Arts

Stiff winds at city halls for would-be flag designers

Daniel Berube, chair of the Manchester Arts Committee, pointed out a flag as judges narrowed their search to three finalists at City Hall in Manchester, N.H.
Mary Schwalm for The Boston Globe
Daniel Berube, chair of the Manchester Arts Committee, pointed out a flag as judges narrowed their search to three finalists at City Hall in Manchester, N.H.

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Alderman Pat Long was incredulous when he got the message.

Adam Hlasny, a mild-mannered transportation planner from Manchester, wanted to discuss a municipal design flaw that had plagued the city for decades. He wanted to change the city’s flag.

“I politely e-mailed him back saying sure, we can meet,” said Long. “In my mind I’m going, ‘That ain’t going to happen.’ ”

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Hlasny is one of hundreds across the country who are trying to redesign city flags, inspired by Roman Mars’s popular 2015 TED Talk excoriating flags that are nothing but a municipal seal against a solid background. Widely ridiculed as “SOBs,” or “Seals on a Bedsheet,” such flags are illegible at a distance, none too memorable, and often little more than limp furnishings for council chambers or mayoral offices.

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But as yet another Flag Day arrives on Wednesday, designers say that reimagining a city’s flag is one thing. Persuading city hall to embrace it is another matter entirely.

Citizen designers have launched initiatives from Orlando to Los Angeles, Milwaukee to El Paso — roughly 80 in all, according to one tally by flag expert Ted Kaye, who says that only 20 have been successful.

Of the roughly eight New England campaigns that have been launched since 2015, not one has resulted in a city adopting a new flag design.

“They just hard-core shot me down,” Mark Van Der Hyde said of his efforts to convince leaders in Lowell to redesign the city’s flag.

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In New Hampshire, Breanna Henderson got so far as to persuade Laconia’s City Council to hold a design contest. But after city leaders rejected the design finalists, Henderson says she “will not revisit the issue until city leadership changes.”

Meanwhile, the Bangor Daily News held a contest last year to redesign Portland’s flag, but the city never adopted the winning design.

In comparison, Manchester’s Hlasny has met with early success, convincing Long and several local organizations that a design contest for a new flag could be a vital rebranding opportunity for this former mill town of 110,000.

On Saturday, a panel of seven judges gathered at Manchester’s City Hall to select three finalists from a pool of nearly 300 submissions. Organizers say the winning designs — along with the city’s current SOB — will appear in a nonbinding referendum on the November ballot, after which city leaders will vote either to adopt a new design or maintain the status quo.

“It’s controversial, because we’ve had the flag since I don’t know when,” said Long, who introduced the idea at an aldermen’s meeting. “I had two snide remarks right away . . . but I asked them, ‘How many of you here can describe the Manchester flag to me?’ And there was a problem,” Long said, indicating that blank stares ensued, “and the flag was right there.”

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Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas says the city’s flag, seal and all, is fine as is.

“It’s been here for an awful long time, and it talks about the history of the city,” Gatsas said. “I don’t think anybody comes to Manchester because they recognize the flag or not.”

Manchester’s contest, like virtually every other design effort, urges participants to follow five basic principles that Kaye laid out in the pamphlet “Good Flag, Bad Flag,” considered by many the bible of flag design.

Among Kaye’s tenets: Keep it simple, use meaningful symbols, use two to three basic colors, and — crucially — use no lettering or seals.

“If you have to put your name on your flag, your symbolism has failed,” said Kaye, who formerly edited the scholarly flag journal Raven. “There are so many bad examples out there that people model their ideas of what a flag should look like on these bad examples.”

In 2005, Raven published a survey of 150 city flags, rating them from 0 to 10. Manchester’s flag registered a lowly 2.95. Portland was just 2.74, while Boston’s flag got a dismal 2.71. (Although redesigning Boston’s flag has been a discussion topic online, a spokeswoman for Mayor Martin J. Walsh said she was unaware that anyone had contacted City Hall about the issue.)

Mars’s 2015 TED talk has garnered more than 4.3 million views, and Kaye, who was featured prominently in it, has become a sought-after flag consultant. Recently, however, his role has shifted.

“I’ve gone from the guy to talk to about basic flag design to the guy that says, ‘Hey, if you want to be successful, you need to understand the politics,’ ” Kaye said. “I’ve seen many of these efforts fail because they haven’t lined up the city.”

With no luck in Lowell, Van Der Hyde is now concentrating on his hometown, nearby Dracut.

“I can’t fix some of the bigger things that are wrong, but if I can use some of my know-how to make things a little bit nicer, I think that’s fair game,” said Van Der Hyde, who called it “an uphill battle.”

City leaders in Lowell and Dracut did not respond to requests for comment.

And in Laconia? After a committee narrowed the design contest submissions to six finalists, the City Council did not move to adopt a new design.

“The one we have is fine as far as I’m concerned,” said longtime City Council member Armand Bolduc. “I didn’t want it because they didn’t have anything to do with Laconia. It didn’t have a seal, or the name, or anything.”

The defeat still stings for Henderson, who runs a barbershop in town and is now contemplating a City Council run of her own.

“At this point I believe their entire intention was to humor me,” she said. “I’m a 28-year-old getting up before people who are 50 to 90.”

Meanwhile, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger is championing a design competition set to launch later this year, and though Manchester’s contest shows promise, Hlasny’s not getting his hopes up.

“There’s just too many entrenched interests,” he said. “The irony is that people who are entrenched in their views don’t even know what we already have. They stand up for it, but it’s like, what is our flag again?”

Berube took notes while reviewing the flag designs.
Mary Schwalm for The Boston Globe
Berube took notes while reviewing the flag designs.

Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @malcolmgay..