A Flagging Effort

18 May

I have just wasted the better part of a Saturday afternoon being thoroughly entertained by the submissions to Duluth’s flag redesign project. (The city has chosen 41 semifinalists and will announce finalists this Tuesday, though for maximum amusement I recommend perusing all 195 submitted designs plus some choice comments here.) The flag design debate is hardly Duluth’s most pressing issue, though symbolism has power, as anyone trying to figure out what to call the Minneapolis body of water south of Lake of the Isles and north of Lake Harriet can attest. Many of these seemingly benign symbolic debates have become hyper-politicized, largely to the exhaustion of someone who cares much more about outcomes than names, but symbols do have power, and as Duluth’s existing flag is unspeakably lame, the development of a new one is a worthwhile exercise.

The comments in the full document certainly show how this could become politicized if the flag committee isn’t careful. Does the flag honor Native Americans or Scandinavians or a French explorer, or none of the above? Do we choose a monument or two to highlight, or perhaps some historical moment or another? The options are endless, and the contest wisely began by sharing some good flag design principles and opening up the process to comment. (The best comment comes from the individual who wrote “This town is dying. Thanks.” Let it never be said that Duluthians aren’t unfailingly polite, even when in peak troll mode.) But, unlike the Minneapolis lake debate, this one has the potential to remain fun and creative, and with any luck, that is what it will remain. Any design critiques that follow are meant in that spirit.

An initial review of the nearly 200 submitted designs mostly left me exasperated that there were so many damn lift bridges. Too easy, and better left to seals or fun ornaments. (The flag numbered 56a in the document of all submissions is the only bridge design that remotely tempts me.) The contest also reinforced the notion that no one has any idea how many neighborhoods Duluth has, as attempts to include stars or stripes to acknowledge the city’s neighborhoods included wildly different numbers of neighborhoods. The submissions from students add some fantastic color to the offerings, including the Looming Loon of Doom (flag 10) and the meta flag-within-a-flag (20).

As someone with a reasonably strong knowledge of world geography and flags (I think my dad still has the placemat with all of the world flags on it that I ate off of us a child), some flags were also awkwardly close to real-world ones. If you told me that 1 or 15c were flags of sub-Saharan African nations, I’d believe you. I would naturally assume that 74 belongs to some Muslim-majority country, while I actually checked to see if 5 and 84a had been pilfered from some Pacific island micro-state. 55 made me think Duluth had suddenly acquired the Sydney Opera House.

Some logos can’t help but bring to mind certain associations in individuals’ own heads, too. For example, 94d looks like the logo for my favorite DC college bar, which has a nautical theme, and 59’s northern lights vibe also made me think of the antenna farm atop the hill, which may or may not be intentional but is not exactly the most thrilling symbol of the city. 55d can’t make me forget the leaked draft of a logo for Amy Klobuchar that came out before she announced her presidential run, even though I do kind of like that rusty red to acknowledge that side of Duluth’s history. The blue and green color scheme makes plenty of sense, both because of the city’s water and trees and because of those are the colors of the current city flag, but some versions get very close to the state of Minnesota’s branding, which I think is passable but tries too hard with the funky font. Likewise, 23 reminds me of a marvelous old logo for Lake County that had Split Rock Lighthouse illuminating the county on a map of Minnesota, all with some text in comic sans around it. Alas, I can’t find this beauty to share it with you all. I’m sure others will be similarly triggered by certain flags.

Some designs I don’t particularly like as flags, but they might make decent logos for someone or something. 93c’s rails and lakewalk design should go on the cover of some city small area plan, while I’m a fan of the agate Lake Superior in 50. The seagull-lighthouse combo variations in number 78 would make a slick logo for something, but seems a bit much here, and I have an aversion to honoring flying rats on our city flag.

Some flags just try too hard. If you read the description of the un-numbered flag that was presumably supposed to be 95, it does start to make sense, though my initial reaction to a chain on a flag was…not positive. The various 43s and 48, the varying shades of blue in the otherwise interesting 60, and any flags that start throwing in several symbols or pictures just don’t do it for me. 34 is a semifinalist that checks a lot of boxes I like, but still maybe just does too much, and I’m not sure that shade of orange will age well.

I’m still not sure if I love or hate the anchor de lis that appears in a few designs (and made the semifinals), and waffled on 6 as well (which didn’t). Of the several I jotted down as early choices, only the rather radical 2d made the semifinalist cut. After the deluge of blue and green, I liked some of the red and orange ones that threw in some real contrast. I also seemed drawn to ones with diagonal lines that seem to signal shoreline and Duluth’s ridges. For me, the clash of ridge against lake has always been the most striking feature of this city. To that end, I’d endorse 15a and maybe 21. A fun variant on this might be to go with a non-rectangular flag.

But my winner, I think, is 98e: striking, deep colors that capture that clash of ridge and lake with a big north star hanging over it all. I can look at that flag and feel like I’m wandering along the lakeshore or atop the ridge on a clear summer night. Its symmetry will hold up as it gets buffeted by a November gale, it doesn’t feel like it’s wasting any space to fill out that rectangle. Focusing on natural features gives us something all Duluthians share and spares us any descent into a debate over whose ancestors or which parts of the economy we are or aren’t honoring. It also doesn’t look like any other flag or symbol I’m aware of. I’d gladly run that one up a flagpole someday.

Or we can just go all in on 80 and embrace our inner Lowell Lion.

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