Can a new city flag really make a difference in Akron?

The Worst-Designed Thing You’ve Never Noticed

If you’d like to learn more about city flags and what it takes to get a new one adopted, please join us for an online event at 5:30 pm on July 15, 2021 for a special presentation with vexillogist Ted Kaye and Lee Snelgrove, the organizer behind the successful adoption of a new flag in Columbia, SC. To register, visit https://devilst.rip/FlagEvent

written by Ken Evans

Akron’s city flag is kind of awful. In fairness, most are. 

In fact, across the United States, cities are taking a fresh look at theirs. Given the concerns facing residents — systemic failures, environmental issues and wide-ranging social changes — flag design may seem like a low priority. However, the city flag is an important yet often underutilized community asset that can make solving bigger civic problems easier. 

When it’s embraced by the public, a city flag fosters shared identity between residents by serving as a city symbol and a literal banner for locals to rally behind to address challenges.

“If the flag is poorly designed, if it doesn’t work as a flag, then that is a lost opportunity for the city,” says Ted Kaye, a nationally recognized vexillologist (aka – a flag expert).

Few municipal flags are embraced by the public because they fail to adequately symbolize or inspire people. When that happens, residents turn to sports teams, corporations and chambers of commerce or to celebrities and historical figures. If those institutions or individuals leave, are tarnished by corruption or change values, it can be another blow to civic pride. The loss of the rubber industry being a prime example.

While a well-designed flag is not a panacea for economic misfortunes, it can help establish a broad civic identity, making many challenges easier to rally behind.

Read more: How to make a good city flag

An advocate for the power of good design, podcaster Roman Mars has joined Kaye on his crusade, making the case that a well-designed flag communicates how a city imagines citizenship, how it approaches complex problems and how connected its communities are. 

“As we move more and more into cities, the city flag will become not just a symbol of that city as a place, but also, it could become a symbol of how that city considers design itself,” Mars said during a 2015 TED Talk about city flags.

So what is Akron’s city flag anyway?

Akron has had three flags with all of them consisting of the city seal on a white background.

The first seal was designed by Sam Scherr of the industrial design firm Scherr & McDermott Inc. and adopted by the City Council in 1965.

This original seal found little public use. There is even an anecdotal story of a former mayor removing that flag from his office and stuffing it into a box so he would no longer have to look at it. This seal can still be seen in a few places around Akron, primarily in some older government buildings and a few documents that missed being updated, like the parking tickets for some downtown garages. 

A new design was adopted in 1996 after Akron won the coveted National Civic League’s “All American City Award” for a second time in 1995. The award, which is only granted to ten cities annually, “recognizes the work of communities in using inclusive civic engagement to address critical issues and create stronger connections among residents, businesses, and nonprofit and government leaders,” according to the NCL’s website. 

That honor, combined with the completion of the Inventors Hall of Fame Museum in 1995, motivated Mayor Don Plusquellic and his chief of staff, Joel Bailey, to create a new city seal that incorporated these accolades. Unlike the 1965 design, this version was never formally adopted by the City Council. The 1996 design can still be found especially on older city trash cans.

This update design again was never fully embraced by residents. Former Deputy Mayor Dave Lieberth says a commission was established in the mid-2000s to explore adopting a new symbol. However, they determined an updated symbol offered little value to Akron and plans to revisit the design were dropped.

The city seal in use today was revealed in Mayor Don Plusquellic’s 2009 State of the City address. Its design, by Akron artist Nick Betro, Vice President of Hitchcock Fleming and Associates, reflects both Akron winning the 2008 All-American City Award and the departure, in 2009, of the Inventors Hall of Fame Museum, which moved to Alexandria, Virginia.

So what makes a “well-designed” flag?

The city of Chicago offers a classic example of a well-designed flag embraced by its community. 

Appearing everywhere in the city and tied to the very idea of what it means to be a Chicagoan, the flag is firmly part of the iconography of the city and can be found everywhere from coffee cups to tattoos. When a police officer or firefighter dies, it is often not the United States flag that drapes their coffin but the city flag of Chicago. 

Mars said in his 2015 TED Talk, “It isn’t just that people love Chicago and therefore love the flag. I also think that people love Chicago more because the flag is so cool.” 

That’s because, as Kaye was quoted saying in the same TED Talk, the Chicago flag created a positive feedback loop between “great symbolism and civic pride.”

To better communicate good flag design, Kaye consulted academic journals, design experts and amateur flag enthusiasts. The result was “Good Flag, Bad Flag,” a 15-page pamphlet that spells out five core principles: Keep It Simple, Use Meaningful Symbolism, Use 2–3 Basic Colors, No Lettering or Seals, Be Distinctive or Be Related.

At a minimum, the design should be recognizable from a distance while it is waving in the wind. That’s why seals make poor flags. The same is true for putting words on a flag. If you have to put your name on a flag, Kaye says, “then your symbolism has failed.”  

Want to see if your own design can pass the test? Kaye says to draw a one-inch by half-inch rectangle then make your design fit inside. 

The “vexing” problem with Akron’s current flag

When the North American Vexillological Association published their 2004 ranking of US municipal flags, Akron’s ranked #126 out of 150. A cheeky article at the time, by Beacon Journal staff writer Jule Wallace, quoted former city spokesperson Mark Williamson admitting, “the present flag sucks.” 

That was about the 1996 version, but reception to the current flag is generally tepid at best.

In a September 8, 2016 column, Beacon Journal columnist Bob Dyer noted Akron’s flag may be distinct but it was complex, writing, “nobody could draw that thing from memory 一 maybe not even the person who designed it.” 

Dyer quoted Roman Mars, who pointed out: “…flags are designed [generally] to be displayed where you can see both sides. …With this design, all the lettering would be backward for a lot of the people viewing it and the image would lose some of its impact.” 

On the positive side, Mars told Dyer the graphic could make a great t-shirt. 

Dyer’s next column featured reader comments that largely agreed with vexillologists, but one, by Rev. Michael B. Smith, offered a design suggestion of his own:

“The city flag of Akron should be the University of Akron Colors: a blue field with [a] yellow triangle in the middle from base to top, [and] a gray tire tread along the horizontal base of the flag. No words, no numbers, no foolin’.”

Smith conceded, however, it may require an “act of God” to get the city to adopt a new flag.

What does it take to adopt a new flag?

The 1965, 1995 and 2009 designs are what vexillologists like to call S.O.Bs or “seals on a bedsheet.” A hidden problem in our S.O.B. is that even if proud Akronites wanted to embrace the current flag, say by putting it on a beer can, the seal is copyrighted by the City of Akron government so it can’t be used without official permission. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. Akron can have a true symbol that is embraced by the community because it truly represents its residents, which starts by asking Akronites to get involved and listening to them when they respond. 

Other cities — from Norman, Oklahoma to Columbia, South Carolina — have done this, collaborating with local artists and designers to create flags that are publicly owned and establish what Roman Mars calls a graphic design language for the city that’s “remixable” into new forms. Serving as shorthand for what it means to be a resident. 

The good news, Kaye says, is that designing a city flag is fairly easy once locals decide that’s what they want to do — “98% of the work is a political and public relations campaign to get people to agree that the current flag should change.”

During the reporting process, The Devil Strip contacted members of Akron City Council and the Mayor’s Office to let them know this story would be coming out so they aren’t taken by surprise. After all, this can’t happen without them. In those informal conversations, the consensus response was positive and supportive of exploring a change.

All Akron needs now is for you to pick up the flag.

If you want to share your ideas, feedback or even your own concept for a new Akron city flag, reach out to us at flags@thedevilstrip.com

Ken Evans is a new Akronite attempting to better understand his adopted home while endeavoring to learn what it actually means to do good in the world. If you have questions about this article please reach out to akronevans@gmail.com. 

Ready for a new city flag? Join this free event!

If you’d like to learn more about city flags and what it takes to get a new one adopted, please join us for an online event at 5:30 pm on July 15, 2021 for a special presentation with vexillogist Ted Kaye and Lee Snelgrove, the organizer behind the successful adoption of a new flag in Columbia, SC. To register, visit https://devilst.rip/FlagEvent


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