Wave your flag

Courtesy Chicago Architecture Center

When it comes to flags, Ted Kaye calls it like he sees it. 

“Denver’s is great,” he says. “Centennial has a pretty good flag” and Loveland has “a great design.”  

But not every Front Range municipality’s flag game is on point. 

“Fort Collins doesn’t have a very good flag,” Kaye says, saving his harshest criticism for Superior’s flag. 

“That’s a great business card,” he says. “It’s a terrible [flag] design.”

Kaye is a flag expert and enthusiast. He’s practiced vexillology — the study of flags — for 40 years and is the secretary of the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA). He knows the difference between good flag design and bad flag design, and wrote a book about it (“Good” Flag, “Bad” Flag). 

The day we spoke, Kaye is flying the flag of New Orleans at his home in Portland, Oregon. He flies a different flag each day, one of the many he’s collected from around the world since his teenage years, and an electronic sign nearby tells passersby the flag’s identity. 

In early January, NAVA announced the results of a survey which asked the public to rate the design of 312 new or redesigned city flags. Nearly 3,000 people participated, most of whom were not members of NAVA.  

There were four Colorado city flags represented in the survey, including Northglenn and Superior. Both received ‘F’ grades for their flags. Although Diana Wilson with the City of Northglenn says the flag NAVA surveyed isn’t an “official flag,” NAVA survey volunteers found it flying “officially” at city hall. 

Courtesy City of Northglenn

According to Flags of the World, an online resource affiliated with the International Federation of Vexillological Associations, only two cities within Boulder County have flags: Longmont and Superior. 

Kaye says flag design brings together geography, politics and history to create a strong representation of a community. 

“If a city has a great flag, there’s an argument to be made that the perception of the city from the outside is more positive and … that citizens feel better about their city,” he says. 

Erin Mendenhall, mayor of Salt Lake City, initiated a flag redesign process during the pandemic in 2020. 

City of Northglenn

“A well-done flag can capture the heart and soul of a community and foster a real sense of pride,” Mendenhall said in a press release in 2020. “I’m excited for Salt Lake City to have a flag that better represents this beautiful, unique place, and our people. With everything happening in the world, a creative, community pursuit like this is a welcome change.”

Salt Lake’s flag, unveiled in fall 2020, was co-designed by two local teens and placed fifth in NAVA’s survey. 

Chicago’s flag — a line of four red stars sandwiched between alternating bands of white and light-blue stripes — is Kaye’s prime example of community representation, saying it “flies everywhere” and is “embedded in civic culture.” 

“You see it in tattoos, you see it in all kinds of tourist mementos,” he says. “When a Chicago policeman dies in the line of duty, it may not be the national flag on his casket, it could be the Chicago flag. That’s how deeply ingrained it is.”

Superior’s flag — featuring “Town of Superior” and “The Gateway to Boulder Valley” in maroon text with a tree and sun encircled nearby — was designed around six years ago by a youth council. 

“I have a lot of pride in that flag,” says Kevin Colón, communications and community engagement manager for the Town of Superior. “I know some of these kids. A survey doesn’t have any kind of personal connection, it doesn’t look at the eyeballs of the people that sit around the table and dream about what a flag could be.” 

Town of Superior

While Superior’s text-heavy flag may have drawn criticism from vexillologists, Colón says it still engenders a sense of unity with some community members. A year after the Marshall Fire, Colón says the city is focused on helping residents get back home.  

Kaye says there’s hope for flags that didn’t receive good design ratings, like Superior’s. 

“I like to say that in every flag, every bad design, there’s a good design trying to get out,” he says. “[The Superior flag] has the elements that could be made into a great flag.”

NAVA’s flag design guide (written by Kaye) includes five directives: 1) keep it simple, 2) use meaningful symbolism, 3) use two to three basic colors, 4) no lettering or seals and 5) be distinctive. On Superior’s flag, Kaye says he’d begin by removing text and then play with the design elements (the tree and sun), which are his favorite aspects of the flag.  

Although not included in the new NAVA survey, Longmont has been flying its city flag since April 1, 1975, after its own public redesign contest. Kaye called the flag “weird” but “distinctive.” According to Erik Mason, curator of history at the City of Longmont, that flag went to space with Longmont native Vance Brand during a 1990 space shuttle mission. 

Good flag design is about much more than aesthetic appeal. In recent years, a number of state flags have come under fire for culturally insensitive designs.

City of Longmont

Minnesota’s state flag, adopted in 1957, has been accused of racist undertones. It features the state’s seal, which shows a white man plowing a field watching an Indigenous person on a horse in the background. Some perceive this as depicting the displacement of Native Americans. 

“The state seal has imagery on it that is a problem, to put it charitably,” Rep. Mike Freidberg, the sponsor of a bill (HF284) to redesign the flag and seal, said to the Minnesota Legislature in March of 2022. 

Similar representations are on Massachusetts’ state flag, which shows an Indigenous man standing beneath a white hand holding a Colonial sword. According to advocacy organization Change The Mass Flag, Indigenous leaders have called for the state’s flag and seal to be changed for 50 years, asserting that the flag is “seen by many as a symbol of violence against Indigenous people.”

Kaye consults cities and states looking to adopt a new flag or redesign an existing flag. Changing a flag takes time, but Kaye says it’s worth it.

“Everybody cares about flags once you get down to it.”

Boulder is one of the cities in the county that doesn’t have a city flag. City Council member Tara Winer wrote in an email that with “so much happening in Boulder right now … a city flag is not even on my list of the top 500 things I need to think about.” 

Along with difficulties allocating resources to the development of flags, Kaye says adopting a flag can be difficult because it involves politics, public interest and cost. And, he says, “part of the issue of city flag design is that in some way they’re not very important.” 

Whether it’s considered good design or bad design, Colón says he is content with Superior’s flag. It does what it was created to do — represent its people. 

“That flag and these people are pretty special,” he says. 

State of Colorado
City of Denver Flag
Salt Lake City
City of Fort Collins
City of Loveland
City of Centennial
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