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Milwaukee unveils new flag by Robert Lenz highlighting a unified future

Tuesday June 14, 2016

written by Laura Gainor

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By Hannah Schwarz of the Journal Sentinel on Tuesday, June 14th, 2016

A snow white sun rising over a deep blue Lake Michigan, three stripes of light blue notched into the orb's reflection on the water.

That's the design of the city of Milwaukee's new, but still unofficial, flag, designed by Robert Lenz which was unveiled Tuesday evening.

The announcement of the new flag comes at the end of a four-months long design contest. The contest drew 1,006 entries, which began flowing in on February 18. The entries were narrowed down to five finalists, which were rated by more than 6,000 people on a 1-10 scale online. 

It remains to be seen whether the city will adopt the design as its official flag, supplanting the old one. Mayor Tom Barrett and Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton were present at the unveiling of the five finalists in May, and Barrett has previously called the city's current flag "outdated."

"This is an opportunity to change the conversation from the past to the future," said Ken Hanson, executive director of Greater Together, an organization that works on increasing diversity in the city's creative industries and was involved in the flag initiative.

The design, titled "Sunrise over the Lake," is meant to symbolize a unified future, Lenz said in a May interview.

The three light blue stripes in the sun's reflection represent the city's three rivers and founding towns. The gold background is a nod to the city's wheat growing and brewing history, and the rising sun above the lake represents a city united. 

The contest to create a new flag, organized by the People's Flag of Milwaukee Design Initiative and Greater Together, came after Roman Mars, host of the popular design podcast 99% Invisible, called the city of Milwaukee flag a "hot mess" in a widely viewed TED talk on flag designs.

The old flag features a hodgepodge of items including a stalk of barley, a red ship, Milwaukee City Hall and the now-demolished Milwaukee County Stadium. There's also a church, a lamp, a factory, and a flag with two stars. The right side of the flag shows the date the city was established — 1846 — and the bottom reads, "Milwaukee."

The flag, in short, isn't in keeping with the main principles of flag design, which value, above all, simplicity. 

The other principles, said Steve Kodis, a graphic designer who spearheaded the People's Flag of Milwaukee Design Initiative, are that the flag has to have meaningful symbolism, must generally feature two to three colors in a standard color set — though there is flexibility with this principle, and must not feature lettering or a city's seal. It can also feature symbols that pop up in other flags and places.

The new "people's flag" could fly alongside the city's official flag if it doesn't replace it.

"Nobody is saying we should burn the old flag or throw it away," said Hanson. 

The initiative wasn't only about finding a better looking flag. It was also meant to engage the city's residents, especially young residents of color, and in the process, have honest conversations about what the city means to those young people, Hanson said.

Greater Together and the People's Flag of Milwaukee Design Initiative held flag design workshops throughout the city, at the elementary, middle, high school, and college levels.

Over 20% of the design submissions came from those workshops, Hanson said. Some entries even came in crayon.

"Sunrise over the Lake" received a 6.87 rating online. The second place design, "The 'M' Star," came in with a 6.26 rating.

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