United We Brand: Redesigning the State Flags
HOW Online, March 3, 2015
Our state flags are flown over capitol buildings, splashed across billboards that greet us at every border, and appropriated by dozens of college and professional sports teams.
And although few of those 50 flags would be considered marvels of design, most have gone untouched for nearly a century. For every bold, iconic Colorado, New Mexico, or Texas, there is a Delaware, a Nebraska, and a West Virginia. The recurring themes seem to be two white folks bookending a crest; two wild animals bookending a crest; or a mash-up of eagles, arrows, stars, and stripes set off with a touch of garland—the garnish on a luke-warm plate of state pride. If the state flags had a creative director, she’d be begging for a brand overhaul.
Last summer, NJI Media gave them just that. Designers at the Alexandria, Virginia, agency had been looking for a self-assignment that would free them of the usual restrictions of client work, and the result was “United We Brand,” a collection of state flags redesigned for the 21st century.
“Our team had been mulling over ideas for an internal project for a while, and rather than starting from scratch, we thought, ‘What can we do to reexamine something that everyone in this country is already familiar with?’” says Mason Plunkett, NJI Media’s UI/UX director, and one of four designers who worked on the project. Plunkett and his colleagues wanted to explore a wide range of options and create a variety of designs, so they chose some standard dimensions and a color palette, then left each designer to incorporate the name of the state, some iconography, and a tertiary element like the founding date or the motto.
“One of the fun aspects of this project was doing research and digging into some of the origins of the flags’ design,” says Plunkett. “Some bizarre stories really make you wonder ‘How did this happen?’ like the fact that Alaska’s flag was designed by a 13-year-old boy who won a state-wide design competition open to students.” (It may come as some surprise that little Benny Benson’s design is one of the more elegant of the 50 originals.)
The results of their work appear on this page and at a stand-alone website, United We Brand, where you can download wallpapers for your desktop or smartphone, and read short explanations of the designer’s thought process and execution.
The new designs feature clean lines, simple icons, and bold colors. In many cases, the reinterpretation relies heavily on the original: Louisiana’s brown pelican remains, but is captured in profile, flying across a bayou at sunset; Texas retains its color palette and iconic lone star. Many of the new designs would be at home on football helmets, beer labels, or smartphone apps, like the wrenches that cleverly morph into deer antlers on the Michigan flag, or South Dakota’s coyote howling against a silhouette of the Black Hills.
If people have strong reactions to corporate logo re-designs (see Gap, Airbnb, and Yahoo!), you can imagine the response to re-configuring symbols of our homes and our heritage.
“From the start, we were pretty transparent that this was an internal exploration—by no means are we suggesting that what we’ve done is improving on the original,” says Plunkett. “We knew going into this project that it would prompt divisive reactions, and we quickly learned that people are very attached to their state flags, even the ones that aren’t so great; still, it was a little surprising to see a tweet that said, ‘This agency ruined my state flag.’”
In the end, the project was a success, garnering plenty of attention on sites like Gizmodo and Thrillist. And although you won’t find a single design sewn into cloth or flying atop a government office, thousands of people are flying the flags on their own desktops and smartphone lock screens.
“Given the normal agency workflow we all experience, it was really nice to focus on a project that was loose, and that had a longer timeline,” says Plunkett. “It was very different from anything any of us had taken on before, if in no other way than the sheer scope of it all. And it was a great way to take a step back and examine the purely creative aspects of what we love to do.”