Here’s the short story of how Philadelphia got the flag we have today: there was a guy – a smart, nice guy – the Reverend Doctor Henry C. McCook. In October 1894, he had an idea – that Philadelphia should have a city flag. So, he wrote a letter to the Mayor and included his idea for a civic flag – the city seal on golden yellow and azure blue. I’m sure he was a well-connected man and did some lobbying, and sure enough, by March of next year, City Council passed an ordinance, and presto – Philadelphia had a flag. That design has served as the city flag for the intervening 118 years, but now is the time to ask if we can do better.
No one can argue with McCook’s motives for suggesting a flag. In his letter to the mayor, he wrote that, “the display and constant use of a Philadelphia Civic Flag would act towards the strengthening of civic pride, precisely as similar use of the National Flag tends to foster a spirit of national loyalty.”
He’s exactly right. Flying a flag is among the easiest ways to identify yourself as part of a group. It’s a way of saying, “I am a part of this thing – this city, this country. I fly this flag to recognize the history and the values of this place and to tell others that I am of it.” A flag can be an incredibly powerful object, and McCook’s was an incredibly powerful idea.
Since his motives are unimpeachable, let’s embrace them. However, his graphic design sense leaves him open to some criticism. McCook was a prominent lecturer and author, noted entomologist, a Presbyterian minister, and the Vice President of the Academy of Natural Sciences, but he wasn’t necessarily a great designer. The flag is a little… lazy. It’s what they call in vexillology (the study of flags) “a seal on a bed sheet.” A seal is something that is meant for letters and citations, a complex bit of heraldry that proclaims the officialdom of a document – anyone who studies seals (sigillographers) could tell you that.
Philadelphia has a great seal. The figures of Peace and Plenty stand astride a shield bearing a plow and ship, holding symbols of hope and prosperity, crowned by the scales of Justice and entwined in a banner with the City’s motto Philadelphia Maneto. It’s packed with lots of imagery and symbolism, and a close reading of it reveals a lot about the values of the city and its history. It’s best done up close, in the seal’s home court – on a letter, in your hands. It’s unfair to try to make the seal do double duty as the flag. On a fluttering flag, you can’t see a seal closely enough to decipher its elements, and it does nothing to make the flag an easily discernible icon.
If you want to see why seals on flags is a bad bet, take a look at a selection of some of the twenty state flags (including Pennsylvania’s) that consist of the state seal on a blue field. Their visual similarity renders these flags so useless as identifiable symbols that a few states have taken the ultimate flag cop-out and just written their names on the flags.
So let the seal be the seal, and let’s have a flag that’s a great flag. A flag is a symbol, a signal. The flag should be something that is distinctly Philadelphian, with symbolism that tells a story of our history and the values that will shape our future.
Now is the time for Philadelphia to reinvent its city flag. Not because because the existing flag isn’t sufficient, but because it fails to capture the public imagination, fails a flag design, and fails to be the universally recognized and popular icon for the city that it ought to be. Some say that the flag is fine as is, and that it’s failure to take hold among Philadelphians as a symbol of our city is simply a failure of marketing. As DesignPhiladelphia kicks off this week, the power of great design to excite and unite is evident.
The best way to get a flag befitting of our great city is a competition. Public competitions produced the iconic flags of Chicago, (which has an entire website dedicated to tattoos depicting its flag) Denver, and Washington, D.C. – the three flags that topped the North American Vexillogical Society’s 2004 ranking of flag designs.
The competition should be open to all, Philadelphian and outsider alike – you never know where the best ideas can come from – Chicago’s was designed by a poet, D.C.’s by a professional graphic designer, and Denver’s by a high-schooler.
Over lunch this week, I pitched this competition idea to Brenda Exon and Robert Stoller, two of the founders of the Partners For Civic Pride, a non-profit who’s mission is to promote the current city flag as a vehicle to instill civic pride in all Philadelphians. Needless to say, no one is more committed to the flag than Brenda Exon, the ever-enthusiastic Philly Pride Lady™. For Brenda, the story of the flag’s history and the symbolism of the seal is inviolate. She has done more than anyone else to tell the story of the flag and is in fact probably the first person that introduced me to the flag. It’s tough to sit across the table from her and propose its demise.
To Exon and Stoller, the flag simply has a marketing problem. If more people knew about the flag and its story, they would embrace it. Most people don’t even know that the city has an official flag. When PFCP introduces the flag at the annual Philly Flag Day, or in classrooms around the city, people get excited about it.
To me, the flag has a design problem. The flags that are successes as design objects don’t need a marketing campaign. They get into people’s minds. They start showing up on t-shirts and bags, people start flying them on their porches. They become the icon of the city. People might not know all of their flag’s history and symbolism, but it doesn’t matter – all they need to know is that the flag means they belong to their place. The best ones are mutable and open to remixing, becoming a touchstone for people to relate themselves to both the city and a culture within it. These are the qualities that make for a successful flag, not just what we have on hand and a well-planned PR push.
The people at PFCP has done wonders advancing the cause of the flag. They’ve built partnerships with the schools and philanthropists. Philebrities like Tony Luke and Will Smith’s father sit on their Board. They ought to lever these resources and prestige to hold a competition, if only to build conversation and awareness about the current flag. As for the original flag, set aside the weight of history for a moment and, consider this: how would it have fared as an emblem of the city had it faced any competition at all? McCook’s design was merely the first, not necessarily the best.
The fact is that the competition to rethink the flag is already underway. There’s an informal redesign competition happening right now on Reddit. The industrial design and branding firm Bresslergroup is sponsoring a Reflag Project as part of this week’s DesignPhiladelphia festival. Flags from their designers are flying at NextFab and the Trestle Inn right now. Part of their Reflag Project invites people to Tweet photos of themselves with one of the Bresslergroup’s flags using #reflag to be entered to win two tickets to The Rail Park fundraiser on October 18.
Of course, I’ve got my own ideas for what would make for a great Philly flag. At tonight’s Fast Forward Philly Event at the Center for Architecture, I’ll take a few minutes to share my own entry to the ongoing competition to redesign the flag. I hope that it lives up to the high ideals of a civic flag that Reverend Doctor McCook illuminated in 1894.
May the best flag win.