More and more communities around the state are taking a look at their city flags and not liking what they see. In hopes of landing on a design that looks cool and inspires civic pride, resident-led grassroots groups have pushed for change. But as Hutchinson’s recently successful example reveals, there are plenty of pitfalls.
Jason Depew’s flag design waves across Hutchinson.
It’s on stickers, magnets and pens.
People can download the design and print out their own Hutchinson flags. There is talk of painting flags into murals and sticking flag patches on backpacks.
His design was picked last year by a committee and it’s among the latest in newly designed city flags sweeping Kansas and other cities across the U.S.
Based on the popularity of flags such as Wichita’s and (supporters hope) now Hutchinson’s, a growing number of communities are offering redesign contests in hopes of creating a symbol that they can rally around and use to express civic pride. Cities in Kansas exploring redesigns of their flags include Topeka and Manhattan; Park City unveiled its new design in February.
It’s part of a grassroots movement sparked, in part, by the popularity of a 2015 Roman Mars TED Talk, “Why City Flags May Be The Worst-Designed Thing You’ve Never Noticed.” Mars hosts a podcast called “99% Invisible” that is focused on architecture and design.
A well-designed flag, Mars contends, is the source of community pride while a poorly designed flag – is just … well, bad.
“There is a scourge of bad flags, and they must be stopped,” he says.
Good flag, bad flag
A renewed interest in city flags in Kansas can be traced back, in part, to 2005. That was when a flag group that had said the Kansas state flag was among the ugliest in the nation proclaimed Wichita as having one of the prettiest city flags in America. The striking red, white and blue Native American-influenced design – representing freedom, happiness, contentment and home – was created in 1937 by Cecil McAlister.
In an Internet poll conducted in 2005 by the North American Vexillological Association – a group that studies flags – the Wichita flag was picked because of its simplicity and eye-catching design.
It finished sixth in a poll of 150 flags, behind those of Washington, Chicago, Denver, Phoenix and St. Louis.
Topeka, the only other Kansas entry in the competition, placed 46th that year.
Trouble was, at that time in Wichita, hardly anyone knew what the Wichita flag looked like. It wasn’t flown at City Hall. There were no murals, no backpack patches, no license plates sporting the design.
That wouldn’t happen for nearly another decade, when downtown merchants began selling the flags and artists were painting them and incorporating them in everyday activities. Now the design has been incorporated on everything from buttons to business logos.
In the meantime, a movement of strategically designed city flags began to really take off. One of the most recent efforts unfolded in the Kansas capital.
“Topeka has had a flag since 1977, and the flag has created a lot of conversation recently about what Topeka can become,” says Leo Espinoza, a member of the Topeka Flag Project.
Some members of a local group called Forge, an organization of young professionals, decided to adopt a flag redesign as one of their projects.
“The reasoning for it is when you think of any geographic region, those individuals in those groups need symbols or traditions,” Espinoza says. “There is no better way to do that than with a flag that people can be proud of.”
Last summer, more than 300 designs were submitted for a new Topeka flag. A final public vote on the flag was conducted in April, and a new flag design, supported by 70 percent of the 4,000 people who cast votes, was unveiled during a State of the Community event. The design, which features a sunflower and star, must still be approved by the Topeka City Council later this year to become the official city flag. (Update: Council members voted 8-1 to adopt the new city flag in November.)
“One of the goals of our community is to attract more residents,” Espinoza says. “The city seal won’t do that. The flag will represent the people. If people don’t have a natural tie to it, they don’t become natural promoters of the community – which means, they aren’t going around and telling other people outside Topeka just how much stuff is going on here. It has everything to do with community pride.”
But the process of changing flags isn’t always easy. When Topeka Mayor Michelle De La Isla published a post on her Facebook page asking for feedback on the four finalists, it prompted a rush of 50 comments, at least half of them panning the contenders.
“I keep looking at them all, and none of them feel like Topeka to me,” wrote one commenter. Others expressed support for keeping the current flag or wanted to know about the symbolism behind the contenders.
Waving a New Flag
When talk of redesigning Hutchinson’s flag first surfaced on Facebook in the winter of 2017, interested residents quickly realized that they would need to develop a process for bringing the idea to reality.
Depew, an alumnus of the Kansas Leadership Center and a Hutchinson resident, wanted to be part of the discussion. A committee called Raising the Flag was organized.
“For me, a big part of it was community activity,” Depew says. “Personally I just like the idea of having a common symbol – something that goes past a lot of division that other symbols might have. It is apolitical, nonreligious and noncultural. It crosses a lot of those boundaries in a way that other symbols don’t.”
The former Hutchinson flag was uninspiring – a white flag with the words City of Hutchinson spread across it.
Depew’s flag design was one of 50 entries. The design is a white, gold and blue with a gold compass rose. He chose the color white to depict the city’s salt industry, the gold compass rose for both its agriculture and Hutchinson’s central location and blue for open skies. The flag, Depew says, offers the hope and dreams of the future.
Of course, there were naysayers. Gossip Hutchinson, a Facebook page, was filled with discussion.
But the concept adhered to the principles of good flag design, meaning it met the North American Vexillological Association’s criteria – keep the design simple; use meaningful symbols; choose only two to three basic colors, don’t use letters or seals; and, be distinctive.
After some initial pushback by critics, residents think it’s gaining wider acceptance. Which isn’t unusual in Kansas. After all, it took about 75 years for the Wichita flag to finally catch on.
“Once people saw the Hutchinson design, they were like, ‘Oh yes,’” says Andrea Springer, co- owner of the Wool Market in Hutchinson and one of the merchants that sells the Hutchinson flag.
The flag design was placed in the public domain so anybody can access and download it.
So what symbols could have been used for depicting a 148-year-old city?
Hutchinson, a regional hub and the county seat of Reno County, had a few things to draw on.
It is home to a thriving salt industry, the Kansas State Fair, the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center, Strataca, and the Siemens wind turbine manufacturing plant. It was where Dillons grocery stores were headquartered and where Beach Boys’ founding members Mike Love and Dennis, Brian and Carl Wilson all have family roots.
Depew sought simplicity in his choice of symbols.
“One of the things we became aware of is that some of the standard symbols we see aren’t the ones the community values the most,” Depew says. “Ferris wheels and rocket ships tend to be cliché. And there was conversation last year about the fair moving somewhere else. I was trying to go with something more permanent.”
Having a good flag is more than just about being able to display a nice-looking piece of cloth around town. Such a symbol can boost civic pride.
“Good flags help communities rally around themselves,” says Jackson Swearer, a member of the Hutchinson Raising the Flag committee.
Creating the flag wasn’t difficult, he says. Getting people to embrace the idea was the hard part.
There are numerous stories about residents who have tried to spearhead a redesign of their flags, only to see them fizzle. For every Hutchinson or Tulsa, where redesigns have been a success, there’s a Milwaukee, San Francisco, state of Nebraska or country of New Zealand that endures a flop.
“From the beginning, we worked to inspire a collective purpose, which I would describe as choosing a good flag that could serve as a powerful symbol to rally around and promote a positive view of Hutchinson,” Swearer says.
The Raising the Flag steering group committee worked at creating trust. Many voices were sought.
“When we were doing community engagement, we had to start where they (the people) are, both literally, by holding meetings in a variety of areas around town, and figuratively, by designing our community engagement meetings to create open space for people to share what symbolism they felt would best represent Hutchinson,” Swearer says.
But they also made conscious choices about what they would not ask the public to do. Along the way, the members of the Raising the Flag committee decided to not put the flag design up for a public vote but rather create a five-person design selection committee.
“Our hope is that by holding the meetings where and when we did, we were able to engage unusual voices who are not always included in public forums,” he says.
The real challenge was not only to get as much public input as possible in voices and designs but then earn an embrace and nod of approval from the Hutchinson City Council.
Once the flag was adopted, it was important for the work to be given back to the community.
That’s one reason the design is in the public domain – so local businesses and community organizations can promote the design and use it on products and merchandise.
And finally, it was important to address those who weren’t heard.
“I think it was important for us to speak to loss that people who were not involved in the process felt, by acknowledging that there is just no way to get the word out to everyone, and that not everyone is going to love the flag,” Swearer says.
Raising the Consciousness
The flag redesign effort is just the latest example of a group consciousness that has been growing in Hutchinson, engaging people who are positive about the future of the community.
“I am a boomeranger,” Swearer says. “I grew up here, went away for 10 years and made a conscious choice to come back after living in other places. Family was the biggest reason. But living in Chicago, I had this feeling like I couldn’t really be engaged or make my community better because it is just so big. I knew when I moved back to Hutchinson, I would have more opportunities to be involved.
“People just want a community to belong to.”
The members of the Raising the Flag committee used a $2,500 grant from the Hutchinson Community Foundation to help fund the flag project. A $750 prize was offered to Depew, which he declined.
“I felt because I had been so involved in the process originally, it really wouldn’t be appropriate for me to take that,” Depew says. “I decided before entering, I was not going to take it.”
Several of the people involved in the Hutchinson flag project are Kansas Leadership Center graduates – Swearer, Depew and Charles Johnson.
“The KLC influence is how the project evolved,” Depew says.
Hutchinson City Manager John Deardoff says, “The best part of the project was that it was a totally community-driven process from the early development of the idea to the final selection of the flag design. I think the flag has the potential of over time providing a common symbol that reflects who we are as a community. Additionally, I think the flag will continue to generate conversations, which is a good thing – opportunity.
The Hutchinson City Council officially adopted the new flag on Dec. 4, 2018.
“We love it,” Springer says. “It is a rallying point for building community.”
A version of this article was originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit klcjr.nl/1yrgiftsub.