A New State Flag for Michigan

A green band represents the verdant land of Michigan,
with two stars for the two consitituent peninsulas of Michigan.

Five stripes represent the five Great Lakes of North America.

Updating An Antiquated Flag

The current flag of Michigan was adopted in 1911. The flag contains a Bald Eagle, representing the U.S., an elk and moose, symbols of the State, and on a shield, a buckskin-clad frontiersman standing on a peninsula surrounded by a lake.

Three Latin mottoes are on the State flag: the national motto E Pluribus Unum, ("Out of many, one"), Tuebor, ("I shall defend") and the State's motto, Si Quaeris Peninsulam Amoenam Circumspice, ("If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look around").

In its publication Good Flag, Bad Flag, the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA) sets forth five principles of good flag design:

  • The design should be simple.
  • The symbolism of the flag should relate to what it represents.
  • The number of colors should be few.
  • Lettering and seals should be avoided.
  • A flag should be distinctive, unless intentionally related.

Flags such as New Mexico's sun flag, Texas' lone star flag and South Carolina's Palmetto/Crescent flag embody these principles in their simplicity. In the case of the flag of Michigan, the present flag fails in every category, with the possible exception of “meaningful symbolism.”

The 1911 Michigan Flag Is Needlessly Complicated

The state flag of Michigan is not simple. It is said a flag is best if a child can draw it from memory. Unless a child is artistically gifted, and unusually so at that, one could not realistically expect a school-aged child to reasonably reproduce a rampant deer and a moose. I would also posit that an average child would not remember the State's official motto, which is not in English.

In which of the above states would children be likely to find state-flag related crafts fun, and in which states would the children be likely to think it a complicated chore?

The Michigan Flag Has Excessive Color

With some basic shapes and using a mere two or three colors from a relatively small palette, one can create a virtually unlimited number of flags. The U.S. flag does just fine with three colors, Canada needs only two, and Libya gets by with just a single color. The Michigan flag contains about a dozen and a half colors. The excess colors of the Michigan flag serve only to convert the flag from a symbol for distinguishing Michigan from other jurisdictions into something more closely resembling a paint-by-numbers landscape painting.

Michigan's Coat of Arms Is Too Cluttered For a Flag

The primary purpose of a state seal is to authenticate state documents. Coats of arms from medieval times were usually intended to represent individuals. In those days, some ornateness was in order to prevent confusion, and to allow borrowing of some elements to indicate relatedness. While state seals and arms are necessarily intricate to prevent forgery of state documents, there is no need to protect the flag from counterfeit reproduction. Flags should not be intricate, but rather simple so as to be easy to recognize and reproduce, even from memory. The flag should be ubiquitous and flown proudly. An intricate armorial emblem on a banner works effectively against that goal.

Using the seal also presents another problem. On the reverse of the flag, the flagmaker has to either sew the seal on another time, increasing the cost of the flag, or otherwise depict a mirror-image of the seal, which is a distortion. The Michigan Code of Law dictates that the deer is supposed to be on the right (dexter) and the moose on the left (sinister). Reversing it means that the back side of the Michigan flag is wrong.

The Michigan Flag Is Not Distinctive

More than 20 U.S. states have a seal or coat of arms set against a blue background, while a handful of others have a seal set against another color. From a distance, it is tough to tell which state a given flag represents. Simply adding the state's name doesn't help when the flag is viewed from a distance.

While many flags of the U.S. States are greatly similar, there is no consistency across all 50 states. Maintaining a flag that has similarity to some flags, but not all, can cause one to wonder how Michigan is more related to states with the blue state flag, such as Nebraska, Kentucky and Idaho, and less related to states with more unique flags, such as Ohio, California and Texas.

In 2001, NAVA conducted a survey of flag experts on this continent and in 20 countries concerning the state and provincial flags of the U.S. States, Canadian provinces and extraterritorial dependencies. Of 72 flags evaluated, the flag of Michigan ranked near the bottom at 59th place. All of the flags of the seal-on-a-blue-background design scored low, with respondents noting that the flags are indistinguishable from one another at a distance.

Michigan's flag is uncontroversial, yet it is also undistinguished. While it has flown for 95 years, it is a relic from an era in which seals set on blue backgrounds was a strong trend. The significance of flags has changed. In 1911, when the present flag was adopted, stats flags were used by the State militias and government officials. Today, flags are flown by the people on their front porches, from car antennas, and from office buldings. Apparel, pillows, mailbox covers bear state flags, at least for states whose flag is distinctive. Another popular place to display flags is on a lapel pin, but for the cookie-cutter blue flags, this is totally useless. The flags below are actually not to scale, they are blown up to show detail, but even still they are indistinguishable.

In the lapel pins above, A is New York, B is probably North Dakota and C is Michigan. Similarly, state flags would be perfect to serve as small icons to represent states. One can't use maps because (among other reasons) there are two identically shaped states, Colorado and Wyoming. Likewise, with so many flags being so similar, it is completely impractical to use flags for this purpose.


You can mouseover this image to see how the proposed flag would look among all of the state flag icons.

If pranksters hoisted the Pennsylvania flag above the State Capitol in Lansing, how long might it take before anyone noticed? Days? Months? But you can be sure that if a blue state-seal flag were hoisted over the Texas State Capitol, it would be spotted in seconds.

The time may be right for a change in Michigan's flag. Economic problems facing Michigan are undeniable. The adoption of a new flag could be said to coincide with a turnaround, to mark a new beginning in this still-new century. As we begin that century, the industries and institutions that once defined Michigan no longer seem as permanent. Other states may surpass Michigan as a leader in manufacturing, but Michigan will always be what no other state is - two peninsulas nestled amidst the five Great Lakes of North America. These are features so distinct that the State of Michigan could be easily recognized from space. The flag should capture those timeless qualities through very simple heraldic symbolism.

A New Flag for the 21st Century

The flag is a vertical green band on the hoist side quarter of the flag, upon which are set two white stars. On the remaining three quarters of the flag are five horizontal stripes, each an equal width, alternating blue and white.

The symbolism should be fairly apparent: green is for the verdant land of Michigan, with vast forests, fields and prairies. The two stars stand for the two peninsulas which constitute Michigan. Five stripes represent the five Great Lakes, the other distinctive geographical feature of the State. They are in blue and white, representing of course blue water and white wave caps, or white as the color of water in ice and snow form.

While Lake Ontario does not in fact abut Michigan, the State remains recognized as the "Great Lakes State." The fifth stripe could alternatively be said to represent Lake St. Clair, however, keep in mind that geographical non-adjacency was no obstacle to Lake Ontario's depiction on Michigan's State quarter.

This proposal demonstrates the application of the five NAVA principles. The simplicity of this proposed design speaks for itself. The minimal design could be recreated by a school child using a mere two crayons from their boxes. The symbolism is, as explained above, a very relevant embodyment of the timeless and unique characteristics of Michigan, from the Territorial era on through to centuries from now. There are only three colors, which in themselves convey a certain symbolism. The colors are also the colors of the two main universities in the State. This flag will stand out, in part because no other U.S. state other than Washington uses green as a main color in its flag - not even the "Green Mountain State," Vermont.

There are no lettering or seals, and the flag is distinct from any of the U.S. state flags. There is a relationship with the Flag of the United States, in the use of similar heraldic elements, i.e. horizontal stripes and five-pointed stars. Such a relationship is intentional.

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Page created 31 October 2006