Sunday, April 10, 2016

Flying Milwaukee's Flag, Part II: The People's Flag

In an earlier post, we explored the interesting (if not particularly successful) history of Milwaukee's flag. At the end of that post, I linked to, a campaign to create the "People's Flag of Milwaukee", that the current mess might be replaced with a design more worthy of a great American city.

This campaign is the brainchild of Milwaukee graphic designer Steve Kodis. Kodos is inviting designers to submit up to five designs, and I've decided to join in.

Remember the five principles of good flag design, as identified by the North American Vexillological Association:
  1. Keep it simple.  The flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory.
  2. Use meaningful symbolism.  The flag's images, colors or pattern should relate to what it symbolizes.
  3. Use two to three basic colors.  From the standard color set: red, white, blue, green, yellow and black.
  4. No lettering or seals.  Never use writing of any kind. If you need to write the name of what you're representing on your flag, your symbolism has failed.
  5. Be distinctive.
With that in mind, here we go. A little background of my process, and we'll look at the proposals.


I started with the color palette - light blue, dark blue, gold, and cream.


Blue is a defining color for Milwaukee. Not only is it the base for the current flag, but it has a long history with our civic institutions, including the current tourism campaign.

From the Press Club to the Athletic Club, Milwaukee is true blue.

The sole surviving daily paper's masthead? Mostly blue.

When the mayor issues a proclaimation (such as he would for, say, "Borchert Field History Day", if somebody were to propose such a thing), the certificate leans rather heavily on one color:

Milwaukee Area Technical College

Blue is also undeniably Milwaukee's sporting color, associated with every professional team in the city. The True Blue Brew Crew have made it famous across the country, but the Admirals and Wave have also spent plenty of time wearing it.

Milwaukee has two semi-professional outdoor soccer teams; one the historic Bavarian Soccer Club, fostering the world's game since 1929, and the brand-new Milwaukee Torrent. Both prominently use—guess what?—blue.


Even the Bucks recently added a touch of blue to their uniforms:

Given all that, blue is a must.

I decided to double down on this connection and combine two shades of blue; a dark blue to represent both Lake Michigan and the rivers which nourish our downtown, and a lighter shade for our brilliant clear sky.

Mick Rampart

With the primary colors settled, I looked at supplementing our blues with additional accent colors.


To compliment the blues, I first turned to cream. "The Cream City" is one of Milwaukee's historical nicknames, rising not from the state's dairy industry but the pale brick used to make so many of our buildings. Varying in color from a soft yellow to beige, the Cream City brick defined the city's look for so long I thought it had more than deserved inclusion.

Once you start looking for Cream City brick, you see it everywhere.
Bobby Tanzilo/

This photo from really captures the look. Dark and light blue play against the cream brick of downtown Milwaukee.

Bobby Tanzilo/


I wanted another accent color as an option in case the cream was too washed-out or otherwise didn't work with the design. And, of course, everyone knows that there's a glorious history of pairing gold with two shades of blue:

Rich Pilling/Getty Images

So that leaves us with these two color schemes:


We may need to play with the specific shades based on their usage, but that gives us the broad strokes.

I was rather amused to find this photo on Milwaukee Flag's Instagram account with the caption "These would make great colors for the new flag.":

Great minds think alike.


With the color scheme set, I turned next to defining a symbol for the city. How do you encapsulate something so diverse into a simple icon? We can look to see what's already in use.

The answer was right there in the middle of the current flag.

The gear can easily be emblematic of the city.

When I was a Cub Scout in the 1980s, we wore this Council patch on our left shoulders:

I always admired this design. The Hoan Bridge is an underutilized symbol, perfect for such a horizontal layout. And there to the left, married with Scouting's fleur-de-lis, is our gear.

That's our first symbol. To which I would add our own Rule of Three. The phrase is famous as a comedic technique (repeat three times with a twist on the third), while our version of the rule is a nod to Milwaukee's past. Milwaukee was founded from three settlements—Kilbourntown west of the Milwaukee River, Juneautown between the river and the lake, and Walker’s Point on the South Side—which joined to become the City of Milwaukee.

So now we have our colors, and we have two symbols we can incorporate. Let's look at my designs.

1. "The Brew City"

Since beer was so often mentioned in the previous design competitions, perhaps Brew City would consider this sudsy banner?

A geometric study; the bottom two-thirds filled with lager gold, the top third foamy white, bubbles in the canton.

Okay, might not be entirely serious with that one. But it sure is fun.

2. "Reflection"

Our next design starts with the gear.

A strong symbol of Milwaukee's industrial heritage. Two shades of blue, the river and the lake. Nothing extraneous to clutter the design. The vertical split between blues provides a dynamic effect that elevates the simple gear into something more distinctive.

3. "Gearing Up"

Again we start with the two shades of blue, the river and the lake. This interpretation, however, highlights the gear as a symbol of Milwaukee by separating it from the background. The bright gold brings it out.

I have experimented with different layouts, as well as a cream-colored gear:

The advantage to this design is its adaptability. We can use the center of the gear as a place for icons, to identify the City's various departments.

Instantly, we have a logo set that clearly identifies public property, facilities, equipment, or personnel. If fully utilized, public servants would wear it on their uniforms, visitors would see it on the local signs, and Milwaukeeans would even carry it around in their wallets.

The central image is distinctive enough to work in situations where full-color is neither preferable nor feasible.

In this “Gearing Up” concept, we have not only a flag but a true civic symbol for the city, an image that we can integrate into the daily life of all Milwaukeeans.

4. "Pointing Forward"

Again we utilize our Rule of Three, this time three triangles arranged to create a pennant. The dark blue triangle points to the right, the direction we perceive as "forward". "Forward" is of course the simple yet powerful motto of Wisconsin, which we can reference without needing to clutter the flag with lettering.

The pennant shape adds a nautical feeling, wholly appropriate to a Great Place on a Great Lake.

This can be adapted to either gold or cream, with bars separating the blues or without.

We also have the option of a more detailed gear.

I tried inverting the blues, but this seems less successful.

I think it works better with the darker background, providing greater contrast with the gear and emphasizing the pennant shape.

4. "Morning in Milwaukee"

This design symbolizes a sunrise over Lake Michigan. Morning is a powerful image, a reminder of our best days yet to come.

Simple, but elegant. The top two-thirds in light blue, the bottom third in royal, the water and the sky. These colors, with gold from the sun, are emblematic of the city. And when the sun is pictured over the water, it's got to be morning in the Cream City.

I tried to incorporate the gear, but I think it's less successful.

5. "Wings"

This is my vexillological interpretation of two icons of modern Milwaukee architecture, the wings of the brise soleil at the Milwaukee Art Museum, and the supports of the 6th Street Viaduct bridge.

Three even white bands evoke the lines of these skeletal structures, set against the bright blue sky of a summer's day in Milwaukee. The number of bands symbolize the three settlements (Kilbourntown, Juneautown, and Walker’s Point) which would join to become the City of Milwaukee. The upward diagonal movement symbolizes a city on the rise. Our gear is re-created here as the shining sun.

The Art Museum in particular has become a symbol of the city since it was completed in 2001. We can acknowledge Calatrava's masterpiece on our flag without needing a literal reference.

Although itself not internationally-reknowned, the 6th Street Viaduct is nonetheless key to our understanding of Milwaukee in the 21st century. In 2003, the city replaced an outdated bridge from 1908 with a modern marvel seven-tenths of a mile long, comprised of two bascule bridges, two approaches, four driving lanes, two bicycle lanes and two sidewalks. At either end, two unique, state-of-the-art cable-stayed supports soar into the sky.

Infrastructure can be as beautiful as it is functional. The 6th Street Viaduct is a perfect example of this.

At the viaduct's opening ceremony, Alderman Michael D'Amato was quoted as saying "design matters." And I couldn’t agree more. The 6th Avenue Viaduct marries new approaches to traffic movement with a forward-thinking understanding of shared public use, all in a package that uplifts the spirit.

The "Wings" design pays tribute to both of these unique structures, triumphs of engineering and design, each a fitting symbol for a city embracing its future with a determination to improve the quality of life of its citizens.

6. "Milwaukee Crossing"

This flag incorporates an off-center cross design reminiscent of an Irish "Brigid's Cross". The outer lines are ½ the width of the inner lines. The design has an echo of the Nordic Cross flags common in Scandinavian nations and in Germany, reflecting the area's ethnic heritage, but with a distinctly local twist.

The layout represents the three cities which would eventually merge to become Milwaukee; Juneautown on the east shore of the river, Kilbourntown on the west, and Walker's Point to the south. If you've ever wondered why the street grid doesn't line up on either side of the river, or why the bridges all jog at an angle as they cross the water, this would be why. Kilbourn and Juneau's two independent cities skirmished and fought, culminating in an open conflict now known as the Milwaukee Bridge War, before they finally joined to become the City of Milwaukee.

In the offset lines of this cross we see reflected the intersection of the Milwaukee River and Kilbourn Avenue, where the bascule bridge links two sides of the city.

This cross can be adapted to our colorway in many variations.

We can also dress it up with our gear in the center:

7. "City Hall Proud"

Milwaukee's city hall is an iconic structure and very much worthy of inclusion on the flag. Completed in 1895, it was for four years the tallest building in the United States.

For nearly a century and a quarter, the elegant Neo-Renaissance building has been a symbol of the city city, a constant reminder of our shared purpose, a vision of good governance. City Hall was designed to represent the city as surely as the legislators within are tasked with representing its citizens. It is only fitting that the City Hall be retained on Milwaukee's flag.

From the current flag, we start with the sky blue field. City Hall is enlarged and made front and center. Its clock hands are set at 6:46, or 18:46, to honor the year the city was founded.

To this, we add two more elements brought forward from the current flag. Milwaukee's industrial legacy is represented by the gear, its brewing and agriculture by a barley stalk. What had been disparate elements are now combined to a single unified icon.

This icon can be set against a variety of backgrounds, or a solid background, without losing its power.


It can again be applied to a variety of applications.

I like this design as a logical evolution of the current flag. The basics are still there; light blue background, gear, City Hall, barley. But everything else has been stripped away, leaving the central symbol bolder and stronger.


8. "The Eternal Flame"

If City Hall represents the Old World charm of the 19th century, the Wisconsin Gas Building exemplifies the progressive spirit of the 20th. Built in 1930, this Art Deco masterpiece stands out even in the shadow of the tallest building in the state. It is without a doubt my favorite building in Milwaukee, and a fitting symbol for the city.

The teardrop-shaped "gas flame" was added in 1956. This decades-later addition could have destroyed the original building, but instead it completed it, giving the wedding-cake structure a fitting topper and creating something entirely new. To this day, I find it hard to believe that the building wasn't conceived with this electrified crown in mind.

Lit originally by neon tubes and now by a sophisticated LED system, the color of the flame changes with the weather forecast, as this mnemonic poem indicates:
When the flame is red, warm weather's ahead.
When the flame is gold, watch out for cold.
When the flame is blue, there’s no change in view.
When there’s a flickering flame, expect snow or rain.

I have it blue not only to fit the color scheme but to signal that Milwaukee is going to keep moving on the right path into the future!

I've also worked up a version of this flag using our gold.

And those are my ideas to solve Milwaukee's flag problem, a conversation that has been ongoing since at least 1897.

Each person can submit up to five entries. I'll let you know which five I select.

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