unofficial and run by a group of “civilian” residents. The contests also differ greatly in the size of the town, their rules and guidelines, the number of entries, the methods of judging entries and choosing winners, and the chance of a winning flag being officially adopted by a city council.
Flag contests can have varied rules and processes. For example, contests have ranged in time — from announcement through entry deadline to winner adoption — from 1 month to several years. The rules might include who can enter (residents or workers of the city or anyone on the planet), how many flags can be entered by a single person (1 flag or any number), and the age of entrants (elementary school students or people of any age). Often included as guidelines are some or all of the 5 GFBF principles, which might or might not be followed when the flag is officially adopted by the city council. Contests usually require the originality of the images (no plagiarism, which is occasionally unrecognized) and that a flag’s symbolism be explained in a short text. In contrast, a contest might require, allow, or suggest the use of specific colors, images (such as part of the city’s logo or seal), or text (such as the city’s name and date of establishment).
Some flag contests in 2018 had a winner I think is “bad,” probably because of what the contest allowed. Some towns used none or just a few of the 5 GFBF principles and adopted flags that were basically SOBs or LOBs with names, dates, and mottos. The flag of Eupora, Mississippi, is like a SOB, having a large magnolia splitting the year of establishment and the city’s name and a motto in ribbons above and below. The rules for the contest in Milford, Utah, said entries should be “in color, simple, clean, and clear” but did not prohibit text. As a result, the winning flag includes a circular motto with small letters repeating the stated goal of the contest and a small compass rose with the town’s name above it. In Harrisburg, North Carolina, the contest guidelines allowed the town’s logo but no other lettering or seals; the winning flag includes the town’s name and motto from the logo (as well as a complex illustration of a river, railroad tracks, farm, buildings, and city hall), but the losing finalists did not.
Even when a flag wins a contest, it might have done so without the rules or guidelines being followed or it might have been later revised. For example, the contest of Chandler, Indiana, asked for flags that followed the 5 GFBF principles, but the adopted flag has the city’s name, the year of establishment, and complex, detailed images of a train, railroad tracks, a mountain, and pickaxes. In contrast, the guidelines of the Pittsboro, Indiana, flag contest asked entrants to view Roman Mars’s TED Talk and to follow 4 GFBF principles (text was allowed), but to the winning flag the city council added the city’s full name (to what had originally been a large, Colorado-like first letter) and the year of establishment.
Of the flags that were officially adopted after contests in 2018, the ones that I consider “good,” despite my knowing almost nothing about the towns and the meanings of the flags, are those of Anaheim, California; Anthony, Texas; Lake Wales, Florida; Lisbon, Ohio; Sweetwater, Texas; and Union, Kentucky. In addition, I think that the flag of Lamoni, Iowa, is “almost good,” even though a large, stylish city name is included. If you always oppose flags having text, please note Japanese prefectural flags. They are often considered attractive by Western vexillologists but many are composed of only highly stylized Japanese scripts or Chinese characters. How would Westerners feel if these Japanese flags instead had stylized Roman letters?
Several flag contest winners weren’t completely “bad” but have designs that could be improved. The flag of Doylestown Township, Pennsylvania, has white stars that are not well separated from a gold bar and has images of an oak tree and wheat that are too detailed. The flag of El Dorado, Kansas, has a central image of 4 oil derricks and wheat stalks that are too abstract and unclear. The flag of Reno, Nevada, has a tiny star and is similar to the popular, yet officially rejected, “People’s Flag” of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Strangely, a Milwaukee city council member complained that the proposed People’s Flag was similar to Reno’s flag, which had been designed later but was officially adopted.) The flag of Liberty Lake, Washington, has a central image resembling Milwaukee’s “People’s Flag” with a historic pavilion that is too small and complex. Several flags have colors that are not clearly separated: that of Augusta, Kansas, has a large, dark blue “A” above the brown center of a sunflower and a red field, and that of Jamestown, North Carolina, has a dark green diamond on a navy-blue field. The flag of Concrete, Washington, was first announced as a drawing of the contest winner in late 2017 but was not shown in its revised final form until 2018. The flag now has greater contrast between the images but still has a green mountain against a blue sky to which have been added a detailed white peak and very thin black lines of poor separation.
The flags of 2 cities are the results of unofficial “People’s Flag” contests and were adopted a year or more after they had won: Tulsa, Oklahoma (since 2017), and Sioux Falls, South Dakota (since 2014). Both flags won contests that had been run, advised, entered, and voted on by many flag enthusiasts in large cities (400,000 and 174,000 residents, respectively) and both are, as a result, vexillologically “good.”
Efforts failed or unclear
Despite new, old, or improved flags being officially adopted in 43 cities, efforts have failed in several cities. Winners of unofficial flag contests were rejected by the city council in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Rochester, Minnesota (2 winners); and Davis, California (a previously unofficial flag was adopted instead); and 5 finalists of an official contest were beat in an election by the present LOB flag in Fayetteville, Georgia. After finalists were announced, 1 contest was halted (Rockford, Illinois), the result of voting is unknown (College Place, Washington), and the flag to be developed from several winners has not been revealed (Dublin, Ohio). Contests have failed because of too few entries (New Berlin, Pennsylvania: confirmed by email) and have apparently failed in 4 cities (Martins Ferry, Ohio; Cannelton, Indiana; Wilkeson, Washington; and Mount Airy, North Carolina: no entries reported many months after deadline, despite email requests).
What will come
Despite officially adopted flags being either “good” or “bad,” 2018 was a good year for the development of flags. In 2019, new flags have already been adopted in 5 towns (Garnett, Kansas; Milford, Nebraska; Park City, Kansas; Rockyford, Alberta; and West Chester, Pennsylvania), an official contest winner has been rejected in 1 town (Scottsdale, Arizona), and flag contests or development projects are in progress in at least 12 cities (Duluth, Minnesota; Franklin Township, Michigan; Manhattan, Kansas; Marysville, Ohio; Plainfield, New Jersey; Saint Michaels, Maryland; Salt Lake City, Utah; Silverton, Oregon; Sunbury, Pennsylvania; Topeka, Kansas; and West Plains, Missouri). So, let’s hope that 2019 year will be even better than 2018.
About the guest author...
This guest article was kindly written for Vexillology News by Masao Okazaki.
Masao Okazaki has been too interested in flags since 2017, when he sent 5 entries to a flag contest for Rochester MN (and won $50 for third place). Born in Brooklyn, New York, raised in Rochester, Minnesota, and sort-of-educated in St. Louis, he is now a medical school professor in Tokyo. Other interests include petting cats, designing starships, correcting your grammatical errors, and going to movies with his wife Sachiko.