Story by: Chris Green
Great flags should be so simple even a child could draw them. How does the Kansas flag stack up?
Editor’s note: A version of this story was initially published in the Summer 2015 edition of The Journal.
Let’s have a conversation about the Kansas state flag.
Chances are you’ve seen our flag before. It’s been with us, after all, for nearly 90 years. But you probably don’t spend all that much time thinking about it.
Flags, namely the Confederate flag, became a hot topic in our country in 2015 following a racially motivated mass shooting at a historically black church in South Carolina. It sparked a nationwide push to remove symbols of the Confederacy from public spaces.
The controversy is an example of how any flag is more than just a piece of fabric. It can be a powerful symbol that inspires passion and debate.
However, the Kansas flag – with its dark blue background, sunflower crest and state seal – doesn’t evoke a lot of passion in Kansas these days. Nobody’s fighting for or against it. It’s just there, waving in the background.
And from my perspective, that’s a problem. I want Kansans to start talking about our flag. Do you love it? Do you hate it? If it’s a beloved symbol, then why don’t more people fly it? And if people don’t care for it, then why don’t they do something about it?
I love Kansas, and I think we should be represented by a flag that more people can love. I think now is the time to re-imagine what the Kansas flag could look like. What do you think?
If you’re ready for change, then stand up for it. If you’re happy with the flag as is, now is the time to fight for your flag.
And if you’re apathetic or ambivalent, get off the fence and pick a side. After all, it’s just a flag, right? What do you have to lose?
One skill we teach here at the Kansas Leadership Center is the idea of “taking the temperature.” We encourage people to master the art of stepping back and taking stock of how hot an issue is before diving headlong into taking action. It helps us know whether we should try to raise or lower the heat on a given issue.
This article is my attempt to model taking the temperature on an issue before proceeding. By seeing how others respond to it, I’ll be able to make a better informed diagnosis of whether Kansans are satisfied with the status quo when it comes to our state flag.
You, the reader, can play a big role in helping me take the temperature. Consider whether you like the current design of the flag. Is it good enough as it is? Or could it be better? Think about your answers and then discuss them with others. Then email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet what you think using the hashtag #kansasflag on Twitter.
Knowing your thoughts on this question would tell me a lot not just about how you feel about our flag, but also what you believe about our state. How we relate to the flag is pretty good metaphor for how many of us operate in civic life.
As engaged as some of us are in our communities or expressing state pride, we’re probably the exception to the rule. There are many more people who would say they like our state (just as they say they like the flag), but they aren’t committed to it or take its assets for granted. Others dislike the status quo but aren’t doing a whole lot to change things (the flag or the state). It’s either not worth the effort or they just can’t persuade enough people to join with them in creating change.
I dare you to name an important civic issue in our state right now where this dynamic is not in play and affecting the outcome. Why is it that Kansas – be it the place or its flag – too often inspires very little forward motion?
THE GREAT FLAG DEBATE
You wouldn’t know it today, but the process of designing the Kansas flag was a long-running saga that produced rancorous debate. Passions ran so hot that it took our state 13 years – from 1915 until 1927 – for residents and state officials to finally settle on an acceptable symbol.
The push for selecting a flag for Kansas came in the aftermath of the state’s semicentennial in 1911. In the wake of the celebration, historians James H. Nottage and Floyd Thomas Jr. wrote that there was increasing interest among several organizations in fostering state pride, patriotism and creating new symbols for the state. A half-century into statehood, Kansas had just two symbols, the great seal and the state flower – but no flag.
In 1915, Gov. Arthur Capper started writing to other states to learn how they had picked their flags, according to the two historians. The effort picked up steam when the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) settled on a favorite that played off the national colors of red, white and blue.
That didn’t sit too well with the Grand Army of the Republic, a powerful group of Civil War veterans who had risked their lives to preserve the Union, and another group, the Native Daughters of Kansas. Their pride and loyalty was invested in the national flag, and they didn’t want anything that would steal its thunder. The two groups, Nottage and Thomas wrote, believed this: “‘Old Glory,’ good enough for the United States, is good enough for Kansas.”
Supporters of a state flag countered their passion by arguing that the national flag couldn’t represent the state, too. After all, nearly every other state had a distinctive flag of its own. Who were we to be so out of step?
At that point, Kansans had a bona fide leadership challenge on their hands. One side wanted to honor Kansas by giving it a flag that referenced the U.S. flag while the other wanted to honor America by giving Kansas a flag that let the U.S. flag stand alone. Would Kansas be like the other states or would it choose to be different?
The controversy led to some creative attempts at compromise. In 1925, the state wound up adopting a banner that hung from a brass bar – with a sunflower and the state seal on a blue background, Kansas was written at the top and gold fringe hung from the bottom – as an alternative to a traditional rectangular flag. But debate raged on. Some people hated the display of the sunflower because they considered it a weed. DAR representatives were not pleased either. They didn’t want a banner. They wanted a flag. The final straw came when the Kansas National Guard found itself stymied because it was impossible to march with a banner. The banner also found little respect in Washington, D.C., where it was excluded from flying among the other state flags.
The state’s adjutant general, Milton R. McLean, used his influence to settle the fight in 1927. His push for a flag led to what is essentially the design that you see today. The Kansas Legislature tweaked the look by adding the word “Kansas” to the bottom in 1961 and shrank it to make it smaller than the national flag in 1963. But other than that, the flag has looked much the same since the days of President Calvin Coolidge.
RAISING THE BAR
For most of my life, I haven’t given much thought to the design of the Kansas flag. I loved it because I loved Kansas. But as I became more aware of design principles earlier this year, I’ve started to ask questions about the status quo.
The way I see it, there are two problems with our flag right now that we could try to address. One is that not enough Kansans feel ownership in it to display it and point to it as an emblem they’re proud of. Another is that the present design of the flag may not be strong enough to inspire that pride.
Despite the contentious process by which the flag was chosen, these days those of us who feel passionately about the Kansas flag are in the minority. My wife, Sarah, and I own one, and we display it on our front porch to commemorate Kansas Day, the date our state entered the Union in 1861. And on just about any other day we want to express that we’re proud to be Kansans. Truth be told, we’re sure there are others who do the same thing, but we don’t know a whole lot of them.
It’s not as though it’s rare to see a Kansas flag. Drive far enough in our state and you’re bound to see a Kansas flag or two flying somewhere, whether at a government building, civic organization or business. But the sense I get is that our state flag was intentionally designed to blend in, perhaps in solidarity with other Union states and in deference to the U.S. flag. It’s telling that we mimic roughly two dozen other state flags by employing the same basic flag motif – state seals over a solid blue background.
As common as that approach is, it’s not a popular one with people who spend a lot of time thinking about how flags should look. Our Kansas flag – recently derided by a humorous article in The Washington Post as looking like the logo for the classic video game “Oregon Trail” – ranked 48th out of the 50 state flags in attractiveness in a public survey conducted by the North American Vexillological Association, an organization devoted to the scientific and scholarly study of flags.
Not standing out too much or showing off may often be a good thing. But it’s not what a flag is supposed to be about. Flags – the distinctive designs used by New Mexico, Texas, Alaska and Arizona come to mind – should shout their presence from a hundred feet away.
What spurred my thinking about flags – and the Kansas flag in particular – was a TED Talk given by Roman Mars, the host of a radio show called “99% Invisible” that explores the hidden ways design and architecture shape our world. In his presentation, Mars explored the key elements of a great flag design and explained why many state and local flags “may be the worst-designed thing you’ve never noticed.” In the video, Mars gets a lot of laughs from the audience by showing the flags that conspicuously flout the five good design rules (Kansas, thankfully, was not mentioned).
Great flags, as Mars explains, are really simple. So simple, in fact, that a child could draw them from memory.
They stick to just two or three basic colors. They use meaningful symbolism, but they steer clear of using seals or lettering of any kind. They’re also distinctive in that they stand apart from any other flag, although they can riff off the designs of other flags to show deeply rooted connections.
Based on these criteria, as you can see in the accompanying graphic, the Kansas flag doesn’t stack up too well. Our flag is not simple, uses lettering and is certainly not all that distinctive. The question that I’ve been turning over in my mind in recent weeks is, “Does it matter how the Kansas flag is designed?”
To me, it does. And it’s not necessarily because the Kansas flag flouts design rules. For me, it’s about fostering more pride and ownership in our state. I’d be happy to live with a flag that flouts the rules of the “experts” if it were something that Kansans believed in strongly enough to fly in front of their houses or display as stickers on the back of their cars. But I have yet to see enough of that. In my view, that’s a sign that we ought to be able to do better.
Some people, and my wife is one of them, think the Kansas flag is just great as it is. I’m willing to accept that position, provided that defenders of the current flag are also willing to live out that belief by honoring or displaying the state flag in some manner. Even if it’s just putting up a tiny 4-inch by 6-inch rayon flag to display at your office desk (If you’re interested, you can buy them from the Kansas Secretary of State’s office).
If we decide to keep our state flag as it is, though, we should set a much higher bar for creating and honoring emblems of pride in our state. We should have greater appreciation for the city of Wichita’s beautifully designed flag, which is based on an American Indian symbol for home and consistently ranks high in flag surveys. More people in Kansas should start caring about the city flags being displayed in their communities, which are rarely designed well. If we don’t like what we see, we should work to make them better and strengthen the pride and ownership we have in our communities.
I know that some are sure to argue that Kansans have much more important things to worry about than flags, and I don’t disagree. In the grand scheme of things, a flag is a very little thing. But if we can’t make little things that we’re extremely proud of, what hope do we ever have of creating big ones?
Furthermore, it’s certainly no waste of time to talk about what we value and how we represent ourselves to the world. Making space for that isn’t going to keep us from making progress on more substantial problems, whether it is poverty or balancing the state budget. If anything, successfully tackling a challenge where the stakes aren’t as high and getting clearer about what we stand for might provide great new insights about the kind of leadership we’ll need to effectively address much more daunting problems.
It’s been a century since Kansas began the process of selecting its first state flag. Now’s the time to decide how we want others – and ourselves – to see Kansas for the next 100 years.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THE KANSAS FLAG?
Share your thoughts with managing editor Chris Green (email@example.com) or tweet them using the #kansasflag hashtag on Twitter.