Skip to main content

State Flags

State Flags

Fred Schwarz notes below that New York State has little that unifies it into a politically cohesive whole and that that is reflected in the state’s flag. Let me leave New York’s tangled politics and its even more tangled political history to another time and write a little about state flags.

They are for the most part simply terrible. You can see them at https://www.50states.com/flag/

I certainly agree that the New York State flag is one of the worst in the country, but partly that is because it is virtually indistinguishable at any distance from 16 other state flags (Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Vermont, Virginia, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Oregon, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Idaho, and Utah). They are all the state seal on a dark blue field. One wonders if the governors of these states told some underling at 4:30 on a Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend to design the state flag before he went home.

The first rule of good flag design is to be distinctive, whether flying or hanging limp on a windless day. Flags after all, were invented in the Middle Ages to help tell the good guys from the bad guys on a battlefield. Other rules for good design are: no writing; simplicity (flags should be instantly comprehensible, even to the nearsighted); and references to the history of the place the flag represents (the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack are perfect examples of this) or geography. Most state flags throw down one or more of these rules and dance upon them. California’s flag, for instance, violates them all, but of course it is far too historic in its own right to consider changing at this point.

There are, to be sure, a few first-rate state flags. Maryland uses the splendid heraldic arms of the founding Calvert family. Arizona has a vivid stylized desert sunset in the top half over a deep blue bottom half with a copper star in the center, a reference to the state’s great copper deposits. Hawaii is the only state to incorporate the Union Jack, in honor of the European discovery of the islands by Captain Cook (and, I like to think, as a backhanded apology for the Hawaiians having subsequently eaten him). Ohio has the only swallowtail flag.

But mostly the state flags are dreary and forgettable, what you’d expect from don’t-give-a-damn bureaucrats with no talent for graphic design and no sense of history.

So attention governors of states with lousy flags (you know who you are): Have a contest to design a new flag, one that people can recognize at a glance and remember forever, one that tells the world who and what your state is and where it came from, one that makes the hearts of your citizens stir a little when they see it waving bravely in the wind. And, please, no state seals on dark blue fields.