5 City Flags That Were Worse Than Milwaukee’s (And Got Better)

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Do you know what your city’s flag looks like? Could you draw it without looking at a picture first?

If you’re from Milwaukee, the answer to question one is probably yes. As for question two… well, that’s part of the problem.

When Roman Mars, host of the wildly popular design podcast 99% Invisible, gave a 2015 TED talk about poorly designed city flags, he singled out Milwaukee’s as particularly bad. To be more precise, he called it “one of the biggest train wrecks in vexillological history.” (Vexillology, for the uninitiated, is the study of flags.)

milwaukee-wi-flag

Do you know what your city’s flag looks like? Could you draw it without looking at a picture first?

If you’re from Milwaukee, the answer to question one is probably yes. As for question two… well, that’s part of the problem.

When Roman Mars, host of the wildly popular design podcast 99% Invisible, gave a 2015 TED talk about poorly designed city flags, he singled out Milwaukee’s as particularly bad. To be more precise, he called it “one of the biggest train wrecks in vexillological history.” (Vexillology, for the uninitiated, is the study of flags.)

The flag’s problems, according to Mars and many others, are legion: It’s cluttered, redundant, and hard to decipher at a distance. Its designer clearly never read The Five Rules of Good Flag Design, as codified by The American Vexillological Association. Rule one: “Keep it Simple. A flag should be so simple a child could draw it.”

The flag was designed in 1951, after a city-wide contest solicited designs from citizens. Unable to decide on a winner, city officials combined elements from many designs into the one we see today. Twice in the last 40 years there have been attempts to change the flag: once in 1975 and again in 2001. But each time, the city decided to keep the old design.

That might change, thanks to the efforts of The People’s Flag of Milwaukee coalition, which last week unveiled the winner of its contest to replace the current banner. Here’s the design the people of Milwaukee chose, out of over 100 entries:

New Milwaukee Wisconsin City Flag

(image ℅ The People’s Flag of Milwaukee)

It’s a nice flag — elegant, straightforward, easily decipherable from the bottom of a flagpole — and time will tell if the city adopts it. In the meantime, here are five other cities who have worked to upgrade their flags from mess to masterpiece:

5. Dallas, TX

Dallas City Flag

Dallas’s flag, like so many others in Texas, rearranges the basic templates of the state flag — one star, red-white-and-blue color scheme — then plops a crest in the middle.

New City of Dallas Flag

(image ℅ Dallas May)

This proposed update, by the appropriately named Dallas May, replaces the star and seal with a pegasus. Is it a symbol of rebirth, flight, or another quintessentially Texan company, ExxonMobil?

4. South Bend, IN

City of South Bend, IN Old Flag

The old flag is generic and text-heavy, featuring the city seal on a yellow background. “Seal on a bed sheet” designs are a no-no for most flag-heads. City seals are designed for paper and are hard to read from a distance.

South Bend Indiana New Flag

The update, adopted in March 2016, chucks the seal in favor of a six-pointed star, which symbolizes the city’s six council districts. It retains the blue-and-yellow color scheme, but cleverly redeploys it to evoke the St. George river, whose southernmost bend gives the town its name.

3. El Paso, TX

City of El Paso Flag

Another lone star, another city seal, another busy and generic design.

Proposed City of El Paso Flag

(image ℅ James Reyes http://jamesreyes.tumblr.com/)

Addition by subtraction: By removing the text, greenery, and related accoutrements of the seal, the proposed redesign (by former resident James Reyes) focuses the eye on the most consistent facet of El Paso’s desert environment: the yellow sun. And against a lighter blue background, it really pops.

2. Bowling Green, KY

Bowling Green Flag

Rounded letters, two font sizes, and text crammed into the image: Could anyone read the text on this flag from the ground?

Bowling Green Proposed Flag

(℅ Nate Morguelan)

The proposed new flag by Nate Morguelan dispenses with text entirely, instead suggesting the town’s name through large patches of green and the three perspectival lines reaching from corner to corner, which represent the Barren river (blue), the highways and railways that pass through the city (grey), and the financial growth both brought to the city (gold).

1. Provo, UT

Provo Utah Old Flag

How ‘80s is this? Adopted in 1985, this design is generic, empty, and dated. And as many amateur vexillologists have noted, it bears a striking similarity to the bottle design for a popular brand of adult multivitamins.

Provo Utah New Flag

No more vitamins! The new flag, adopted in 2015, fills the acres of white space with a pleasant blue, and replaces the rainbow with the city’s logo, a sun rising over the mountains and a lake.