The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Missouri county’s ‘cluttered’ seal was ridiculed online. It prompted a global search for a replacement.

Harold Gallaher, St. Francois County’s presiding commissioner, designed the current seal in 2018 on a tight deadline because the county’s original seal was made of fabric and could not be reproduced on paper. (Harold Gallaher)
4 min

Harold Gallaher was crunched for time.

One Friday afternoon in 2018, a nonprofit organization called the St. Francois County presiding commissioner asking for a copy of the Missouri county’s seal for a publication it was about to print. The nonprofit, Gallaher recalled, needed the seal by Monday.

But the county seal, designed by a high school student in 1982, lay on a piece of fabric with a needlework design that could not be reproduced on paper.

“I had the weekend to produce the seal,” Gallaher, 74, told The Washington Post in an interview. “So I said, ‘Let’s get it done.’ ”

Gallaher got to work.

A mechanical engineer with no previous design experience, Gallaher searched for seal examples online. Using computer software he no longer remembers the name of, Gallaher designed a digital logo incorporating elements of the original seal. The county has used it ever since.

Until recently, the gray circle featuring a bald eagle flying over the U.S. flag, surrounded by the Bible, a cross, the county’s map, and a pickax and shovel, did not receive much attention.

“We were very happy with it,” Gallaher told The Post. “People took it well initially.”

That all changed over a week ago when Reddit users posted the seal to the CrappyDesign subreddit, drawing over 17,000 upvotes and comments mocking its design.

“It’s missing the comic sans font,” one user said.

“Yeah they used power point for this one, I can tell,” said another.

“Adobe photoshop free trial,” a third commenter wrote.

Some users said they could not believe the seal was real, to which one person replied, “I live here and, unfortunately, it is not a joke.”

Gallaher, who has been the county’s presiding commissioner since 2015, is not a big social media user, he said. But soon after the county seal was posted on Reddit, residents informed him of the turmoil it had stirred online. He also received emails from people expressing their opinions about the seal.

“What I did was take full blame and make fun of it,” Gallaher, who is running for a third term, told The Post. “Considering the things we do every day, this is so minimal. We handle budgets, roads, health care, and here is this county seal getting all the attention. When you put it into perspective, it’s really not that big of a deal.”

The uproar was such that the county commission was forced to address it during a recent meeting. It also announced a contest for a new seal.

“I’ve said a 5-year-old kid with a high fever could do a better job than I did,” Gallaher said during the meeting.

On Tuesday, the commission formally announced a Feb. 28 deadline for entries in the worldwide competition. Participants must agree to allow the county to alter their designs as needed. Seven anonymous judges not employed by the county will select the winner, who will collect a $100 Visa gift card donated by Gallaher.

“I think every submission will be better than the seal we have now,” Gallaher said, laughing. “I don’t take my design very seriously.”

On Jan. 11, St. Francois County Presiding Commissioner Harold Gallaher announced a design contest for a new seal after the original one went viral on Reddit. (Video: St. Francois County)

Ted Kaye, author of “Good Flag, Bad Flag: How to Design a Great Flag,” called the current seal “cluttered.” He praised St. Francois County for allowing anyone to participate in the contest.

“Why not let the best designers in the world submit a design for you?” Kaye told The Post. He predicts the county will receive hundreds of proposals, especially if the seal is the subject of more Reddit discussions.

But not all experts agree.

John Caserta, a graphic design professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, said he was troubled by the county’s plan to get the new design free. Graphic design was once a skilled profession, requiring access to special training and tools. Now, he said, those careers are being replaced by low-cost software.

Sean Adams, chair of the graphic design programs at the ArtCenter College of Design in California, had a similar take.

“Find a good designer. Work with them,” Adams said. Seals are long-lasting and appear on official documents, he said, and skill should go into their designs.

If Gallaher were to design the seal again, he said, he would make some changes. But he hasn’t let the criticism get to him.

“I’m proud of getting it done,” he said.

Caserta said people probably have such strong reactions to St. Francois County’s seal because, in terms of design, it “breaks so many rules.”

“Most design is incredibly boring and uninteresting,” Caserta said. Gallaher’s seal, however, “has something in it for everyone.”