There is a reason Neil Armstrong plunged Old Glory into the surface of the moon: Flags have power. We fly them high atop poles, hang them on our walls, burn them in protest and lower them to mourn the dead. We stick them on our car bumpers and print them on T-shirts, hats and underwear. Flags are used to conquer, unite and identify whatever corner of earth we call home.
“Flags are a key piece of nonverbal symbolism that have been adopted for the last 1,000 years to spur very strong emotional responses,” explains vexillologist Edward B. Kaye. (Vexillology is the study of the history, symbolism and usage of flags.)
But a flag’s power rests in its design, and the Wisconsin flag is undeniably lackluster.
A 2001 survey of flag design published by the National American Vexillological Association ranked the Wisconsin flag one of the 10 worst in the U.S. and Canada. Kaye, the author of the survey, says the Wisconsin flag has several fundamental design problems. “First off...it’s virtually indistinguishable at a distance from 23 other U.S. state flags, all of which have a seal on a blue background,” Kaye says.
Wisconsin is missing out on an opportunity to inspire civic pride and build community, Kaye says. “The idea of creating a symbol under which people can rally to address the greater issues that a city, state or even a nation is facing, is an important factor in making that all possible.”
In honor of Flag Day, we at Isthmus hope to get the conversation rolling by presenting some alternatives, created by Madison designers Brian Lorbiecki, Distillery Design, Richard Hartley and Isthmus’ David Michael Miller. It’ll take an act of the Legislature and the signature of the governor to officially change the Wisconsin flag, but you gotta start somewhere.
“We actually pledge allegiance to the flag” says Kaye. “That’s a powerful statement to pledge allegiance to a piece of cloth. Well, it’s not the cloth, it’s what the cloth represents.”
Wisconsin didn’t even have a flag for its first 15 years of statehood. At the behest of Civil War regiments, an official flag was adopted in 1863 for Wisconsin soldiers to carry into battle. It took another 50 years for lawmakers to codify the design specifics of the Wisconsin flag into statute. A 1913 law spells out that the state flag will feature a royal blue background with the Wisconsin coat of arms at the center and an optional yellow knotted fringe.
The coat of arms is where the symbolic elements of the Wisconsin flag are incorporated. It contains a sailor with a coil of rope and a miner (or yeoman) with a pick, representing workers on water and land. Between the two men is a quartered shield featuring Wisconsin’s historic industries: a plow for agriculture, a pick and shovel for mining, an arm and hammer for manufacturing and an anchor representing navigation. At the center of the shield is the U.S. coat of arms and the U.S. motto “E pluribus unum” (“out of many, one”), to signify Wisconsin’s loyalty to the Union.
Hovering above the shield is a badger — the state animal — as well as the state’s motto, “Forward.” At the base of the shield is a cornucopia, which stands for prosperity and abundance. There’s also a pyramid of 13 lead ingots, which represent the mineral wealth of Wisconsin as well as the 13 colonies that turned the tables on old King George.
Kaye says the problems with Wisconsin’s flag start with the coat of arms, because it’s crammed with small details. Consequently, the symbolism is lost. “Coats of arms are meant to be viewed close up and simply don’t belong on flags,” Kaye says. “It’s just crummy design.”
In the late 1970s, the Wisconsin Legislature sought to correct this by adding “WISCONSIN” and the statehood date, 1848, in bold white letters. It only made the flag worse. “What would you think of France’s flag if it said ‘France’ on it? You would laugh, and rightly so. It’s ludicrous,” Kaye says. “Flags are graphic symbols. Adding words defeats the whole purpose of a flag.”
Kaye says there is a correlation between complexity and “crummy” flags. “Bad flags tend to cost more than good flags, so they are flown less often because, not only are they ugly, they are more expensive.”
Rethinking flags is becoming popular around the country. Kaye says there are more than 40 U.S. cities that are contemplating changing their flags. Just down the interstate, Milwaukee will unveil a new one on Flag Day, June 14. Movements to update state flags are also afoot in Nebraska, Kansas and New Jersey. So why not Wisconsin?
Distillery Design team
Brad Nellis, partner with Distillery Design, writes that his team drew “inspiration from the three pillars of Wisconsin: agriculture (green), recreation (blue) and industry (white).” These colors depict an abstract of the state’s animal, a badger. The animal is shown in motion to embody the state’s motto, “Forward.” Nellis says the three-color palette also reflects the land and climate of the state. In the top-left corner of the flag is a sun with 11 points, which “pays homage to the Native American tribes present in Wisconsin.”
David Michael Miller, staff artist at Isthmus
Isthmus’ own David Michael Miller points out that Wisconsin already has a symbol known around the world: the cheesehead hat. So he fashioned a Wisconsin flag after this iconic image, which he calls “Forward with Cheese.” The green and gold seen in the flag are, fittingly, in honor of Wisconsin’s beloved Packers. The iconic cheese wedge is centered on the flag in the likeness of the web symbol “play” suggesting “Forward,” the state’s motto. “For the sake of history and continuity,” Miller says, “the field of Union Army blue is retained.”
Richard Hartley, design student at Madison College
When Richard Hartley began contemplating a new flag for Wisconsin, he started asking people what they like about the state. “It almost always was beer, football, cheese. Badgers. Over and over,” Hartley says. So he asked a slightly different question: What do you like to do in Wisconsin? “A new yet consistent pattern emerged. Hiking. Swimming. Camping. Parks came up. Devil’s Lake. Governor Nelson. Bayshore Park. Whitefish Dunes, Egg Harbor. Potawatomi.” So Hartley created a flag to reflect Wisconsinites’ love of the outdoors. The natural beauty is represented with blue skies, green trees and sunshine, which form an outline of “the good old ‘W.’”
Brian Lorbiecki, graphic designer at Wisconsin Public Television
Brian Lorbiecki was inspired by the chevrons used by color field painter Kenneth Noland. The shapes are set on a field of red to form the head of a badger. Lorbiecki is pleasantly surprised that the state’s animal is easily recognizable. He says the flags of New Mexico and Maryland are praised for their designs because of simplicity. “But simple is hard, as we say around here.”
The second design conceived by Lorbiecki is a tricolor flag that represents sky, land and water (hence the cool palette). The flag fits traditional vexillological aesthetics but is also influenced by the landscapes of minimalist artist Brice Marden. “There’s more sky than the rest, to convey the horizon,” says Lorbiecki. “The colors are not just symbolic. It’s more of a literal depiction, even though it’s extremely abstract.”
Want to take a crack at designing your own Wisconsin flag?
Take a photograph of your design — make sure the flag takes up the entire frame — and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name, where you’re from and a descriptive title. Your flag will be showcased on isthmus.com, and staff writer Dylan Brogan will hand deliver all the designs to legislative leaders and Gov. Scott Walker at the Capitol.
Please make your submission no later than Friday, June 24.