Not too long ago I heard a radio piece about a city flag. Curiosity led me down the path to our state flags. I was immediately bothered by how discordant they are as a group, and I wasn’t surprised to learn they break just about every rule of flag design. (More on the official rules of flag design later.) When you look at them all together, there’s no indication they come from the same nation.
Unfortunately this is an accurate representation of where we are right now as a country. We can’t seem to get anything done. But we used to. As a tribute to the collective creativity that brought us this far — and, truth be told, to the “united-ness” I hope we adopt in the future — I embarked on a project to redesign all fifty state flags.
GOOD FLAG DESIGN (OFFICIALLY)
Flags originated to guide military coordination on battlefields. Because of this association with battle and war, they naturally took on powerful resonance. Aesthetically they had to be easy to spot from a distance, with identifiable colors and symbols. In 1969 the International Federation of Vexillological Association (FIAV) evolved to dictate the principles of flag design. Here are their five basic rules, paraphrased and with notes in parentheses on how our state flags violate them:
A MESSAGE OF UNITY
To begin to create a cohesive group of flags I first stripped away everything (like Civil War symbols) that reminded me of a divided nation. I removed the numbers that indicated a state’s induction into the union. It might sound silly, but I aimed to get rid of anything that could point to rivalry, i.e. who came first.
Some flags required a complete overhaul so I created my own symbolism, choosing ones that are decidedly American. The main symbols are the star and the stripe; the secondary symbols are the eagle, olive branch, shield, and Lady Liberty.
Since I wanted the symbolism to be meaningful to each state, I also pulled from unique geography, historical and famous events, and state mottos and symbols. As the design evolved, I noticed a visual language starting to emerge. The color blue represents water or sky. A sideways triangle represents hill and valleys. A standard triangle represents mountains, a sunburst is the sun, and stars became place holders for the states themselves.
GROUNDING THE VISUAL BRAND LANGUAGE
I used color as my unifying branding element. Color is commonly used to signify brand identity — even more than form, color can unite a product with its family. I brightened up the red, white, and blue. (I was okay with the colors being more reminiscent of the French flag than Great Britain’s.)
My second unifying element is proportion. The official American flag is 1 by 1.9. Since we’re a nation made of states, I thought the state flag should be slightly smaller. I chose 1 by 1.5 because of its visually pleasing proportion — it is close to the golden ratio, but standard enough to produce easily.
THE NEW FLAGS
ALABAMA: The symbol of Dixie in the middle is surrounded by eight triangles representing the eight Native American tribes who used to live there. The triangles also form a subtle “X” shape, referencing the existing Alabama flag.
ALASKA: Very similar to the original’s simple composition featuring the Big Dipper or Great Bear. I changed the colors and highlighted the North Star which also represents the state itself.
ARIZONA: Very similar to the original.
ARKANSAS: The diamond state with three stars for its three slogans.
CALIFORNIA: This is the only flag with curves, because I wanted to convey the feeling of driving along the coastline.
COLORADO: This state’s flag is iconic so I didn’t change much, just the colors.
CONNECTICUT: I noticed the red-white-red stripes for the flag because they are commonly used on most of the state’s branding, including their official website. I kept the grapevine from the existing flag and seal, because it was an early symbol of prosperity and is believed to represent early individual
WASHINGTON, D.C.: I kept the D.C. flag the same but changed the colors. The design is based on George Washington’s coat of arms.
DELAWARE: The shield in the middle is the shield of liberty, and the plant symbolizes agriculture. The parallelogram is a crop plot.
FLORIDA: A sun rising over the ocean in the Sunshine State.
GEORGIA: I removed the seal, restoring the flag back to its original stars and stripes. The star in the middle represents the state itself.
HAWAII: I removed the Union Jack and kept the eight stripes, one for each of eight major islands.
IDAHO: There’s a gem in the canton because every type of gemstone is found in Idaho. The red represents the mountains and the blue is the sky.
ILLINOIS: I kept it simple and similar in design to the Chicago flag, one of the most well-liked city flags in the country (and rated #2 by the North American Vexillological Association). The blue stripe represents the Illinois River and two red stripes represent the two parts of the state motto, “State Sovereignty and National Union.”
INDIANA: I simplified the existing Indiana flag by removing everything but the torch of liberty. I adjusted the colors to make them cohesive with the new scheme. The star represents the state itself.
IOWA: The only state with rivers on both sides, represented by the stripes. The two stars stand in for the two parts of Iowa’s motto: “Our Liberties We Prize, and Our Rights We Will Maintain.”
KANSAS: I kept Kansas simple and used the state flower, the wild sunflower, as the main element. The star in the middle represents the state itself.
KENTUCKY: The intertwined arrows represent the joining of the frontiersman (red) and the statesman (blue) who are shaking hands on the existing state steal. That image (illustrating the motto, “United We Stand, Divided We Fall”) also appears on the flag. The angled lines suggest a “K.”
LOUISIANA: In 2006 Louisiana’s state legislature passed a bill requiring any depiction of the mother pelican in the state’s flag or seal be accompanied by a depiction of the three drops of blood with which she feeds her young. In my design the white bar on the left represents the mother pelican. The three stars are three drops of blood. The white triangle on the right is the young pelican’s beak.
MAINE: The blue triangle in the center is a big pine tree, and the upside-down triangle alongside the white diagonal on the right represent the ocean and coastline.
MARYLAND: The existing flag depicts the coats of arms of the state’s two founding families and is very well-liked. I kept that idea but simplified it and united the symbols.
MASSACHUSETTS: The nautical compass represents the first settlers’ landing on Plymouth Rock.
MICHIGAN: The white is the peninsula and the rising sun. The shield represents defense, which comes up three times in the current flag. The three stars symbolize Michigan’s three mottos: “Out of Many, One”; “I Will Defend”; and “If You Seek a Pleasant Peninsula, Look Around You.”
MINNESOTA: “Minne” means water, which flows throughout the state — this is the blue. “Star of the North” is the state motto, and twin cities sit on either side of the main star.
MISSISSIPPI: I removed the confederate flag from the canton and replaced it with a star representing the state.
MISSOURI: The Missouri River (blue stripe) dissects the Till Plains (white). The red is the Ozark Mountains.
MONTANA: Montana means “mountains” in Spanish — these form an abstract “M.” The white lines are snow, and the blue field is sky (big sky country).
NEBRASKA: The blue is sky, and the white is the Great Plains.
NEVADA: The blue stripes represent cooler climates that surround the state and the red bar in the middle represents the desert. The bar also represents a bar of silver, taken from the state’s nickname, “the silver state.”
EW HAMPSHIRE: The number one represents New Hampshire’s status as the first colony to break away from Great Britain in 1776.
NEW JERSEY: The state motto is “Liberty and Prosperity.” The shield is liberty, and the arrow — pointing upward — is prosperity.
NEW MEXICO: The existing flag’s design is iconic and is one of the best liked state flags so I didn’t change much, just the color.
NEW YORK: The Statue of Liberty’s crown has five points for the five states bordering the state and for New York City’s five boroughs. The red and white backwards “L” is a nod to the Union Jack and a reminder of what we can do when we band together.
NORTH CAROLINA: The existing flag has a blue vertical rectangle on the left side which represents the bonnie blue flag (unofficial confederate flag). I changed the blue to red, restoring the flag back to its original 1775 state.
NORTH DAKOTA: The northern state with sunshine to its south (South Dakota used to be known as the sunshine state). The design visually connects the two states.
OHIO: The sideways triangle represents hills and valleys, and the “O” is the buckeye and also “O” for Ohio. I reduced the number of stripes to three because I kept coming across threes in Ohio’s history (ex. admitted to the union in 1803).
OKLAHOMA: The split star in the middle represents the two symbols of peace—the olive branch and the peace pipe—on the state’s current flag. It also represents the coming together of two nations, the Europeans and Native Americans. The “O” is the element tying them together.
OREGON: The red triangle on the left represents the hills of Oregon. The state animal is a beaver.
PENNSYLVANIA: A nib of a pen occupies the lefthand side, representing the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Three stars represent the state motto: “Virtue, Liberty and Independence.”
RHODE ISLAND: I kept the design close to the original flag but simplified it and stripped away all the stars but one to represent the state itself.
SOUTH CAROLINA: The military blue and the crescent-shaped chest plate (called a gorget) are from the Revolutionary War uniforms and were used on the Liberty Flag, one of the oldest flags in the United States, which is from South Carolina.
SOUTH DAKOTA: It used to be known as the sunshine state. I also noticed the number two comes up a lot —the slogan has two parts, and the state was founded on November 2nd — so I represented it with two large color fields.
TENNESSEE: This is almost identical to the actual state flag.
TEXAS: The current flag is iconic and doesn’t need to be changed, but because this is a side project I thought it would be fun to conceptually emphasize the lone star on their flag. The goal is to make it even more iconic by enlarging the star. The red represents the Native Americans who used to live there, and the white represents purity and uprightness (same as Wyoming’s flag).
UTAH: The blue represents the great Salt Lake and the smaller blue bars are the lesser lakes.
VERMONT: I updated the original Green Mountain Boys flag used by the Vermont militia of the 1770s.
VIRGINIA: To reference the fact that more presidents have come from this state than from any other I used the stripe ratio that is associated with contemporary presidential campaigns.
WASHINGTON: The eagle represents George Washington, and the two stripes reference his coat of arms.
WEST VIRGINIA: The diagonal red triangle on the bottom represents the side of a mountain, and the star is a mountaineer. The state motto: “Mountaineers Are Always Free.”
WISCONSIN: It borders the Great Lakes, represented by the blue. The arrow suggests the state’s motto: “Forward.”
WYOMING: For this flag I didn’t need to change much. I just replaced the state seal with a star representing the state itself. The red represents the Native Americans who once lived there, and the white is purity and uprightness (same as the Texas flag).
MAKING THE FLAGS
With my flag project complete and all fifty state flags united under one design, I decided to take them from two-dimensional to three-dimensional. As a product designer I’m used to working with physical objects and I know that anything you make that’s graphic needs to be able to live in the physical world, in space and in context. I was curious to see if the intended brand elements shone through.
Since I live in Philadelphia I had to make a Pennsylvania flag and take it around the city. At Independence Hall some tourists seemed to recognize it or at least want to interact with it. The Independence Hall guards were bit suspicious.
Flag Stickers and Posters
Though the emblems themselves are different, they all seem to hold together as a family because they have the same colors, proportion, and brand elements. I think the visual language telegraphs a more united America.
I love the idea that we can argue and fight with each other and that we have the freedom to redesign potent, historic symbols. Freedom of expression— of speech and ideas — is what makes this nation great. But lately it feels like we’re off balance. I believe design can be used as a tool to challenge our current beliefs — in this case, to make people think about what we represent, what image we want to project, and how it will look when we’re all working together.
(UPDATE: I revisited this project and updated some of the flags in 2016. Read the post about the updates.)