Sunday, July 2, 2023

Ranking the U.S. State Flags: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I’ve always been intrigued by symbols and the things they convey. I’m also fascinated by flag designs — and what are flags but really big symbols of ideas that organizations, communities, and nations want to wordlessly convey?

There’s actually a field dedicated to the study of flags: vexillology. That word is a hybrid of the Greek suffix -logia, meaning “study,” and the Latin word vexillum, which refers to a type of military standard carried in the ranks of the Roman military: Think of a banner hanging from a horizontal post.

There’s even an organization dedicated to the study of flags: The North American Vexillological Association, or NAVA. And yeah, the people in this group are every bit as nerdy as I am about this stuff. One of their members has even put together a list of guidelines for what constitutes good flag design, and I think they’re pretty good rules of thumb, especially in light of how many flags violate some or all of these rules and, well, don’t look very good. Here they are:

1. Keep it simple. Could a child draw the flag without any trouble? Then you probably have a good design.  
2. Use meaningful symbols. Quite simply, make sure your flag clearly relates to what it’s intended to represent.  
3. Use only two or three colors. In general, pick standard colors and make sure they contrast in a pleasing way. 
4. No letters, numbers, or seals. It’s a flag, not a billboard. 
5. Be distinct or be related. Don’t copy other designs, but also don’t hesitate to suggest connections if there are any.

These make intuitive sense to me. As middle-aged straight white dudes go, I seem to have an eye for good design. It’s long been the running joke in our family that I’m the one in the house with an eye for colors and patterns and symmetry. I’ll bet I could scratch out a living as an interior designer if push ever came to shove.

This eye for design extends, I think, to flags. I love a well-designed flag — the way the colors work together, the way the symbols express meaning without saying a word, and so on. And I’ve always been interested in how flags can stir up such powerful emotions in so many people. Think of how Americans revere the Stars and Stripes, sometimes to the point of near worship. Or, conversely, think of the visceral reaction people have to the Nazi flag. Aesthetically speaking, it’s actually not an offensive flag, but it’s the hatred and violence associated with it that makes a lot of people understandably recoil in its sight. Jung did extensive work into examining the power that symbols possess for humans; they seem to tap into something very deep and instinctual within us by bypassing words and the logical mind. And I think the strong emotions flags stir up in people suggest that Jung was correct in his observations. 

Personally, I’m quite fond of the symbolism of the Cascadia flag. It’s meant to signify a bioregion that encompasses the northwestern United States and parts of Canada, united not by political borders but by natural boundaries like mountain ranges and waterways. It’s a tricolor flag, with its white stripe symbolizing clouds and snow-capped peaks, green symbolizing the lush grasses and abundant trees, and blue symbolizing the clear skies and sparkling bodies of water. Overlapping all of them is the silhouette of a Douglas fir, representing the power, steadfastness, and resilience of nature. I’ve loved the Doug flag, as it’s called, from the moment I saw it, and I fly one from our porch every day.

I also took the initiative to design a flag for a micronation. If you’re unfamiliar, micronations are sort of vanity secession projects, whereby people declare independence from the nation or state they’re living in. They’re usually done tongue in cheek, just for fun or for a way to make a political statement, though there have been some actual separatist micronation movements over the years. Anyway, my flag looks like this:

Similar to the Cascadia flag, I intended for the green to symbolize the natural world and the “green” ecological movement; and the blue to symbolize the sky and the water, but also individual liberty (commonly associated with blue) and the heavens above (in a mystical sense). The white disc is the moon, a traditional symbol of the sacred feminine, which has always been an important part of my spiritual life. Finally, the diagonal line represents both the hill directly behind our house and the hills that surround our valley in general. But it’s also a nod to the family of anarchist flags, all of which feature a diagonal line that splits them into two colors: black for anarchism, and the second color for whatever particular “flavor” of anarchism we’re talking about. And to be clear, yes, I am sympathetic to anarchism, and no, anarchism probably isn’t quite what you think it is. More on that another time.

Anyway, with Independence Day coming up, one of those days when Americans love to wave their Stars and Stripes, I thought it would be a fun time to take a look at some flags that don’t always get a lot of love, standing as they do in the perpetual shadow of Old Glory: our 50 state flags. I’ll admit that, from a design point of view, a whole lot of them are ugly. But there are some gems, too, that I think will make the exercise an enjoyable one. We were talking in our house about working up a homeschooling assignment that involved the 50 state flags, and that’s what initially prompted me to take a closer look at them.

So let’s jump in.

50. Minnesota

Minnesota’s flag suffers from the same problem that more than half of America’s state flags do. It’s what vexillologists disparagingly call a “seal on a bedsheet” — in other words, a state seal or coat of arms on a solid-colored background. If flags should be recognizable from a distance, putting a state seal on a flag defeats that purpose, since these seals usually have very fine details that you can’t see unless you’re right on top of the flag. Moreover, when so many states have taken the same approach to their flags, with seals on backgrounds that are mostly solid blue, you end up with one state flag that looks indistinguishable from another.

This flag happens to be a lighter shade of blue than many of the other seal-on-a-bedsheet state flags, so at least it stands out slightly in that regard. But what puts it at the bottom of the list for me is that it’s just way too cluttered. Your eye has no idea where to go. The dots circling the outer ring of the seal are an unnecessary adornment, and then the little stars that protrude out from the dots, forming the points of a larger unseen star, confuse matters even further. That blue ring inside the dots contains a floral motif that further messes up the view, and it doesn’t help that the seal itself is far too busy. I see a sunrise, mountains, trees, plains, water, an Indian on horseback, and a farmer tilling the ground. That’s just too much.

As far as the NAVA’s suggestion of two to three colors goes? I see a minimum of six here: green, blue, white, orange, red, and brown.

From a distance, the whole thing in the center of the flag actually looks like either a life preserver or a bowl of soup. Just zoom out on the picture to see what I mean. Not good.

And then there’s the writing, which unfortunately affects the majority of state flags. There’s a motto, the name of the state, and no less than three dates — 1819, 1858, and 1893.

The thing that designs like this get wrong is a failure to understand that a flag is not a sign. It’s meant to be a collection of symbols that communicate something about the place it represents, something that has the potential to convey meaning to even someone who knows nothing about that place. And Minnesota’s flag tells me absolutely nothing about Minnesota. Scores of state flags include pictures of natural landscapes, farming, commerce, and the like on their seals. After a while, they all start to blur together and look the same. Minnesota’s flag, accordingly, just gets lost in a sea of sameness.

So how could Minnesota try to stand out? Here’s one idea: Given the state’s Scandinavian heritage, it could easily riff on the Nordic crosses seen on the flags of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland.

For better or worse, though, that’s not likely to happen. The Minnesota legislature is considering a replacement for the state flag, so that’s good news. The potential problematic news, from a design perspective, is that any proposed new flag has to represent the state’s “diverse cultural communities,” while “symbols, emblems, or likenesses that represent only a single community” will be prohibited. That the legislature doesn’t appear to want any kind of single unifying symbol to bring the people of the state together sets up any design committee with the monumental, and potentially impossible, task of jamming in so many elements that the state could well end up with just as big of a cluttered mess as it has now. The hideous-looking pride flag, on which everyone in seeming perpetuity gets to add yet another dizzying stripe or a clashing color, comes immediately to mind.

49. Nebraska

All you need to know about the awfulness of this flag design is that it once flew upside-down over the state capitol for 10 days and no one noticed. It’s literally just the state seal, two-toned — yellow and white — on a blue background. The design is indistinguishable from a distance (and not much better close up) and obviously conveys nothing unique about the state. The seal depicts a man hammering an anvil, a frontier cabin by the water, bundles of wheat, a steamboat, and a train in the shadow of distant mountains. That could just as easily be a scene of Minnesota, or practically any other state.

48. Kansas

The Kansas flag reminds me of one of those old Geocities pages where the person who put it together centered every element and called it good enough. At the top you have a sunflower. Under it, there’s another state seal, once again depicting mountains, farmland, and water — but this time, you also get a few covered wagons and a couple of Indians chasing down some bison. And under the seal, in a blocky all-caps typeface, is the word KANSAS.

Remember, you want to avoid putting words on flags. In this case, if you have to shout the name of your state on your flag, that’s a pretty good indication that your design has failed to tell anyone anything about your state. The identity of your state should go without saying — literally — solely from the symbols you employ.

For example, Kansas is known for its sunflowers, so why not simply put a sunflower on the flag? That’s what the state banner does, and it conveys more about the character of Kansas than the state flag ever will.

The Kansas state banner, according to Wikipedia.

47. Montana

Same thing as with Kansas: We get the state name in all caps, and a state seal that could be depicting a landscape from practically anywhere in the nation. It only edges out Kansas because at least Montana didn’t try to squeeze in a third prominent design element, like a cow or something.

46. Wisconsin

Not only does Wisconsin’s flag shout the state’s name, but it also shouts the date the state was admitted to the union. I placed it above Montana only because the use of the coat of arms instead of the state seal at least gives us something besides another vague landscape scene to look at — but there are still far too many design elements happening, none of which could ever be seen clearly at a distance. 

It is kind of cool that there’s a badger hanging out on top of the coat of arms, though. Maybe the badger should be the only thing on the flag. Barring that, how about a wedge of cheese or a mug of beer? (Just kidding, but barely.)

45. Idaho

The flag of my state is just bad. Not only does it feature another way-too-busy state seal, but it displays the name of the state twice. And the seal itself isn’t content to give us one landscape scene — it offers us a second one, in a shield at the center of the image.

The one redeeming quality is that the woman in the seal, representing liberty and justice, holds aloft a Phrygian cap, an ancient symbol of liberty that was strongly associated with both the American and French revolutions. The cap appears on a few other state flags, and in those cases it’s pretty much the only redeeming quality too.

Surely Idaho can improve on this flag. I realize that most people associate Idaho with potatoes, but if we ever got a flag redesign, I’d like to think we could do better than going from a nondescript state seal to a lowly spud. There must be a happy medium somewhere.

44. Illinois

There’s a lot of federal imagery here, on what is Illinois’ state seal. But that’s not the problem so much as how shockingly amateurish the entire design is. It seriously looks like a child drew it.

43. Delaware

Delaware is really only known for three things: giving us Joe Biden, functioning as a tax haven for businesses, and being the first state to ratify the Constitution. So I suppose it’s not surprising that it would want to boast the date of its ratification on its flag, even if it’s not really the place to do so.

The drab colors are supposed to mimic George Washington’s uniform, which I guess is a noble gesture, but I’m not so sure they make the best flag colors. Within the coat of arms (yes, another one), the farmer and the soldier appear to be looking rather confusedly at each other, while an ear of corn and a sheaf of wheat float on a shield between them. But I can’t help noticing the blue, white, and green stripes below that. It’s as if someone took the Cascadia flag and replaced the Douglas fir with a cow. I sort of like that, in a humorous way. But who associates cows with Delaware?

42. New Jersey

It’s partly the color scheme that lands this one so low. Is the field beige? Yellow? Either way, it’s not pleasant to look at. The flag does score a few points for the Phrygian cap being held aloft by the woman on the left, and the inclusion of the horse’s head is weird and random enough to make you wonder whether this is supposed to be the emblem of a state, a family crest, or a sign that the knight is the favorite piece among New Jersey chess players. 

Other than that, why put three plows on the shield? Just one would have gotten the agricultural message across just fine.

41. New York

There’s something strangely endearing about the aggressively imperialist vibe this flag throws off. I think it’s mainly the eagle menacingly perched atop the globe, suggestive of America’s seemingly insatiable desire to rule and control the world. But even the prominent placement of the two robed women standing regally on either side of the shield makes this feel like an image you could have seen in ancient Rome. Meanwhile, we have another Phrygian cap, which is a plus, held by a woman who also has her foot on a crown, symbolic of throwing off the British monarchy.

So, essentially, you have a flag whose images represent American liberty, independence, and victory over tyranny, while simultaneously expressing a national desire to go out and dominate the planet, just like the empire we freed ourselves from.

Only in New York.      

40. Pennsylvania

As the seals-on-bedsheets go, the horses at least make this flag visually distinct from the rest. The shield between the horses, though, depicts just more interchangeable images of agriculture and seafaring. And the eagle seems altogether unnecessary. One wonders why Pennsylvania wouldn’t put the instantly recognizable keystone on its flag, instead of a coat of arms that tells you nothing about the state’s character.

Something like this. (Not my design, though.)

39. West Virginia

The blue border makes it look like someone tried to frame the flag, which is kind of odd. We get yet another uninteresting coat of arms here, though the Phrygian cap lying atop two crossed rifles is a unique touch. But overall, the flag is too busy and the details are too small. The whole thing sort of reminds me of the kind of drawing you’d find on a cigar band.

38. Virginia

Virginia’s flag wins points simply for being so badass: Virtue, personified and bare-breasted, holding a sword and spear, stands atop the vanquished dead body of a king, his crown cast aside. Below them both is the motto “Sic Semper Tyrannis,” or “thus ever to tyrants.” The design isn’t all that hot, but the sentiment captures everything great about both the American Revolution and the ideals of the spirit of liberty the nation was founded upon.

37. Vermont

There’s not much difference between the flags of Vermont and Maine, listed next. Here we get another coat of arms, and the simplicity of this one is a bit of a welcome change. Remove the deer head, the cow, and the wheat bales, and you’d be left with a nice, uncluttered image of a single pine tree standing tall and proud against a mountainous backdrop — kind of like the Cascadia flag. All the same, it really doesn’t convey anything special about the state.

An alternative flag associated with Vermont is that of the Green Mountain Boys, currently used by the Vermont National Guard and also tied to a group that wants to see Vermont secede from the United States and return to being its own country, as it was from 1777 to 1791. It’s not actually known what the Green Mountain Boys’ flag looked like, aside from the canton of stars that still exists from an original flag. The re-creation is therefore a fanciful best guess, but it sure looks better than Vermont’s current flag. If the state ever wanted to revisit its flag design, it could do far worse than to adopt the Green Mountain Boys’ flag.

Not sure why the stars are so haphazardly sized and distributed.

36. Maine

When you think of Maine, you probably think of remote, cold forests. At least I do. So having an evergreen — with a moose resting under it, no less — front and center in the coat of arms at least makes a little bit of sense here.

The farmer and the seafarer are kind of pointless and non-specific to Maine, but they sort of work as part of the overall design, which is very much of its time — the flag was adopted in 1909, and it looks like it. Just look at the old-timey typeface used for the word “Maine” on the woodcut-style blue banner. Between that and the jaunty placement of the word “Dirigo” (Latin for “I lead”) on the red ribbon up top, just below the shining star, it almost looks like a label design you might see on something like an old box of borax or a sardine can. Or maybe it just makes me think of Barilla pasta. Dirigo elbow macaroni, BOGO today at your Caribou IGA!

35. Michigan

I admit to being a bit of a homer for this flag, even as objectively awful as it is. Being a Michigan native, I grew up seeing this flag everywhere. Like the Pennsylvania flag, it stands out a bit from the rest of the Bedsheet Bunch with the use of animals flanking the inner shield. 

The elk and the moose look like they’re rearing up to check out the eagle, and the white double banner raised in a curve looks like a toothy smile from a distance. It’s a completely goofy design, with too many things to look at — and there is way too much text on it. Three different Latin phrases, to be exact.

There’s no movement in Michigan to change the state flag, but I did find a design proposal someone had made online to make the flag look like this:

The two stars represent Michigan’s two peninsulas, and the five stripes represent the five Great Lakes, four of which touch Michigan. I think it’s a brilliant design, even though nothing will probably ever come of it.

34. New Hampshire

The one thing this state-seal flag has going for it is that I would be able to tell from a distance that there’s a boat on it. It’s not crowded with a bunch of extraneous images. I would also know that the boat image is probably connected with the harbor at Portsmouth, which it indeed is. It’s still not a great flag, but it’s better than a lot of its bedsheet peers.

33. Kentucky

It’s another state seal, but at least it’s not so busy. It’s simple and to the point: A pioneer and a statesman shake hands amid the motto “United we stand, divided we fall.” Not great, but not awful.

32. Connecticut

The design element here is pretty distinct, which is a positive. The shield puts me in the mind of the old U.S. highway signs, and the grapevines offer a rare splash of purple, a color you’ll almost never see on a flag. 

See what I mean?

The only odd thing is that from a distance, the alignment of the grapevines sort of looks like a face — two eyes and a kind of meh-shaped mouth. Zoom out and you’ll see it. You don’t want “meh” on your flag. Easy fix, though: Use one grapevine instead of three, and make it bigger. 

Because why not?

31. Massachusetts

Points for originality and comparative simplicity, but I’m not sure it tells me much about the state. The shield depicts an Indian, arrow pointed down in an apparent gesture of peace or surrender, as he stands next to a single star. Above his head, a disembodied arm wielding a sword appears out of nowhere, seemingly ready to strike — but strike whom, exactly? The hapless Indian? What did he do, other than lose his land?

Maybe it’s because the image is on a white background, but it seems as if there’s a lot of wasted space on this flag. I’m not a fan.

30. South Dakota

I don’t hate this flag, in spite of some really ugly design choices, including a monochrome state seal whose details are nearly impossible to make out unless you’re right on top of it. It also prominently features the state nickname — something better left for license plates than flags, really — and, like Idaho, it names the state twice. 

But there’s a decent flag lurking in here, under the design mistakes. In particular, there’s something appealing about the sunburst that rings the seal, and the lighter shade of blue helps it stand in contrast to a lot of bedsheets on this list.

Maybe it’s the fact that it reminds me of the flag of Palau, one of my favorite country flags. I’m not sure.

Of course, it would make far more sense for South Dakota to simply start over and design a flag based on the faces on Mount Rushmore. If that’s what everyone knows you for, then run with it.

29. Missouri

It’s basically the Dutch tricolor with the Missouri state seal in the center. There’s way too much crammed into the seal to be able to see any of the details from even a reasonable distance. Take all of that out and leave the outer ring of stars, and you’d actually have a nice-looking and fairly distinct flag.

Something like this, perhaps.

28. Hawaii

Vexillologists seem to be enamored of this flag. I don’t see the appeal. If a flag is meant to symbolically convey the spirit of the thing it represents, then how does a flag that looks either like a test pattern or Ernie’s shirt from Sesame Street communicate anything whatsoever about an island paradise?

You thought I was kidding, didn't you?

First off, there’s absolutely no reason to have the Union Jack in the canton, as Hawaii was never part of the British empire. It’s only there because King Kamehameha held pro-British sentiments during his reign. And notice, too, that the colors of the Ernie-shirt stripes don’t even line up with the corresponding colors of the Union Jack. 

It’s all a big, disjointed mess.

The eight stripes are said to represent the eight main islands in the Hawaiian archipelago. At a bare minimum, the flag would be improved by removing the canton and just using the stripes. It would still be an unappealing flag, but at least it would be less unappealing than it is now. But it’s so easy to imagine something far better — some kind of attractive visual symbol that would evoke sunshine or ocean waves, for instance. The flag of Kiribati provides a good example of what could be done here. Hawaii could take its eight stripes and turn them into ocean waves!

27. Nevada

The silver star represents the Silver State, and the garland is made of sagebrush, the state flower. The arched banner above the star reads “Battle Born,” signifying Nevada’s entry into the union during the height of the Civil War. Despite the lettering, it’s a great, rugged, Western design. I only wonder why it’s stuck up in the canton, leaving the rest of the flag completely blank. If it were enlarged and centered to make it more prominent, the flag would rank much higher on this list.

26. Washington

It’s kind of sad that a flag wins points just for not being blue. But part of the appeal of the flag of the Evergreen State is indeed that it’s, well, green.

Still, let’s be honest: The state could do a lot better than just putting George Washington’s face on there. Not only does the combination of his face and the color scheme make the flag vaguely resemble a dollar bill, but our first president never even set foot in the state.

My love of the Cascadia flag stems in large part from its connection to the Northwest and its striking symbolic imagery that captures the natural beauty of this part of the country. Washington, which is part of Cascadia, is a beautiful state. I lived there for nine years. Why not try to capture that beauty in its flag, rather than just putting a dead president on there and calling it a day?

Bradley Lockhart, a resident of the city of Bellingham, is trying to do just that. He designed an attractive flag for his city that’s become quite popular there, and now he’s taken his creativity one step further in proposing a new state flag that, like the Cascadia flag, incorporates blue, green, and white for the sky, waterways, grass, trees, and snow-capped mountains. But instead of placing a Douglas fir front and center as the Cascadia flag does, Lockhart used stylized images of mountain peaks that flatten out as the design moves from left to right, emblematic of the flatlands that characterize Washington’s terrain once you cross the Cascade Range. It’s a simple yet brilliant design. I can only hope someone in Olympia is paying attention.

Looks good to me!

25. North Dakota

Even though the design on this flag is nearly identical to the Great Seal of the United States, and therefore says next to nothing about North Dakota itself, it has a somewhat appealing look that evokes the Americana of the time period it was designed in — 1911, to be exact. To its credit, North Dakota at least tried something different and used something other than its own state seal, as so many states have done.

24. Louisiana

This is quite an interesting flag. Pelicans have been associated with Louisiana from the time it was a territory. On the flag you’ll see three drops of blood on the pelican feeding her young, symbolic of a legend that says a mother pelican will draw blood from herself to give to her offspring in the absence of other food. The legend is said to suggest both sacrifice for the greater good and the bloodshed of Christ for humanity. (Bear in mind that Louisiana is a heavily Catholic place.)

It's also said that the pelican is posed on the flag to mimic the shape of the fleur-de-lis. So this flag is overall very Louisiana-centric. That’s nice to see.

23. Oregon

Yes, this flag, with its abundance of lettering and numbering and its inclusion of a monochrome state seal, breaks a lot of rules for good flag design. But I like it in spite of its shortcomings. There’s something about the old-time, rustic feel of the typeface that’s appealing, along with the graceful arching of the “STATE OF OREGON” lettering.

But the other thing I like about it is that the flag has a different design on the reverse — the only U.S. state flag to do so. On the back, there’s just a little old beaver, hanging out and minding its own business.

If Oregon’s flag were just the beaver in its bucktoothed simplicity, it would be one of the best state flags in the United States.

But even this would be a pleasant compromise:

22. Florida

This is basically Alabama’s flag with Florida’s state seal in the center. It seems that the flag originally consisted of just the seal on a white sheet. Then Floridians approved the addition of the St. Andrew’s Cross, possibly in a nod to the Cross of Burgundy that would have flown over Florida when it was under Spanish rule.

The Burgundy Cross.

 As flag designs go, there are many worse ones out there, but the seal needs to go. A change to the design in 1985 actually made the seal look busier and more cluttered than it was before — in short, it was not an improvement. 

The pre-1985 state flag, with a less cluttered seal.

Of course, if you take away the seal, it’s just Alabama’s flag.

All things considered, I think Florida needs to go back to the drawing board and start from scratch. Surely Floridians can look around their scenic state and come up with something that symbolizes its uniqueness and beauty. Heck, strike a deal with Disney and put some mouse ears on there.

21. Arkansas

It’s an OK flag. The prominent diamond shape symbolizes Arkansas’ status as America’s largest source of diamonds.

Other than that, it’s hard to ignore that there are a heck of a lot of stars on this flag. The 25 white stars in the blue border signify Arkansas’ status as the 25th state to join the union, and the four larger stars in the white field represent the four nations that have ruled over the state: France, Spain, the United States, and the Confederacy. Not sure you really want to draw attention to the whole Confederacy thing, but I suppose from a historical point of view, it is what it is.

In any event, dropping the name from the flag would improve it immensely.

20. North Carolina

The simplicity of the single red, white, and blue bars makes this design attractive. But it loses points for all the wordiness on the hoist side. Two dates and a big “N” and “C” — none of that really needs to be there. Of course, if you take those away, it’s just the Texas flag with the red and white flipped around. Overall, not a bad flag at all.

19. Oklahoma

I really like the American Indian imagery here. The olive branch crossing the peace pipe symbolizes the union of the native and European people. It is, of course, a bit of a convenient lie to suggest that the Indians wanted the union with the white invaders in the first place, and we all know that the natives got the short end of the stick. But putting politics aside and speaking just from a design point of view, it’s nicely done. Taking off the name of the state — which would just mean reverting to the flag as it looked up till 1941 — would improve it tremendously.

The old, wordless flag. Much better.

18. California

In many ways, this is a good flag design. It’s simple and uncluttered, it has specific and identifiable imagery, and it can be seen clearly from a distance. What’s peculiar about it is that the design is taken from a flag created during a 19th-century revolt against Mexican rule that lasted all of three weeks. In other words, it represents a blip in California’s history.

Also, I don’t know about you, but I don’t think of bears when I think of California. I think of the Gold Rush, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Death Valley, and Spike, Snoopy’s mustachioed brother, talking to cactuses down in Needles. Putting a giant redwood on a golden background, for example, would say far more about California than a bear does.

Of course, the red star and the word “Republic” conjure up uncomfortable images of all the authoritarian “people’s republics” that have long been a menace to human liberty. Given the way California’s going, maybe some of the symbolism on its flag is just a little bit too appropriate.

17. Georgia

Georgia’s state flags, to put it mildly, have been problematic for a long time. In 1956, state legislators succeeded in getting the Confederate battle flag placed on the design when it had never been there before, in a clear nod to their desire for continued racial segregation following the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Under increasing pressure, the state finally changed the flag in 2001, but it was a design disaster, with a mustard-yellow version of the state seal on a blue background, and a banner underneath it displaying five historical flags — including the controversial one the new flag had just replaced.

Yeah, that's just ugly.

Finally, Georgia came up with something a little more visually appealing in 2003. Its current flag has a mostly clean design, with one white stripe sandwiched between two red ones, and a blue canton featuring the state seal inside a ring of 13 stars. The seal doesn’t need to be there; it’s an indecipherable blob from a distance. Take that away, and you have a really nice-looking flag design.

The only problem is, if you take away the seal, you’re left with this…

…which is the national flag of the Confederate States of America.

That’s right. Georgia finally got rid of the Confederate battle flag, only to replace it with the Confederate national flag.

Politics aside, it’s a nice design. But it seems Georgia just can’t let go of its past.

16. Colorado

This one is usually a favorite of flag enthusiasts. It’s not bad, but I’m not a fan of the big “C,” and even less of a fan of the yellow ball (representing Colorado’s abundant sunshine) stuffed inside the negative space of the “C.” Maybe it says something about when I came of age, but all I can see when I look at this is Pac-Man swallowing a dot.


For some reason, it also throws off vibes of a corporate logo from a bygone time. I could see that big “C” with blue and white pinstripes on a baseball jersey from the ’70s, for example.

I think it would at least look a little cleaner if the yellow ball disappeared.

Like this.

 15. Indiana

A torch of liberty and a circle of 19 stars, representing Indiana’s order of induction into the union. Simple, if not altogether striking. 

Growing up just north of the Indiana state line, I’m quite familiar with this flag, and I always thought it could use a little more contrast. The gold and the dark blue tend to blend together a bit. Either a lighter yellow or a lighter blue would help accentuate the design immensely, I think.

14. Iowa

Like North Dakota’s flag, the eagle design gives a nod to federal imagery more than it does to the state itself — yet I can’t help liking the fundamental turn-of-the-20th-century American-ness of it. The ribbon dangling from the eagle’s beak has a heck of a lot of words on it, but purely on an aesthetic level, it’s a striking design. It looks so nice that it almost doesn’t matter that you couldn’t make out the text from a distance. I also like the typeface chosen for the word “Iowa.” In short, it’s an attractive flag despite all the words on it.

The vertical tricolor also gives it a fresh uniqueness among American state flags. It’s basically the French flag, only with the white bar larger than the blue and red ones. That may or may not be a nod to Iowa’s past as part of the Louisiana Territory. Regardless, it’s a well-executed design.

13. Rhode Island

The clean simplicity of the design makes this a very attractive flag. The anchor tells us that Rhode Island is a coastal state, but it appears to have a deeper meaning as well. Combined with the word “Hope,” it’s said to refer to a passage in the Bible’s Letter to the Hebrews, which states, “Hope we have as an anchor of the soul.”

The only downside of the design is that the gold against white makes the whole thing look a little washed out.

12. South Carolina

This attractive design has its origins in the American Revolution. The crescent moon was taken from an insignia on the caps of South Carolina’s soldiers. It became known as the Moultrie flag, in honor of its creator, Col. William Moultree, who fought in a victorious defense of Sullivan’s Island against the British. The palmetto tree was added in 1861, also in a nod to the defense of the island, whose palmettos acted as a protective buffer against British cannon fire.

The flag did become a symbol of the Confederate cause for a while. But without any inflammatory imagery, that association faded over time, and today it’s rightfully seen as a simple and effective flag design for the state it represents.

11. Wyoming

Why does the state seal need to be there? It looks either like someone tried to postmark the bison or the USDA stamped it Grade A. Take that away, and you have a terrific flag that, in a single image, communicates the spirit of the wide-open spaces of Wyoming. Even with the regrettable seal, though, it’s still a great flag.

10. Alabama

As with Florida’s flag, the red St. Andrew’s Cross is probably symbolic of past Spanish rule, when the Cross of Burgundy would have flown over at least southern Alabama. Some have suggested that the design is a veiled nod to the Confederate Stars-and-Bars, though there doesn’t appear to be any solid evidence backing that claim.

9. Utah

I’m cheating a little bit here, as Utah’s brand-new state flag doesn’t come into official use until March 2024. But since it’s only a matter of time until it replaces the old flag, and considering it’s such a massive upgrade, I thought it was only fair to include it.

The old flag was yet another blue bedsheet, emblazoned with the state seal. It’s heavy with federal imagery, though with a shield in the center that reads “Industry” and features a beehive — long a symbol associated with team-minded hard work and progress in Utah. (It also has a strong association with the Mormons.)

The official Utah flag... for now.

That distinctive beehive survived, and rightly so, into the design of the new flag. Even more appropriately, the hive now sits on a hexagon, the shape of the cells in a honeycomb. The red at the bottom of the new flag is said to represent the state’s red canyon rock and, more cryptically, “perseverance.” (Sweating blood, maybe?) The blue skies and white mountain peaks are self-explanatory. It’s a really nice-looking design. Distinct, but not too busy. I’ve read a few complaints that the whole thing looks more like a corporate logo than it does a flag, and I guess I can appreciate that point of view. If Utah had an NHL team, I could easily imagine this design on the jerseys. I still like it, though.

Anyway, if people across the nation end up liking what Utah did with its flag, moving away from the bland sameness of all those seals on bedsheets, maybe it will encourage more states to give their flags a fresh look.

8. Mississippi

Remember how we talked about Georgia, and its seeming inability to break from the Confederate imagery of its past? Mississippi had the same problem, but it finally managed to do better.

From 1894 to 2020, Mississippi’s flag sported the Confederate battle flag in the canton. That design became problematic enough over time that the state legislature was finally able to rally sufficient support to begin work on a new flag. The result is what we have today — a fresh and attractive design, with a white magnolia, the state flower, front and center. The gold stripes act as a tasteful barrier between the red and blue vertical panels, and the ring of stars adds a nice accent to the flower. Even the text is kept to a minimum — you might not even notice the subtle “In God We Trust” at the bottom of the ring unless you were looking for it.

You did well, Mississippi. You did well.

7. Alaska

You’ve probably heard the story of how a young boy, an orphaned Alaska Native, designed the flag that would become not just the symbol of his state but also one of the most beloved and iconic of all American state flags.

The Big Dipper is part of the larger constellation Ursa Major, symbolic of the bears native to Alaska. And the Big Dipper is a visual aid for locating Polaris, the North Star — itself symbolic of America’s northernmost state.

Alaska couldn’t have asked for a better flag to capture its identity.

6. Arizona

Such a bright and vibrant design! The red and yellow stripes that double as sunbeams are a nod to Arizona’s Spanish influence; the Spanish flag is red and yellow. The copper color of the star symbolizes the state’s copper production. And the blue has been described both as symbolizing liberty and the waters of the Colorado River. The star and the rays also manage to communicate the relentless desert heat that’s so strongly associated with Arizona. 

I do think the copper clashes a little bit with the red and yellow, but that’s a minor quibble, and it doesn’t take away from the fact that this flag is a tremendous success in the way it communicates so much about a place using so few elements.

5. Ohio

Ohio’s flag is more like a pennant. Its unique shape alone makes it stand out from the crowd, and in a good way. Its red, white, and blue color scheme, complete with stars and stripes, makes it look like a stylized version of the American flag without simply being an uninspired copy of it. The 17 stars represent the order of Ohio’s induction into the union, and the circle they surround is meant both to represent the buckeye, a symbol of Ohio and its people, and a letter “O.” You wouldn’t even realize it’s supposed to be a letter because of the way it naturally blends into the design. Unlike the “C” on the Colorado flag that’s a bit on the nose and draws attention to itself, Ohio’s “O” is tastefully subtle.

Ohio’s flag always makes me think of all the patriotic bunting you see at baseball games and around the Fourth of July. It’s festive, attractive, one of a kind, and distinctly American.

4. Maryland

Maryland’s flag breaks all the rules of what constitutes a good flag design. But I suppose that just proves that rules are meant to be broken. This flag is so unusual, so internally clashing, so disorientingly garish, that it somehow actually manages to circle around from bad to good. It’s one of those things you just can’t look away from. There’s nothing else remotely like it, and it seems most Marylanders love it.

Half of the flag looks like a melting checkerboard, and the other half looks like a heraldic cross (which is actually what it is) that wouldn’t look out of place in a Renaissance festival. But these aren’t just random images. They come from the shield in the state’s coat of arms, and they in turn symbolize the reunion of the people of the state who had split over the Civil War. The checkerboard pattern, depicting Lord Baltimore’s coat of arms, became the symbol of pro-Union Marylanders; while the crosses, representing the Crossland family of Lord Baltimore’s mother, were adopted as a Confederate symbol.

Maryland’s flag is the exact opposite, in a very good way, of the boring sea of state seals on blue bedsheets that make up so many U.S. state flags. It’s aggressively weird and undeniably iconic, and that’s exactly what I love about it.

3. Tennessee

Tennessee’s flag demonstrates that simple is good. The three stars signify the three main regions of the state, and the blue circle that embraces them symbolizes their unity. The blue bar at the end of the red field is there for a practical reason: to delineate the end of the flag as it’s flying, which is precisely something that a good flag designer would think to do.

This is how you make a great flag.

2. Texas

Do you know anyone who doesn’t like this flag? I don’t. Once the symbol of a sovereign nation, the Lone Star Flag persists as a bold symbol of Texan independence, ingenuity, unity, and pride. It’s iconic and quintessentially American. Clean, direct, assertive, patriotic, and straightforward. It's fantastic in every way.

1. New Mexico

Almost everyone picks New Mexico as having the best of the 50 American state flags, and for good reason. It checks every box for what makes a successful flag design. It’s simple yet meaningful. Its colors, like those of the Arizona flag, evoke both the state’s Spanish heritage and its earthy, rocky, sun-baked landscapes. Even the simple design at the center of the flag itself, the sun symbol of the Zia Indians, adds to the warm Southwestern theme. Just looking at this flag, you can imagine the desert heat with the sun blazing overhead.

If there’s anything at all regrettable about this flag, it’s that the sun symbol, sacred to the Zia people, was used without their permission. One can only hope that the power and simple beauty of the design will prompt admirers to remember the many trials and sacrifices of the Zia, as well as of all the indigenous people of the Americas, and to reflect on how the sacred sun symbol points us toward an appreciation of the cycles of life and our connection to the natural world.

Magnificent flag, New Mexico.

Let your freak flag fly     

And that’s it! Thanks for reading, and I welcome your comments.