Milwaukee's flag history has been one of perpetual shoulder-shrugging and an aggressive lack of vision. The city's initial flag was conceived via an 1897 Milwaukee Journal contest, but the design was never used and it took 50 more years for its citizenry to gather enough interest to attempt to tackle the project once more. But the design — which currently flies on our flag today — also helped illustrate the definition of "design by committee:" a jumbled mess of letters, numbers and outdated, confusing, lost, even outright racist symbols.
Since then, three more flag design contests and winners have come and gone, but have ultimately made no impact. But that's not stopping graphic designer Steve Kodis from trying again. As the city recovers from a decades long slump, maybe citizens are more open to symbols of civic pride.
Flags have always been a way for disparate groups of people to unify and define themselves, and these days, thanks in part to social media, the general public is much more open to the idea of personal brand identity, and they understand how simple logos can capture big ideas and feelings. A flag should almost be an empty vessel with just enough design to be distinctive, yet can embrace the ideas of all citizens, and represent the past while being open to the future.
But according to the few tenets of good flag design, our current flag fails to tick most of those boxes.
- Keep it simple (our current flag is anything but)
- Use meaningful symbolism (many are racist, outdated or lost)
- Use two or three basic colors (our current flag does not)
- No lettering or seals (we use numbers – with outlines! – and letters – double outlined!!)
- And finally be distinctive (well, we've got that one in spades)
Evan Rytlewski of the Shepherd Express and Matt Wild of Milwaukee Record have approached Kodis on a couple of occasions to figure out what's going on with this whole flag thing, and they didn't spare the salt. In an interview on WMSE's The Disclaimer, Rytlewski scoffed at the idea of a new flag, clutching the cluttered mess as if a new flag would nullify his love for the current one, while simultaneously insisting that flags are boring and pointless. "It seems like another example of the millennials coming in, shaping the city in its own image, without that regard for history (6:38)."
Later he suggests that "people would not wear a flag on a T-shirt instead of a 'Milwaukee Home' T-shirt. A flag doesn't have words on it (15:30)," which is a baffling statement in and of itself, but it's made all the more confusing if you remember back to the beginning of the episode where Rytlewski proudly admits he owns a Milwaukee flag T-shirt. Contradictions and conjectures like these run loose and fast through the entire chat. At 17:11, Rytlewski says that he has "very little faith in designs to stand the test of time..." and in the same breath asks – rhetorically, mind you – "Should [the flag] be overhauled every eight years as tastes change?"
And despite his strong desire to keep the flag as is, Rytlewski had a hard time justifying the "goodness" of the current flag. At 10:12, he asks, "Isn't [our] history already celebrated on the flag, though? You've got Milwaukee's history of industry on the flag. You've got its use of the lake. You've got the Milwaukee Arena. You've got workers. You've got hops (it's actually barley). You've got a church [laughs], for some reason you've got a spaceship [laughs] with Aladdin's lamp on it, which is the most Illuminati thing you'll ever see on a flag" and "its past symbol of native Americans." Never mind how racist that last one is.
I wouldn't bother linking to the uninformed debate, except that I was impressed with Kodis' ability to handily acknowledge and answer every question. If you are looking for proof that Kodis is the person to shepherd this project to the finish line, that episode is it.
Despite admitting "I don't come from a design background," Rytlewski insisted definitively that, "no other flag could possibly convey that depth of information" and later asks "If we deserve to have [a new flag], wouldn't there be more of a push to actually get it? Wouldn't there be some kind of momentum behind some kind of campaign to actually change the flag?"
Well, we're about to find out.
If you have a fresh vision for a new Milwaukee flag, you can join the already 566 other submissions (as of this writing), but be warned, time is running out. The final deadline (which, note, has shifted since the linked broadcast of The Disclaimer) is timed to coincide with Milwaukee Day on April 14, with an official reveal slated two months later in the 88Nine Radio Milwaukee headquarters. Among the five qualified judges who will weigh the designs are Kodis himself, Milwaukee historian John Gurda and Ted Kaye, a representative from the North American Vexillological Association. The last two judges have yet to be decided, but let's hope they're smart enough to keep the notorious flag-ruiners (aka the politicians) out of it.
In an effort to avoid losing momentum (as with nearly every other flag redesign effort) and keep up excitement for the new design, Kodis already has plans to print and sell the new design on merchandise at the release party. The citizen's new flag will appear on items such as t-shirts, stickers and, yes, actual flags. And perhaps buoyed by newfound interest (aka merch money), Kodis will make a formal presentation to the city to officially adopt the new design.
Personally I love the idea of a new flag, and to help honor the competition and inspire contributions, over the coming week OnMilwaukee will be featuring the 21 most important events that helped shape Milwaukee into what it is today.
Milwaukee, a city that once had the vision to build the tallest building in the world, is currently united under a flag that demonstrates how little vision we have. If this new flag doesn't succeed, it won't be due to lack of effort. But it will answer Rytlewski's question of whether we deserve to have a new flag, and it will reflect whether the city is ready to recover its ability to lead.
Jason McDowell grew up in central Iowa and moved to Milwaukee in 2000 to attend the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.
In 2006 he began working with OnMilwaukee as an advertising designer, but has since taken on a variety of rolls as the Creative Director, tackling all kinds of design problems, from digital to print, advertising to branding, icons to programming.
In 2016 he picked up the 414 Digital Star of the Year award.
Most other times he can be found racing bicycles, playing board games, or petting dogs.