It’s a Grand New Flag!

By Trey Delida

“Let’s run it up the flagpole” is a figurative phrase legislators use when workshopping a new idea. Recently, however, the phrase has taken on a literal meaning as a number of states have introduced or approved a major redesign of their state flags.

“In the last 20-25 years, there are two fundamental reasons why states are changing their flags. The first is offensive symbolism. The second is poor design,” according to Ted Kaye, secretary of the North American Vexillology Association (NAVA).

Kaye has been involved in several flag redesigns in the states and internationally in the past two decades. In 2016, he compiled the works of 20 vexillologists/vexillographers into a booklet entitled, “’Good’ Flag, ‘Bad’ Flag,” which lists the five principles of good flag design. These guiding principles are often referenced in the flag redesign process and have become a touchstone for the creation of new flags.

The Five Principles of Flag Design

Based on these principles, states like Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Alaska, Maryland and South Carolina exhibit the qualities of good flag design through their simple yet memorable composition.

Almost 20 years ago, NAVA administered a survey asking people to rate the design qualities of U.S. and Canadian state, provincial and territorial flags. The resulting report was disseminated to media groups across the country with varying reactions, which Kaye believes changed how states viewed their flags.

“It was really the first time on a national scale, that state flags were compared to each other and shared with the public,” Kaye said. “States are starting to understand that the flag can be an important symbol representing themselves to the rest of the world and their residents. Call it branding, if you wish.”

Recent legislation has shown that lawmakers and voters alike feel that the “seal on a bedsheet” design no longer represents them. Such is the case for states like Utah, which recently voted to raise a new flag.

In 2023, four years after legislation was introduced, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed the bill enacting a new state flag. Sen. Daniel McCay, however, became involved much earlier in the process, thanks to the 2015 TED Talk by Roman Mars, “Why city flags may be the worst-designed thing you’ve never noticed.”

“After I watched that podcast, I called up the House sponsor of the bill, Rep. Steve Handy, and said, ‘Steve, I think we might need to do this,’” McCay recalled.

A handful of flag bills failed to pass in 2019 before the passage of SB 48, which was sponsored by Handy and McCay in 2021. The resulting Utah State Flag Task Force, comprised of six subcommittees, launched its “More Than a Flag” campaign that accepted thousands of potential designs from enthused Utahns.

“During the process I talked to thousands of Utahns. I traveled the state and talked to people in grocery stores, I talked to people in hardware stores — anywhere I was for that year and a half, I was talking to people about the flag,” McCay said. “It became this mission in some ways to capture, you know, Utah and make a flag that was representative of that. I was worried about not getting it right.”

The final design resulted from 70 people’s work pieced together to create a more modern emblem representing Utah’s heritage and landscape. Receiving the name “Beehive Flag,” the new design highlights the state’s snow-capped mountains, the southern red-rock canyons, and its historic ties to the early Mormon pioneers through the beehive symbol.

“One thing that I love about the new flag, is that it is 100% about Utah. I think that is a tribute to the iterative, constant public outreach and public process that helped refine the design to make it what it is.”

While Utah’s new flag is largely considered a success, it is not without criticism. Prior to the new flag’s adoption, opponents collected signatures to place the issue on the ballot. While these efforts failed, it is an indicator that this level of change can be difficult for state leaders to navigate. In an effort to find a middle ground, lawmakers moved to keep the original Utah flag as the historic state flag.

On May 11, the North Star State officially adopted its new state flag, replacing the original, which brought up painful memories for Native American communities. The original state crest and flag depicted a white settler farming while a Native American rides off on a horse. Army Capt. Seth Eastman designed the seal in 1858 and his wife’s accompanying poem about the design confirmed its problematic interpretation.

For Sen. Mary Kunesh, a descendant of Standing Rock Lakota, this cause was especially close to home.

Kunesh was a primary author of SF 386 (2023), which passed with bipartisan support and subsequently launched the commission to redesign Minnesota’s flag.

“Not only did the state come to the realization of what that flag depicted, but it also gave a pause to understand the historical context of our indigenous people,” Kunesh said. “It allowed us to create a flag that really represents the Minnesota that we are today.”

Through the State Emblems Redesign Commission, state leaders worked in conjunction with designers, vexillologists and other members of the public to find a design that accurately reflected the state’s diverse communities and history. The Minnesota Historical Society was tasked with providing administrative support, gathering participants from across the state and setting up processes for design submissions and public comments.

According to the report of the commission, a total of 2,128 flag designs were submitted, garnering 21,882 public comments for redesign finalists via the main commission page.

The final design depicts a dark blue interpretive shape of Minnesota’s outline with an eight-point star in the center, representing the night sky and the North Star, or the state’s motto “L’étoile du Nord.” The other side of the flag is a bright blue color, symbolizing water, as Minnesota is commonly referred to as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes.”

One of the most prominent features in the Minnesota State Capitol is the large eight-pointed star on the floor of the rotunda beneath the dome. Throughout history, this star has been used in many cultures across the globe but was used extensively in quilting among Indigenous tribes. A marked difference from the original imagery.

“It’s phenomenal that I, with my Indigenous background and my unique knowledge of the history of Minnesota, was able to do this in partnership with so many people who believed in how important it was,” Kunesh said. “I think this is another indicator that Minnesota is willing to listen and learn and make positive changes.”

This sentiment rings true for Mississippi, which adopted a new flag in 2021 to replace the original which depicted a Confederate flag in the top left corner.

For Utah, a state founded on the principles of hard work, the new flag gives reverence to the original battle for statehood while setting the stage for a new era. Every facet of the new flag is formed out of a hexagon, the strongest naturally occurring shape.

“What I hope about the new flag, and we hope, is that Utah will be known for our strength,” McCay said.

For Minnesota, the new flag symbolizes a change in direction, one that all Minnesotans can stand behind.

“I think it demonstrates that the future of Minnesota is worth working for and worth fighting for,” Kunesh said. “We’re a people that are working hard to achieve inclusion and equality, and by exchanging or removing the hurtful flag that we had before, we’re taking another step closer to the goal of ensuring that we represent a positive Minnesota.”

Other states are still considering legislation that would change or modify their current state flag, including Michigan and Maine. In Illinois, the legislature plans on starting the redesign process later this year.