Does Boston need to replace its flag?

As more cities across the country improve their designs, Boston's flag is falling further behind.

A cloudy sky hangs over Boston City Hall on Oct. 30, 2014.
A cloudy sky hangs over Boston City Hall with flags at half mast in 2014. –John Tlumacki / The Boston Globe

Boston may currently have bragging rights over the rest of the country when it comes to baseball and football. But the literal fabric of the city is increasingly falling behind its peers.

According to vexillologists (people who study flags), Boston is among the country’s cellar-dwellers when it comes to its flag.

Residents would be excused if they were unaware Boston had a flag. With the city’s 1800s-era seal on a blue background, it flies outside Boston City Hall and at Boston Common, and virtually only those two places. The fact that it is rarely seen anywhere in the city is just one testament to the fact that it is effectively a failure as a flag, according to Ted Kaye, the former editor of the vexillology journal Raven.

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“Boston needs to start over,” Kaye told Boston.com.

The city ranked 133 on the North American Vexillological Association’s 2004 survey of 150 American city flags. And the bad news is that it is effectively even lower on the list now. In the 15 years since NAVA’s survey, many of the cities that ranked below Boston have since launched flag redesign initiatives.

The good news is that a bad flag is an easy fix, especially compared to other local issues — inequality, traffic, etc. — that the city is facing.

“This is the lowest hanging fruit,” says Lev Kushner, an urban brand strategist at the San Francisco-based firm Department of Here. “It’s so cheap, and people go crazy for it.”

What makes a good flag?

According to Kaye’s “Good Flag, Bad Flag” guide, there are five core principles of good flag design:

  1. Keep it simple, so that they can be seen both from far away and while flapping in the wind
  2. Use meaningful symbolism, such as colors or shapes that represent something important to the community
  3. Use two to three basic colors — generally, red, blue, green, black, yellow, or white
  4. No lettering or seals, which defeat the fundamental symbolic purpose of a flag
  5. Be distinctive or be related, meaning that flags should be unique, but can also evoke connections to other flags

Kaye points to Chicago as an example of success.

“The Chicago flag is everywhere,” he said.

Kaye isn’t wrong. From shirts to coffee mugs to tattoos, Chicagoans have proudly emblazoned their blue bars and red stars — representative of the city’s geography and history — on virtually any available canvass across the city. In 2013, Chicago magazine cited the flag’s “simple, bold design” as the main reason it had become so ubiquitous.

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According to the North American Vexillologist Associations’ 2004 survey, Chicago ranked second, behind only Washington, D.C., out of 150 city flags in the United States. The top five was rounded out by the flags of Denver, Phoenix, and St. Louis.

“A great city flag is something that represents a city to its people, and its people to the world at large,” podcast host Roman Mars said in an influential 2015 TED Talk about the epidemic of poorly designed city flags.

“And when that flag is a beautiful thing, that connection is a beautiful thing,” Mars said.

In Boston, that connection doesn’t exist — at least not with its flag. Kaye notes that cities without any good flag or imagery often cede that territory to their sports teams.

“You go to Boston, you’re not going to get a Boston flag coffee cup, you’re going to get something with the Patriots or Red Sox,” he said.

While that iconography can suffice — certainly during the city’s current two-decade run of professional sports success — for some residents, it also comes with a certain gender bias and leaves out residents who aren’t interested in sports, Kaye said.

“I know that every year the Patriots and/or the Red Sox are champions, and that leads to a big boost in feeling great about being from Boston,” Kushner said. “But it’s not always going to be that way. You gotta have something to rally behind that’s not sports.”

When the local sports team aren’t winning, what type of tattoos will Bostonians get then to express local pride? Currently, it’s not the city’s flag.

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“Boston is basically missing an opportunity,” Kaye said.

Why does Boston’s flag rank so low?

Boston’s flag — which was created in 1913 by the local Columbus Day parade committee and adopted by the city in 1917 — violates at least two of the “good flag” principles: simplicity and the rule against seals.

The city seal’s contains three lines of Latin text and a view of the city’s 19th-century skyline with several boats in the foreground. While certainly distinctive and representative of Boston’s history, Kaye says the intricate imagery renders the flag effectively meaningless.

“Seals belong on pieces of paper, viewed 18 inches from your eye — not moving,” he said. “Flags are viewed 50 or 100 feet away on a piece of fabric that’s moving, and you see both sides of them. When you put a seal on a flag, you’re just wasting ink, because nobody can see it.”

It’s a common pratfall when it comes to local flags in the United States. Vexillologists deride the wide use of seals on flags as SOBs, which stands for “seal on a bed sheet.” Half of the country’s 50 state flags are their seals or coat of arms on a blank background.

NAVA’s survey revealed dozens of seals and crests cluttering city flags across the country. As a result, 112 of 150 flags on the list scored less than a 5.0 on the ranking’s 10-point rating scale (Boston came in at 2.71). Kaye says the abundance of seals also represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of a city flag.

“The flag needs to be the flag of the entire city, not just the government,” he said. “The seal is for the government. The flag is for the people.”

However, “supercharged” by Mars’s 2015 speech, Kaye says more city governments are beginning to understand.

What are other cities doing?

Since NAVA’s survey, six cities ranked below Boston on the list — Anaheim, California; Montpelier, Vermont; Provo, Utah; Mesa, Arizona; Rapid City, South Dakota; and Pocatello, Idaho, which used to occupy the ignominious 150th place — have successfully adopted new and improved flags. And that doesn’t include all the cities that redesigned or created flags that weren’t on the original list (some states are also looking at replacing their flags).

Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Milwaukee, which also ranked below Boston, are currently in the midst of city-backed flag redesign initiatives. If and when they’re successful, Boston would drop into the bottom 10 on NAVA’s list.

Of course, redesigning a flag is more difficult and contentious than it perhaps looks. Some cities have gone through the entire process to no avail. For example, the city council in Laconia, New Hampshire commissioned a committee to solicit and narrow down flag ideas from the city’s residents. But when the six semi-finalists were presented to the city council, the elected body shot them all down and decided to keep the original flag.

“Politicians have three main drivers,” Kaye said, “They like to make people happy, they don’t like to make people unhappy, and they don’t like to spend money. And any change is going to make somebody mad. Either they don’t like what something is being changed to, they like the old one, or they simply dislike the idea of change.”

But it’s not just the politicians. Another factor is the “mere-exposure effect,” a psychological term that describes people’s tendency to prefer familiar things, even if they’re less pleasant. The phenomenon was on clear display during the 2017 flag redesign efforts in Manchester, New Hampshire. Given the choice between the city’s existing SOB flag and three other concepts that all adhered to the “Good Flag, Bad Flag” principles, 83 percent of residents voted to keep the original flag.

“If we’ve been staring at the ugly thing all the time, when presented with a choice between the ugly thing and a beautiful thing, we’ll still choose the ugly thing,” Kaye said. “We’re used to it.”

Daniel Berube, chair of the Manchester (New Hampshire) Arts Committee, left, and John Clayton, executive director of the Manchester Historical Association, talk about the flag designs as they narrow down the selections in 2017. —Mary Schwalm / The Boston Globe

What should Boston do?

Kaye says that any city efforts to change its flag should be powered by its people, but requires buy-in from local elected officials.

Despite recently modernizing the city’s seal and brand strategy, Mayor Marty Walsh’s administration hasn’t made any moves to address Boston’s flag. According to his office, Walsh has no plans to change the flag, but remains open to new uses and ideas.

“Ask the people of Boston for ideas,” Kaye said. “Have them create submissions of designs in some kind of public competition, where you get hundreds or even thousands of proposals. And then have a committee of people who are versed in flag design.”

Josh Levine, a partner with Kushner at the Department of Here, says flags should evoke both a city’s past and present. And in addition to the problematic use of the city seal, Levine says the illustration of the centuries-old skyline recalls only Boston’s history.

“It has to be contemporary and speak to the current citizens and the current state, but I think there’s an opportunity to connect to the past,” he said. “Anything that’s only present … or only the past is not going to be as compelling.”

One potential source of inspiration that Kushner, a Sudbury native, suggested was Boston’s unconventional street grid — if you can call it a grid. Perhaps a few curved stripes or off-kilter lines or non-90-degree angles?

“It tells a story, and also evokes that sort of Bostonian pride,” he said. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s our home anyway.”

Other suggestions Kushner and Levine, who attended Tufts, came up with include incorporating the Emerald Necklace or some symbol representation of Paul Revere’s famous “One, if by land, and two, if by sea.”

Kaye has said that within every bad flag, there’s a good flag trying to get out, suggesting that elements of the current water-centric Boston flag could lend themselves to a redesign. Kushner thinks the current blue-and-yellow color scheme — the same as the Boston Marathon — is “great.”

But for other potential flag color possibilities, one need look no further than Boston’s city website. The recent digital rebrand centered around three locally inspired core colors: “Freedom Trail red,” “Charles blue,” and “optimistic blue.”

According to Kaye, any efforts to replace the city flag would likely receive some pushback.

“The arguments are we’ve got better things to do with our time, this is a waste of our resources, this flag is part of our history,” he said.

However, Logan McDougall — the public information officer for the City of Pocatello and former co-chair of the committee that led the Idaho city’s successful redesign of what had previously been dubbed the “worst city flag in North America” — says it’s a worthwhile pursuit.

During Pocatello’s 2017 design contest, the 55,000-person city received 709 entries. Through the submissions and several rounds of public feedback, McDougall says they learned a lot about “what’s important” to the citizens of Pocatello.

“When people gave us honest feedback on the flags, they were letting us know exactly what they like, dislike, and hold dear about Pocatello,” he said during his own respective TED Talk last year.

It took more than a year for the committee to narrow down the field, but the process ultimately produced a flag that McDougall thinks would place in the top 10 if NAVA redid their survey. He looks forward to the day they do.

“It’s a lot of fun,” McDougall told Boston.com. “It was a lot of work, but it was a lot of fun.”

Asked if he had any flag redesign advice for Boston, McDougall’s suggestion was simple.

“My advice would be to do it,” he said.

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