The push to change Milwaukee’s ‘train wreck’ flag

Top designs to be unveiled May 14

The current flag of Milwaukee, which is considered outdated by design experts.

The Milwaukee flag has been largely absent from the public eye in the 62 years since its adoption.

In contrast to the simple, easily recognizable designs of flags in cities such as Chicago and Washington, D.C., Milwaukee’s complicated banner, a conglomerate of several loosely-related symbols, is rarely flown outside government buildings, printed on souvenirs or tattooed on the arms of citizens overcome with civic pride.

Milwaukee graphic designer Steve Kodis sees this as a problem.

The consensus among designers and flag experts (called vexillologists) is that Milwaukee’s flag is a magnificent example of horrendous design. It has been gleefully derided by both national and local critics. Roman Mars, the host of a popular design and architecture radio show called 99% Invisible, last year referred to the flag as “one of the biggest train wrecks in vexillological history.”

In a public opinion poll conducted by the North American Vexillological Association in 2004 that ranked 150 U.S. city flags, Milwaukee took 147th.

“There’s so much change going in Milwaukee physically right now, I believe now, more than ever, we are searching for a symbol that unites us, that gives us a foundation to really become a great city,” Kodis said. “Very clearly, when you see the flag, it’s very busy, it’s very confusing. It’s the typical design-by-committee flag, or it looks that way.”

Last summer, on the Fourth of July, Kodis quit his job as a graphic designer at a marketing agency to focus full-time on his passion project: getting the city a new flag.

He started an organization called The People’s Flag of Milwaukee, partnered with a nonprofit called Greater Together, contacted local graphic designers, reached out to a well-known local historian and sought the help of a national flag expert.

Over the past year, he and his team have held design workshops at schools and after school clubs around the city and solicited more than 1,000 design submissions. Most have come from Milwaukeeans, but a few were also mailed in by foreign flag aficionados in Australia, Germany and “a few Scandinavian countries,” Kodis said.

In April, Kodis and four other judges sifted through the submissions and chose 50 semifinalists. Of those, five were selected as finalists, and on May 14 they will be unveiled to the public. Milwaukee residents will get a chance to rate each design. The highest rated will be submitted to the city for consideration.

The judges who reviewed the flags include Kodis; Milwaukee historian John Gurda; a vexillologist from Portland, Oregon named Ted Kaye; Jena Sher, a Milwaukee graphic designer with two Ivy League degrees; and Xavier Ruffin, a local designer who also runs a production company called Dopamine Productions.

“As designers, and creative people in general — writers, architects — we have this power to use our skills for the greater good,” Kodis said. “The act of using design to change the course of something for the better is really important, and it’s really rewarding. I feel it’s a better use of my skillset than just working a job to make money for myself to fuel a lifestyle.”

What makes the flag so horrible?

Kaye laid out the five basic principals of flag design in a short book titled “Good Flag, Bad Flag” in 2004.

They are:

  1. Keep it simple
  2. Use meaningful symbolism
  3. Use two to three basic colors
  4. No lettering or seals
  5. Be distinctive (avoid duplicating other flags)

“Many people in the design world say those are just plain obvious in design, and I find that very validating,” Kaye said on Monday. “But there are some specifics about flags — flags are meant to be seen from a distance and not close up. That’s a design constraint on the flag. The flag itself is often moving or flapping or draping. And often, flags are seen from their back side.”

Chicago’s flag, which is simple enough to be easily understood and recognized from a great distance and identical when viewed from the front and back, adheres to these principals. Milwaukee’s does not, which Kaye said is likely why it is so rarely flown.

Who designed it?

In the early 1950s, there was a push from Milwaukee leaders to adopt a city flag after discovering it was one of only a handful of cities its size in the U.S. without one.

A contest was held, designs were reviewed, and in 1954 a former Milwaukee Alderman named Fred Steffan pieced together from the submissions what has since become a classic example of mistakes designers are specifically taught to avoid.

“It was this rising tide of confidence after World War II, and like a lot of cities, Milwaukee was looking to strengthen its identity and brag about it,” Gurda said. “As I understand it, they didn’t think one entrant was heads and shoulders above the rest, so an alderman took the ideas he thought were superior and put them all on one flag. They were trying to be inclusive.”

The result was clunky. Kodis said the design would work well as a T-shirt or even some sort of mural. But not as a flag.

“I do hope the city gets a new flag,” Gurda said. “I think that is something that’s long overdue. I think it will certainly not solve the city’s long-term problems, but at the same time it could be a focal point of pride, investment and discussion about who Milwaukee is, and what kind of path we want to take going forward.”

Kodis said there are multiple paths the city could take once a design has been chosen: the Common Council could decide to officially adopt the flag this summer, it could chose to fly the new flag alongside the old or it could do nothing. Kodis hopes if that’s the case, the design his group chose will be embraced by Milwaukee citizens.

The group is meeting with Mayor Tom Barrett on Wednesday to bring the city up to speed on the work it has done over the past year.

“Up until now , the city has only been aware that we’re doing this, but they haven’t been along for the ride and we’ve done that purposefully so that we can bring them in when the time is right,” Kodis said.

The designs will be released publicly May 14 on the group’s website, and the winning entry will be announced on June 14.

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Ben Stanley, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

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