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All Over The Map: How you can help Spokane avoid Flaggy McFlagface

Spokane, capital of the Inland Empire and Washington’s second most populous city, needs your help to come up with a new design for its city flag.

What’s now Spokane was incorporated in Washington Territory in 1881 as “Spokan Falls,” named for the water feature located there in the Spokane River. In 1883, an “e” was added to make it “Spokane Falls” – and to forever confuse distant pronouncers – and then “Falls” was dropped in 1891.

Indigenous people of what became the Spokane Tribe had inhabited the area for a millennia, and fur traders had established posts there in the early 19th century. The name “Spokane” is believed to be from a Native word that means “Children of the Sun,” and was perhaps inspired by the rainbow created when the sun strikes the mist rising from the falls.

Like many American communities – including Seattle – Spokane has a current city flag dating to the 1970s that fails one or more of the five principles of good flag design, as laid out by the North American Vexillological Association and Portland-based flag expert (or “vexillologist”) Ted Kaye.

Among the most important principles of Kaye’s good flag design is to “keep it simple” – so that a child could draw the flag from memory. Spokane’s current flag – with its tiny stick people family and odd “Certificate of Merit” sun – fails this test, as well as the good design rule that forbids use of any lettering or city seals. Simple flags are easier to recognize from a distance, which is especially critical because the design is on a piece of fabric often either swaying in the breeze or drooping from atop a pole.

Perhaps the trickiest of the design principles is to “use meaningful symbolism.” Meaningful symbolism isn’t always obvious and can be difficult to explain, but Ted Kaye says that Chicago’s city flag is a great example. That flag – which Kaye says is ubiquitous in the Windy City – has blue stripes that represent the Chicago River and Lake Michigan, and four stars that represent key events in the city’s history.

The Chicago flag, says Kaye, is embraced by the government and citizens alike.

“The city of Chicago uses its flag all over the place,” Kaye said. “The government and the people use the flag. You probably can’t go a block in Chicago without seeing the city flag.”

Closer to home, and where Kaye lives, the Rose City’s flag – which dates to 2002 – has really caught on with citizens and soccer fans in the city along the Willamette.

“Portland, Oregon, has a very popular, very highly-rated design, flag,” Kaye said. “And you see it at Timbers’ ball games, especially when they’re playing in the Cascadia Cup.”

The “highly-rated design” comment isn’t just a Portlander’s boast – it’s based on exhaustive studies and other research conducted by Kaye and the North American Vexillological Association over the past several years.

Kaye says there are several measures of success for a city flag, including how much it’s flown around town and how much it’s used by the people, such as those Portland soccer fans.

But, says Kaye, sounding like a true Portlander, you can tell “a flag has truly been adopted by the people when it starts showing up as a tattoo.”

Kaye also says Spokane isn’t alone in what it’s attempting to do. Cities all over the United States are revisiting, rethinking, and redesigning their flags, and much of the inspiration came from a 2015 TED Talk given in Vancouver, B.C., by podcast host Roman Mars.

“His TED Talk has set off a wave of city flag updates across the country,” Kaye said. “I’m tracking a couple hundred cities that are doing, or have done, civic flag redesign.”

Incidentally, according to the City of Spokane, as ungainly as the current flag is, it does have a pretty solid and credible pedigree. The current flag, says the city, is a creation of “Lloyd L. Carlson, who also designed the famous ‘Mobius strip’ symbol for the World’s Fair held in Spokane, Expo ’74.”

The City of Spokane launched their official replacement effort a year ago, inspired, confirms Spokane Flag Commission member Joshua Hiler, by Roman Mars.

Hiler, a 26-year-old born and raised in Spokane, says the commission has been collecting design submissions and has already received more than 100. They would like to have at least 150, and this week the commission extended the deadline for more submissions to Oct. 15, and lifted the cap on the number of designs that any one person is allowed to submit.

According to Hiler, Spokane’s flag redesign process will be exhaustive, and he’s thrilled to be part of the effort.

“We definitely do have a lot of civic pride here for Spokane,” Hiler said. “I saw this as a way to engage with the community in a way to do something that I thought would be helpful. I always have wanted a flag for Spokane. I always thought it would be really great thing to rally behind, because I felt like [in Spokane] we don’t really have any symbols that people can like carry around.”

Later this year, all submissions – excluding, of course, anything deemed obscene or otherwise inappropriate – will be posted online for people to review and weigh in on with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Then, in early 2021, the top 10 designs will be posted online and Spokane residents will be allowed to vote for their favorite. A Spokane Library Card will be required in order to vote, minimizing the chance of voter fraud or a rigged election.

Hiler also says the city would very much like to avoid anything along the lines of a “Flaggy McFlagface” incident, and the commission aims to have the process completed in time for a peaceful transfer of power – or, at least the adoption of a new city flag – by June 14, 2021.

“Our ideal goal is that by Flag Day of 2021, we will have the final design approved and do a little ceremony to announce it,” Hiler said. “And then we will put it up above City Hall and potentially start selling some stuff at our city gift shop, so people can start getting their own flags.”

To submit a design or for more information, visit the Spokane Flag Commission website.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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