The only thing rarer than the sight of the majestic common loon on a Minnesota city lake is the actual sighting of a Minnesota city flag atop a flagpole.
In fact, it took going to a Minnesota United FC Loons game for me to spot my first two city flags of the calendar year. Even then, there were only two official municipal flags (St. Paul and Duluth) among the 30 or so flags being flown that day.
Yet, that didn’t surprise me, because Minnesota is the land of 10,000 bad flags.
Consider this: Do you even know if your city has a flag? If not, that is an indication that the city’s flag is no good.
And if you have seen your city’s flag, do you dare risk the scorn of your neighbors to fly it in front of your house? Based on this review of Minnesota city flags, I bet not.
Flags matter to me. As a kid, I pored through atlases for hours at a time, and in so doing I developed a love of political geography. This blended well with my love of sports. I will watch almost any international sports competition with a particular enjoyment of the flag-raising ceremony.
So it pains me to see the sad state of political design in Minnesota. About a month ago, City Pages wrote about a petition to change the state flag of Minnesota, and showed a few alternatives designed by flag enthusiasts. One of those (Option 1) was mine. (My volunteer design interests you might know from a recent Minneapolis skyway map and signage overhaul.)
Before we get into the review, let us first consider what makes a good flag. The proud flag nerds of the North American Vexillological Association provide five helpful guidelines for differentiating between good flags and bad ones. Here they are verbatim:
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…
2.) Use 2 or 3 Basic Colors. Limit the number of colors on the flag to three which contrast well and come from the standard color set…
3.) No Lettering or Seals. Never use writing of any kind or an organization’s seal…
4.) Be Distinctive or Be Related. Avoid duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections…
This shouldn’t be too hard. Let’s find out how Minnesota’s cities have done. I reviewed the flags of the 10 largest cities in Minnesota, plus Mankato. Why Mankato? Because it helps to prove my point.
St. Cloud, our 10th largest city, does not have any official flag that I could find. Although, when searching for a flag on their city website, I did learn they have plenty of flag football leagues.
You know who does have a flag though? Mankato.
Our 22nd largest city is the home of one of the state’s least subtle flags. As the flag so clearly demonstrates, the city of Mankato has two steamboat-navigable swervy rivers, which join at a slightly rotated star. And if you weren’t already convinced this represents Mankato, they added the city name.
Here’s the worst part. This flag was created in 1991 and not in 1868.
The Sleepy Suburbs
For every ounce of over-thinking Mankato put into its flag, these municipalities went too far the other way. You can imagine the first modern mayor of nearly every Twin Cities suburb saying, “We need a flag? Just put the city logo, as is, on a white bedsheet, and hoist it up that pole.”
Here’s one problem with just slapping text on a flag. Either half the time the text will be backwards or you need to use two sheets to ensure the text is always readable, doubling the cost of the flag. As suburbs are often concerned with fiscal responsibility, this seems relevant.
[Starts yawning…] Oh! I’ve been awoken from my slumber. I suppose this flag at least proves that by removing the city name, the ‘logo on white bed sheet’ style does indeed get a little better. It is clear they put some effort into this. Therefore, Bloomington is my recipient of the First Annual Suburban Flag Participation Award.
The Old Towns
So close, yet so far away. Why is it that politicians can’t resist plopping seals over the tops of flags? “I think we really need a seal!” said no one ever. So how does this keep happening???"
The capitol city loves it some collages. This flag could be really good, it has potential. But it ends up in mediocrity because there are just too many moving parts. Literally. Is that a flying tire?
The worst of the worst
...is home to the world famous Mayo Clinic and that means nearly 100 percent of the population is made up of medical professionals, but let us please make sure people remember us for our geese. Geese, something every American town has at least part of the year. But even if we replaced the geese with the aforementioned majestic common loon, this flag still wouldn’t work.
Maybe I just need to spell it out more plainly in the most Rochester font I can find…
There are times in life you need to say something truthful to someone, even though you know it will hurt them. In such instances, people like to start with a compliment that could come off as patronizing.
Well, flag of Minneapolis, you’ve done such a nice job sticking to two colors, and that is a really hard thing for flags to do. [Awkward silence, as everyone recognizes the truthbomb still to come.] But everything else about you is, well, abhorrent.
What bothers me most about this flag is its hollow symbolism. Actually, what bothers me most is that very big royal blue triangle. But the symbolism is not far behind. The flag doesn’t lie, and Minneapolis does indeed have science, industry, and recreation, all in one place. But so does every other major American city. That’s what makes them cities.
Minneapolis is unique, and deserves a flag that highlights this.
Re-examine who we are
There are major issues to tackle and political divisions in Trump’s America, but flag do-overs may be an area where the partisans can find common ground. If done right, with an open and transparent process, citizens would be able to engage with politics in a way they haven’t been afforded before.
At the very least, it would force municipalities to rethink who they are at their core. It might help bring a community together in a common effort and thusly increase civic pride.
This would be a change, and a refreshing one, kind of like sharing a Heineken or a Pepsi with a neighbor.
Real Life Examples
Just look at Chicago and Portland, two cities with flags that are now very much a part of the fabric of their cities. Milwaukee is toward the end of a citizen-led process of going from the worst flag ever made to quite possibly the best city flag in the nation.
We can’t let Milwaukee be better than us in anything.
Furthermore, a good city flag helps inform the overall design system of a community. If the symbolism of the flag is strong enough it can help inform the brand the city uses on welcome signs and snowplows and even your tax bill. Having a strong design system helps to create continuity across departments, which leads once again to cost savings.
Last but not least in the completely hypothetical, but fun to think about, scenario that your city became its own nation, would your current flag be good enough to fly at the United Nations?
As far-fetched as this hypothetical may sound, this should absolutely be the standard of your city’s new flag.
Now I don’t want to leave you without any hope. One Minnesota city has recently made every other Minnesota city look bad.
Crystal (population 22,000) is only the 47th largest city in Minnesota, but it may be our boldest, as flags go. A few weeks ago Crystal unveiled a new banner that passes NAVA’s guidelines, and does its city proud.
I’m not going to say this is the best city flag ever, but it works. It's something I can see their residents embracing wholeheartedly.
Now if only every other Minnesota city would follow suit.
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