After decades of flapping in the breeze virtually unnoticed, state flags in recent years have become national news. All eyes were on Mississippi this spring as citizens voted on a proposed new flag that replaced the Confederate battle banner in the upper left-hand corner with a swirl of stars. It was overwhelmingly rejected. Georgia, on the other hand, recently adopted a new blue flag that relegates the Confederate banner (occupying two- thirds of the old flag) to a tiny patch beneath the state seal.
• See how your state flag ranked in a recent NAVA survey and get tips on how to design a good flag. Click here
The redesign of these flags, successful or not, sparked intense debates about the Confederacy and its fight to keep African Americans in slavery. But racism and brutal history are not confined to flags of the South. Take Minnesota, whose flag Alfred Znamierowski describes this way in The World Encyclopedia of Flags (Lorenz Books, 1999): ‘The central scene displays a Native American giving way to a white settler.’
These debates also remind us how potent flags are as symbols. That’s why we find it odd that most of our 50 states fly such bland flags. In many cases it’s simply the state seal–usually an obscure and overly decorous scene–set on a blue or white background. From a distance, it’s difficult to tell apart the flags of Connecticut, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Utah, and Virginia. Meanwhile, Oregon, Montana, Wisconsin, and Kansas distinguish themselves only by their name–a less-than-imaginative solution. And the flags of many Canadian provinces are just as dull in their own way.
In an era when visual icons, from the Nike swoosh to anarchists’ black banners, have such cultural power, it seems baffling that so many states pass up the chance for a symbol that could win people’s attention and stir their souls. Texas and Quebec, for instance, have bold and attractive flags seen frequently on travel brochures, T-shirts, and other artifacts that promote both places’ proud sense of identity. The memorable flags of Maryland, Arizona, New Mexico, Tennessee, Colorado, South Carolina, the provinces of Saskatchewan and New Brunswick, the new Canadian territory of Nunavut, and the United States commonwealth of Puerto Rico leave us with a strong visual representation of those places.
Now is the perfect time, with folks in Georgia and Mississippi leading the way, for all of us to explore ideas for more striking and soul-stirring flags. To start the discussion and get everyone’s creative juices flowing, we commissioned design firms in Ontario, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Washington state, and Georgia to propose new flags for their homes. (While applauding Georgians for downsizing the Confederate imagery on their flag–which has adorned it only since 1956–we think they deserve something more distinctive than the usual state seal on a blue background.)
We hope these designs spark ideas about a new flag for the place you call home.
Amy Strauch et al. of what!design • Allston
‘This new Massachusetts flag celebrates the unique history and progressive people of the state. The blue and white stripes acknowledge the nautical roots of the ‘Bay State’ and slant toward the right to denote technological innovation. The continental blue represents loyalty for the minutemen. The yellow symbolizes hope and wisdom as it sides just three edges of the flag, signifying a solid foundation that is open to new ideas. The six stars represent our being the sixth state in the Union, the red in the center for the blood shed to create this nation.’
Terry Marks et al. of Terry Marks Design • Seattle
‘Washington State, a land of diverse natural beauty, is the ‘Evergreen State’ and the expanse of green here (a color green actually found in nature) symbolizes this. The blue is for the Pacific Ocean and gold for the sun at the horizon line. Washington is somewhat divided geographically and cognitively. The area around Seattle is the center of industry and is perceived as a gateway for new horizons but is a surprisingly small area given Washington’s mountains, forests, and coastlines. Hence the composition of the fields of color on our new flag.’
Antonio Enrico De Luca & Phoukham Sackda of open.inc • Toronto
‘Canada’s Provincial flags are visually striking as a family. With a similiar and bold color palette and overlapping symbolism, they’ve got a good thing going. But the Union Jack flying above Ontario, an increasingly ethnically diverse province, needs a little tweaking. The Sugar Maple leaf gives the Canadian flag its famous red emblem. On this new Ontario flag we portray the Sugar Maple’s unique ‘helicopter’ seed pod as a way to show its relationship to its mother flag. We feel that it symbolically represents a sense of movement and growth for our province.’
Kevin Wade & Jennifer Katcha of Planet Propaganda • Madison
‘One of our favorite flags is Arizona’s. It has a feeling about it that represents the state well instead of being crammed with tons of outdated symbolism like many of the state flags. But, where Arizona is about the sun, Wisconsin is about the land. The stripes represent the rich farmlands of our state. Wisconsin’s slogan, ‘FORWARD,’ anchors the design. It seems a fitting thought, and shows optimism– like most folks here in Wisconsin. We ringed 30 stars around the focal point of the flag to represent Wisconsin being the 30th state in the union. The green and blue are obvious nods to the great outdoors, the lakes and sky, and of course the prairie and farmlands.’
Scott Banks et al. of Banks Albers Design • Atlanta
‘The project was much harder than we thought. It was very tempting to make a sharp statement, or some social comment. But in the end we felt a positive statement that uses historical reference was the best route. Through discussions we found it interesting that two of the most significant experiences of Georgia’s history started with the same word. The Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. Each was fighting for individual rights–although, ironically, one for the rights to oppress others and one to prevent such oppression. We felt the images of the cannon and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (born in Atlanta), though reflecting upon the past, will always affect the future of Georgia and of the U.S. The 13 stars pay homage to the original colonies and the fourth is largest, marking Georgia’s place in signing the Declaration of Independence.’
Discuss flags in Cafe Utne: cafe.utne.com