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Redo your state flag every decade

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Almost all of these flags could use an update!

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

The vast majority of the 50* state flags have not changed meaningfully in my lifetime. Occasionally there’s a slight color shift or a tweak to the seal, but full redesigns are disappointingly rare. That’s a missed opportunity for several reasons:

  1. Flag design inertia deprives us of the chance to discuss what our state flags symbolize, and whether those symbols still present to the rest of the country the features those states want to put forward
  2. Regularly refreshing the state flag provides a forum for citizens to engage with and discuss public art
  3. Some of these flags are boring as hell
  4. States can license and sell more merchandise

Ok, that last one’s basically stolen straight from college football, where redesigns don’t always go well. But putting state flags on a ten-year calendar should be a measured enough pace to avoid any truly terrible designs, while still giving us enough variation to keep these symbols interesting and fresh.

“What about tradition? What about consistency?” Well, most states didn’t even have flags for the first century of the U.S.’s existence, and several rushed to design and approve their own for display at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. And many haven’t stuck with the original design. This is Nevada’s current flag, for instance:

And this is the flag Nevada used from 1905 to 1915:

That’s bonkers, but maybe that’s a good thing! No need to parse the meaning of some highly symbolic design. We’re Nevada, we’ve got gold and silver, and you don’t.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, here’s an early West Virginia flag that gives you few indications which state it represents:

That sucker looks like it came from a very calm coloring book.

Even states that boast beautiful flags, like New Mexico...

...previously embraced some really, really questionable designs.

(This is a great flag, if you’re looking for one to serve as the title card for a Looney Tunes episode where Yosemite Sam repeatedly blows himself up.)

Right now, changing a state flag is a confrontational process, where the people who want to do away with dated, insensitive, or racist imagery have to convince everyone else to a) care in the first place and b) agree with them. If every state changed its flag on a ten year cycle, we could avoid most of that hostility and stubbornness. [extreme Yosemite Sam voice] It’s flag-switchin’ time, so stop whining and start submitting your ideas!

Consider how much graphic design has changed in the last 100 years. I’m guessing the original state flag creation process roughly followed this pattern:

  • Eccentric local dentist draws, in painstaking detail, his vision for a state flag
  • Dentist drives his car, which may or may not have a windshield, to the state capitol to present his design
  • State legislators meet with dentist and say “sure, why not?”
  • Legislature approves flag design, thanking eccentric local dentist for his work and paying him seven dollars

Now? States have hundreds of eager artists, ready to send in designs they’ve created using high-end software. I know they’re out there, because they have an entire Wiki where they upload these flags, even though nobody’s asking them to and their designs might never be noticed, let alone adopted.

And think of all the merchandise opportunities new flags will create! People who collect shot glasses or fridge magnets or decorative spoons or postcards will have entirely new items they’ll want to buy off home-shopping networks. Patchmakers will know there’s a huge order coming in once a decade for all the state government uniforms that will need updating. Think of the tattoo parlors!

I’m going to lead by example by showing you my design for a proposed new Florida state flag. It combines several elements that are key to the state’s heritage: aeronautics, sea life, local cuisine, professional sports, chemistry, and public nudity.

What Floridian wouldn’t be proud to fly that from their dock?

*At the time of publication, all 50 states remained within the Union [eyeballing Idaho]