Earlier this year, the Minnesota legislature passed a bill authorizing a commission to recommend a new state flag and seal.
Supporters of the change say the current flag doesn’t adhere to the principles of good flag design – simple, distinctive, and memorable, with meaningful symbolism, few colors, and no words.
Minnesota’s flag is one of nearly two dozen state flags that feature the state seal against a blue background. The seal incorporates 19 stars, six lady’s slipper flowers, three dates, and the state’s motto – details that are difficult to decipher at any distance.
More problematic is the central image of a white man plowing a field in the foreground while a Native American man on horseback rides away into the sunset, which has been criticized for years as an inaccurate portrayal of the state’s history.
History is complicated
The territorial seal was used from 1849 until Minnesota became the 32nd state of the union in 1858. The state constitution awarded the right to create a new seal to the newly formed legislature. However, Henry Sibley, the state’s first governor, continued using a modified version of the territorial seal, changing the Latin motto to a French one – “L’Etoile du Nord” or “Star of the North.”
Mary Henderson Eastman’s poem – The Seal of Minnesota – spelled out the seal’s celebration of Manifest Destiny:
Give way, give way, young warrior, thou and thy steed give way …
The rocky bluff and prairie land, the White Man claims them now
In the 1960s, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights called for the seal’s replacement, concluding that it celebrated “a dark part of our history.” But in the 1980s, legislation affirmed the seal’s design, with new language declaring that it was intended to celebrate co-existence.
What do our flags say about us?
It’s a lot to ask a piece of cloth to represent the character of an entire nation or state. Each piece of a flag’s design holds meaning, from the images and colors used to the way it has evolved over time. Somewhat surprisingly, many flags have been updated frequently due to changes in government, territory, or beliefs.
The first American flag included the British Union Jack in its upper left-hand corner. The famous Betsy Ross Flag included thirteen stars and thirteen stripes to represent the original colonies. From 1776 to today, the American flag has changed 26 times.
Minnesota didn’t have an official flag until it was required at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The original design included the state seal centered against a white background on the front, and a blue background on the back. The flag was modified in 1957, and again in 1983.
Like the people who call Minnesota home, our state is always changing.
Generally, the most ineffective designs try to do too much – whether that design is a flag, a website, a product or service. Simplicity is key to accessibility and understanding.
The downside to a simple flag design is that you have to give something up. The flag will never represent all things to all people. Ultimately you are going to get a flag that pleases many, but not everyone.
With history as a guide, it’s clear some will be hostile to change. People who have barely noticed the state’s flag will feel threatened upon hearing of any effort to change it. They will reflexively object to “erasing history.” From a place of privilege, status quo may be the most powerful symbol of all.
The state flag commission wants submissions to follow key design principles, including the use of only a few distinctive colors, and imagery that can be recognized from a distance and drawn from memory. The design must consider the state’s history while also representing “Minnesota’s enduring values and aspirations.”
My proposed flag
From the Boundary Waters to the mighty Mississippi River to the North Shore of Lake Superior, Minnesota is known for its abundant water – the land of 10,000 lakes. Fresh water is necessary to sustain all life, and it maintains great importance to all who have called this area home.
Archeological evidence indicates that the Dakota tribe has lived here for at least 1,000 years. The state was named for the region the Dakota called Mnísota or Mní Sota – which translates loosely as the ‘land where waters are so clear they reflect the skies.’
My flag design is inspired by the Dakota name, with a sky blue field over a deeper blue representing the state’s waters. The North Star – a symbolic guiding light – is reflected in the water, as is the state’s fertile land on the left side of the flag.
The eight-pointed star is a traditional symbol of balance and harmony – reminding us that all things and all people are connected.
We can do better
I believe design can be a force for good. The Minnesota flag and seal is outdated, offensive to some, and does not adhere to widely accepted principles of flag design. Simply put, it is a poor symbol of the state.
No one who submits a design will be compensated for their work. That is also a poor reflection on the state. Is it customary to request free work for other important functions of government?
It’s likely that the search for a new state flag is seen by lawmakers as a statewide, participatory exercise – not wanting to exclude anyone from grandma in Two Harbors to the sixth grader in Redwood Falls. No matter which design makes it through this process, I believe that the designer should be paid fairly for their intellectual property.
From the submissions received, five finalists will be chosen by the flag commission and shared in early December for public feedback. They plan to work with a professional on the final design. The commission has until January 1st to submit its final recommendation, and the new flag will be flown starting on Statehood Day, May 11, 2024.
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Dan Woychick is a problem solver, creative collaborator, and owner of Woychick Design. He helps purpose-driven organizations raise awareness, inspire donors, and move people to action. Connect here: Instagram | LinkedIn | Twitter