Home U.S. News How States Are Threading the Needle on Flag Design

How States Are Threading the Needle on Flag Design

How States Are Threading the Needle on Flag Design

For more than a century, Utah’s flag has paid homage to the state’s founding settlers: the sego lilies they subsisted on when food was scarce, a beehive symbolizing their communal spirit.

From a distance, though, it looks a lot like several other state flags that also feature a seal on a blue background.

So, Utah embarked on a redesign. But it found that changing a state flag to make it stand out from the crowd is not a simple process.

Brad Holdaway and SuAnn Taylor went to a steakhouse carrying a folding table, a homemade sign and hopes of stopping Utah from replacing its old state flag with a new banner that the Republican-controlled Legislature had just approved.

“They’re trying to cancel our heritage,” Mr. Holdaway said as the couple tried, with notable success, to convince people waiting for brunch to sign a petition calling for a statewide flag vote.

For years, some Utahns had talked about changing their flag to something more distinct, something that more people might actually fly outside their house or wear on a T-shirt. Finally, after a marathon of commission meetings and bills and a newspaper contest, lawmakers settled this year on a replacement.

Utah’s new flag, primarily U.S.A. red, white and blue, pays homage to the state’s snow-capped mountain peaks …

… and nickname, the Beehive State, which has special resonance for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Plenty of people liked the new flag, which had bipartisan legislative support and was signed into law in March by Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican. But at a moment when several states across the country are weighing new flag designs — including Illinois, Maine, Michigan and Minnesota — the furious backlash that ensued in Utah shows just how politically risky such a change can be.

Flags, even ones that are not triumphs of graphic design, become enmeshed in a state’s self-image, and changing them introduces difficult questions of identity and place at a time of deep polarization.

Before Mr. Cox even signed the new flag into law, opponents were collecting signatures to place the issue on the ballot. When that effort failed, they announced plans to try again. Mr. Cox, who said he had a longstanding interest in flags and hoped the new banner would be a unifying force, said he was caught off guard by the intensity of the backlash.

Some residents petitioned to keep the current Utah flag.

Kim Raff for The New York Times

“I actually think the controversy has far less to do with the flag and far more to do with this moment that we find ourselves, in a country where there is so much animosity and division,” the governor said in an interview. He added: “There are just a lot of people that are worried that things are changing too rapidly in our country.”

Ted Kaye, a vexillologist — someone who studies flags — at the North American Vexillological Association, or NAVA, made a similar observation. People, he said, “love the idea of continuity, of this flag has been part of our history, and I don’t want to change our history.”

Five Guiding Principles of Flag Design

To start with, “You can’t please everybody,” Mr. Kaye said.

So is it worth it to attempt a redesign? Elizabeth Goodspeed, a graphic designer and design critic, thinks so. The flag, she said, is “like a physical, visual manifestation of a state’s values in the same way that a logo in a brand system represents what a company cares about.” From that perspective, she explained, “rebranding is a very powerful tool.”

Officials hope Utah’s new flag design will be embraced by state residents.

Kim Raff for The New York Times

Although preference can be subjective, there are ways to create a stronger design. Mr. Kaye wrote the NAVA guide on what makes a “good” flag, with five basic principles:

  • They’re simple and therefore easy to remember.
  • They display symbols that are meaningful to their state.
  • They use just a few colors.
  • They don’t rely on lettering or seals.
  • And they don’t look like any other state’s flag.

Alaska’s flag is an example of good design, according to the guide, because it uses one symbol, the star, which both represents the state and relates to national imagery.

The rules can be successfully bent or even broken. Text on a flag, for example, is difficult to read from the distance at which flags are usually viewed and will appear backwards on the reverse side of the flag, according to Mr. Kaye’s guide. Colorado’s flag bends this rule with its “C” because the letter works as a bold graphic element.

California’s flag, which says “California Republic,” fully breaks the rule. But it carries historic meaning and has long been iconic.

Ms. Goodspeed pointed to her own state of Rhode Island’s flag, which says “Hope,” as another exception. “Text can be very graphic and text can be designed to be very visible,” she said.

The guidelines are based on a flag’s main function, which is to be flown. It needs to be recognizable from a distance in order to be effective.

If we compare Nebraska’s flag with Texas’ flag, each is recognizable at this size.

The state flags of Nebraska and Texas.

If they’re scaled down to how they might appear from afar, Texas’ Lone Star design is still legible. But Nebraska’s design is harder to discern.

Many of the state flags that are considered iconic — including Maryland’s, California’s, South Carolina’s and New Mexico’s — pass this test, even if they don’t follow all of Mr. Kaye’s rules.

The state flags of Maryland, California, South Carolina, and New Mexico.

These flags have also been widely embraced by the residents of their respective states, which, according to Laura Scofield, a graphic designer and vexillologist, is the real measure of a good flag. A design is a success, she said, when people appropriate it or modify it to their ends.

People who feel a strong connection to these flags not only fly them outside their homes or businesses, but also wear them as clothing and even have them tattooed on their bodies. In this way, the experts said, people can send a signal of belonging, both to those within the group and those outside it.

With a flag, Mr. Kaye emphasized, a person can say: “I’m proud of my tribe. This is my tribe.”

Where the Winds of Change Are Blowing

When the Nebraska flag, a notably verbose and hard-to-discern banner, flew upside-down outside the State Capitol a few years ago, nobody noticed for days.

The episode reinvigorated an on-again, off-again conversation about adopting a more distinct Nebraska banner. A lawmaker introduced a bill and solicited design ideas, but the measure fizzled, more out of disinterest than partisan fervor.

Nebraska is one of several states with a long tradition of talking about changing the flag without ever doing it. Others have made cosmetic changes to their flags in recent decades, tweaking a color or adding a small detail.

South Dakota removed “The Sunshine State” from its flag in 1992 after ceding that nickname to Florida.

The old and new flag designs of South Dakota.

Louisiana standardized its pelican-forward design in 2010.

The old and new flag designs of Louisiana.

Mississippi went further, and in 2020 became the last state to remove the Confederate battle emblem from its flag.

The old and new flag designs of Mississippi.

The country finds itself now at the cusp of a new vexillological frontier, with several city and state governments weighing new designs. Beyond Utah, at least four other states considered legislation this year that could lead to overhauls.

In Maine, another member of the seal-on-a-blue-background club, one bill called for reverting to a more distinctive design first adopted more than a century ago. That flag, which some residents fly already, features a lone pine tree and a blue star on a yellow field.

Maine’s current flag, featuring a seal on a blue background.

A version of Maine’s 1901 flag

In Michigan, a lawmaker suggested a panel to consider new flag designs. And in Illinois and Minnesota, legislators passed bills creating commissions to weigh new, more distinct banners.

Michigan’s current flag

Though the Michigan and Illinois flags are, according to critics, merely dull, the Minnesota flag has been criticized for including depictions of Native Americans that some see as racist.

State Senator Doris Turner, the Democrat who sponsored the flag bill in Illinois, said she was introduced to her state’s flag, which features a large eagle and the state name on a white background, in elementary school. But she did not think much of it over the years. She said she hoped to find something that would become more entwined with the state’s identity.

“If you look at the Texas flag, no matter where you see that flag, if it’s flying, if it’s on a mug, if it’s on a postcard, you know the Lone Star State,” she said. But with Illinois, she said, “you wouldn’t know it was the Illinois flag other than the fact that ‘Illinois’ is emboldened at the bottom of it.”

A High Standard in Utah

In Utah, the new, more colorful flag is set to become the official banner of the state next year. But it has already been hoisted atop some flagpoles, a sign for supporters that the years of work and political discomfort were worth the struggle.

Some Utahns have already adopted the new flag design, even though it doesn’t officially become the state flag until next year.

Kim Raff for The New York Times

“This flag really leans into our history and anybody who doesn’t see that just simply refuses,” said Chance Hammock, a resident and vocal supporter of the new banner, which he said celebrated Utah’s unique geography and history while maintaining a “gorgeous” design.

Aesthetics aside, if one goal of the new Utah flag was to unify the state, it has not yet succeeded. Particularly for some on the political right, the new banner has become a symbol of an unwelcome and much broader push to change things that do not need changing.

“They’re watering down the history, they’re watering down the significance, so they could slap it on a hat and slap it on a T-shirt and make a couple bucks,” said Chad Saunders, an organizer of the opposition to the new flag. “That has nothing to do with pride.”

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