A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Australia had a failed flag referendum. The referendum was in New Zealand. The article has been corrected.
That changed on Tuesday when Utah’s Republican Gov. Spencer Cox signed a bill establishing a new state flag, which was chosen by committee and refined from more than 7,000 entries. Gone are the spears, the twin American flags, the bald eagle clutching a white crest, the beehive, the sego lilies. Gone are the words “INDUSTRY” and “UTAH,” the “1847” denoting the year Mormon pioneers came to the Utah, the “1896” marking when Utah became the 45th state. In its place is a yellow beehive — also a symbol from the early Mormon Church — to represent industry and community; white mountains with five peaks representing the state’s historic Tribal nations; a blue sky and a red base; and a five-pointed star.
Mississippi overhauled its flag in 2020 after nationwide pressure to drop Confederate symbols. Utah’s redesign, more aesthetic in nature, comes amid a growing sense that most state flags are poorly designed and fail at their basic function to clearly signal identity. Other states are noticing, too. Illinois, Massachusetts and Minnesota all have active or planned legislation to address their state flag design; a bill that would form a committee to explore remaking the state flag passed the Illinois Senate on Thursday with bipartisan support.
“I think the big picture here is there’s a wave of city flag redesign efforts going on, and a mini-wave of state redesign efforts,” said Ted Kaye, who compiled the design guide “Good Flag, Bad Flag” and serves as secretary of the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA).
The problem for many state flags is that they’re not only indistinguishable from other states, but also the design is a similarly bad one: 24 states have some kind of seal on a blue “bedsheet” — “S.O.B.s” — and 11 more only vary in the background color, according to Kaye.
“Fundamentally, seals aren’t meant to be on flags. They’re meant to be seen at a distance, on a piece of cloth, moving, and from both sides. A seal is meant to be seen close-up, on a piece of paper, not moving and on one side,” Kaye said.
While cities are more frequently undertaking flag redesigns as well, the number of states doing the same — or at least considering it — is notable, Kaye said. He attributes the trend to two main drivers: broader awareness of “Good Flag, Bad Flag” principles, and a hit podcast episode by “99% Invisible” host Roman Mars that in 2015 became a hugely successful TED Talk about “why city flags may be the worst-designed thing you’ve never noticed.”
Since Mars’s 2015 TED Talk, more than 300 U.S. cities have changed their flags — a figure NAVA began tracking now that the practice is more common, Kaye said.
“Sometimes I bring up the topic of flags, and people are like, ‘I don’t care about flags,’” Mars said at the beginning of his TED Talk. “And then we start talking about flags, and trust me, 100 percent of people care about flags.”
A sea of ‘S.O.B.s’
State Sen. Dan McCay (R), who sponsored Utah’s successful flag legislation, was a redesign naysayer before undergoing what he jokingly called “a flag-related religious experience.” In 2018, McCay, then a state House member, opposed a colleague’s proposal to change the flag, saying it was “a huge waste of time.”
But during the summer of 2019, the flags — well, signs — were everywhere. First was a family visit to Mount Rushmore where, not realizing the flags were sorted alphabetically, McCay checked every one of the two dozen blue flags with a crest or circle to find Utah’s. McCay was disappointed that it took so long to identify his own state’s banner.
Things got worse when he visited the Four Corners — where Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico meet — and saw the four states’ flags flying side-by-side.
“If you look at them — some of the best — Utah in contrast didn’t really stand out,” he said.
His colleague who had proposed the bill to change the Beehive State’s flag showed him the Roman Mars TED Talk, and 18 minutes later, McCay said he understood, recalling thinking, “Okay, we have get out of ‘seal on a blue background.’”
The consistent — and consistently bad — design on so many U.S. flags has roots in the post-Civil War era. Most states didn’t have flags at the time they were admitted into the union, and the ones that did were usually Southern states that had adopted a flag during secession. After the Civil War, the national mood was that the concept of a state flag was an affront to what the country had just done battle over, Kaye said.
But by the America’s centennial in 1876, more states had adopted a flag, often at the urging of hereditary groups like the Daughters of the American Revolution, or the U.S. Postmaster General who wanted them for display. By 1925, most all states had flags. Most states, Kaye said, didn’t look far for design inspiration.
“States looked at what flag already represented the state, and those were the military flags — the state militias and regiments,” he said. A visit to any pier 100 years ago would reveal a sea of standard military flags — often blue — with a seal.
Good flag, bad flag
NAVA’s basic principles of good flag design hold that a flag should be simple enough that a child could draw it from memory; have meaningful symbols; use two or three basic colors; have no lettering or seals; and be distinctive.
“The ancillary function is to represent the history of a place, and it becomes a relic or sacred object hanging in a chapel or a government or mayor’s office,” Kaye said. But often a flag’s secondary function overwhelms its primary one.
Georgia may be the most notable example, undergoing no fewer than four major flag design changes in 100 years. What started as a basic tricolor flag had a seal added in the 1920s, only to have the red and white stripes replaced by the Confederate Battle Flag in the 1950s as part of a backlash to the Civil Rights era. In the early 2000s, the flag was remade again, this time a veritable bingo card of NAVA’s red flags, so to speak: a seal, lettering, four different colors and five little flags within the big flag.
“It was a terrible from a design standpoint, and everybody hated it,” Kaye said. But it became such a contentious issue, it was widely believed to be contributing factor to incumbent Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes’s loss to Republican Sonny Perdue. After Perdue took office, another redesign followed, to a simpler three-stripe flag and coat of arms that currently represents the state.
The current slate of states reconsidering their flags are motivated by a range of factors — Massachusetts and Minnesota flags both feature a Native American that some critics view as an unfavorable depiction. In Illinois, legislation sponsored by state Sen. Doris Turner (D) to form a committee to explore a potential redesign is motivated more by a desire for a refreshed identity and a bid for civic engagement.
“When you look up the rankings of flags, Illinois is almost always toward the bottom,” Turner told The Washington Post. “And we hear so often about people being disengaged with government, people aren’t coming out to vote — and I think this is an exercise that has the potential to get people energized and participating. I think through this process, we can get people excited about Illinois.”
McCay, the Utah lawmaker, said public input will be crucial to any redesign process — though he first had to convince his colleagues to get on board.
He confirmed a story from 2019 about locking his Senate caucus in a room and forcing them to watch the Mars TED Talk, part of his full-court press to convince leadership to take action on the bill.
Yet changing Utah’s flag ended up being more contentious than he expected, despite following NAVA’s guidance to include the public early on in the design process. This, too, must be handled carefully, Kaye noted: Give the public too little input, and they’ll reject the flag. Give them too much direct voting power, like New Zealand did in its failed $17 million flag referendum, and you flirt with the possibility of flying a flag of a kiwi with laser-beam eyes.
For his support of Utah’s flag bill, McCay faced criticism that he was trying to erase the state’s heritage; he was called “woke” and a Joe Biden plant — accusations he found especially puzzling given his indisputable conservative track record, which includes sponsoring the bill that banned most abortions in the state.
The compromise of Cox, the state’s governor, was to issue an executive order to keep the old flag as a “historic” flag to be flown higher than the new state flag over the Capitol, and on holidays. A referendum to override the new flag law is underway and needs 134,000 signatures by mid-April to qualify for the ballot; as of Tuesday, it had 137, according to Fox 13.
Cox is optimistic the new flag will stick. As he spoke to The Post, he noted that he was passing by Colonial Flag, the state’s largest flag manufacturer. Utah’s new flag, they said, is already on back-order.