So I talked to the world’s foremost flag design expert the other day.
I say that as nonchalantly as I can, but it’s a big deal.
His name is Ted Kaye. He was leaving the next day to present to an international flag studies group in London. And a paragraph of his report cites Springfield’s flag redesign movement and my past columns on the matter.
Kaye reached out to me in May after finding my late 2015 column calling on designers to improve the look of our city’s flag. When applying the basic design principles on flags in Kaye’s pamphlet “Good Flag, Bad Flag,” Springfield’s 1938-era design breaks a few of the rules.
The last line of his email to me says it all: “It would be a shame for Springfield to stumble at the finish line.”
That statement has been nagging at me. It made me call him to ask how we don’t stumble here.
I agree. It feels like we are near the finish line. A group called Springfield Identity Project has created a new flag option. It’s pretty good and pays attention to the flag design principles. Organizers created it in a grassroots fashion and then commercialized the design by selling the image on T-shirts, hats, stickers and patches. They’ve also promoted it through artists painting the flag on a few buildings, and it’s created some buzz.
Kaye sees the potential in Springfield – one of about 80 cities he’s studying at various stages of flag redesign efforts.
The reason the Springfield Identity Project’s effort has stalled is clear to him: “Unknowingly, they got ahead of the process,” he says.
Springfield’s not alone. Kaye says nearly 20 American cities are stalled at the flag finish line. Most have neglected the city’s role. Yes, the bureaucratic step is cumbersome, but he says it’s critical.
“The key strategy is to get City Hall buy-in before engaging in flag redesign efforts,” Kaye tells me.
In other words, don’t leave the political process in the dust. If so, organizers have to convince city officials that, yes, our flag design is poor, but also this is the better flag to change it to.
“That’s a very heavy lift,” Kaye says.
So is all lost in Springfield? Nope.
“There are two directions the Springfield, Missouri, folks could go in,” he says.
1. Advance the flag as the people’s flag and see if City Hall will come around to it. Kaye likens it to doubling down on the redesign, accepting the cart is before the horse and pushing the cart very strongly for people to embrace it. “The theory is if enough people fly it around the city, City Council will shrug and say, ‘OK, we’ll adopt this,’” he says. “That’s happening in Joplin, by the way” – as well as in Milwaukee and Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
2. Reiterate the need for a new design at City Hall and offer the one idea with an invitation for all people to enter a public competition, even with kids. This opens the door to broader engagement and potentially a groundswell of understanding and support. It might look like this: Hundreds of design submissions, narrowed down by flag experts, then a community panel of historians, chamber officials, artists, designers and children rate the finalists to present the top scores to City Council. Kaye doesn’t advise for a voting contest.
With Kaye on the line, I had to ask: What do you think of the new flag proposal for Springfield?
He hesitates, saying nobody likes criticism from an outsider. Unless the outsider wrote the book on it, I remind him.
He puts on his design hat. Underneath it is tens of thousands of flag design reviews.
“They’re trying to do too much with their design,” Kaye says. “I would look at how to simplify it.”
After describing the flag in detail – the three small stars at the top and the “very unusual and interesting” eight-pointed star in dark blue topped with a white crown – he makes his case: “The Springfield proposal has four different things going on. If they would crank back two of those – say take the little stars off and give up on the crown theme and simply have that big on the blue and white stripes, that would be a compelling, simple design that would be immediately recognizable. And I think a more successful design.”
The 10 organizers of the Springfield Identity Project can do with that as they wish.
But Kaye was quick to reinforce this process is much more about politics than design. I think the flag Republic adopted last year shows us that; check it out for yourself, but it’s hardly a design improvement.
“What you need is someone in the city, whether it’s the mayor or a city councilmember to say, ‘Oh, we’ve got a crummy flag and we’re missing an opportunity for civic cohesion and community branding. Let’s do something about it,’” Kaye says.
I guess hitting the finish line starts with going through the front door. Now it’s in sight and so are the paths to get there.
Springfield Business Journal Editor Eric Olson can be reached at email@example.com.
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