The official flag of Milwaukee was adopted 61 years ago, in 1955. Efforts to redesign the flag—a flag haphazardly stuffed with barley stalks, boats, and something that looks like a UFO—have been going on for almost as long. A push to freshen up the flag in the ’70s was followed by another push in 2001, which was followed by a slew of similar efforts in recent years. Since 2013, multiple “change the flag” websites have been launched, a handful of Change.org petitions have been created, and countless Milwaukeeans have discovered that, yes, Milwaukee has an official flag, and that, yes, it must be changed. Despite all the hoopla, however, nothing, to date, has happened.
Now, yet another campaign to the change the Milwaukee flag has been launched, and this one will finally do the trick. Maybe. Yesterday, 88Nine Radio Milwaukee introduced The Greater Together People’s Flag Competition, a campaign organized by the station, the Greater Together coalition, professional design group AIGA, and the “Milwaukee Flag Initiative.” The competition will accept new flag designs until April 14 (Milwaukee Day), whittle them down via a panel of experts, display the top five in City Hall on May 14 between 5-8:30 p.m., and choose a winner at an event at Radio Milwaukee on June 14 (Flag Day). And then Milwaukee will have a new flag.
Or not. In addition to the fact that the campaign is nothing new, it’s also a bit misleading. Is the “redesign the Milwaukee flag” thing REALLY trying to redesign the Milwaukee flag? Let’s investigate!
First of all, the main driver behind the competition and the “Milwaukee Flag Initiative” is graphic designer Steve Kodis, whose efforts to change the flag—including websites and petitions—go back to at least 2013. Kodis’ most recent push was inspired by a 2015 TED Talk in which designer and podcast host Roman Mars called the Milwaukee flag a “hot mess” and one of the worst in the country. Kodis’ past efforts have received plenty of press, but have not, in fact, lead to a new and improved Milwaukee flag.
Then there’s the question of whether or not any of Kodis’ “change the flag” campaigns would have the power to, you know, change the flag. Last November, Kodis was a guest on The Disclaimer, the weekly WMSE talk show I co-host with Ryan Schleicher and Evan Rytlewski. It was an unusually chippy episode, one that found us grilling Kodis about why Milwaukee needed a new flag, why he was qualified to lead the charge to change the flag, and who the new flag would represent. It’s that last question that lead to a particularly telling revelation. Skip to the 7:00 mark:
Evan: “So there’s no real momentum to behind actually changing the flag, right?”
Steve: “The official flag? No.”
Wait…wha? Confused, I asked Kodis to elaborate. Jump ahead to 8:50:
Matt: “Let’s back up. You mentioned this is not a push to redesign the official city flag. Would this be an alternate city flag?”
Steve: “Consider this: the city has its official city flag, and it does fly in limited instances, and it does exist in other forms—T-shirts—that’s a great use of it, because of its intricacies. But the people really need their flag, and that’s what we intend to create: the ‘people’s flag’ of Milwaukee.”
And now jump back to 7:55:
Evan: “The optics here truly disgust me, because you’re flying two different flags. You’re saying we have two different cities. The whole point of a flag is that it should be this inclusive banner for everybody. If you push something like this through, and there actually isn’t broad city support across different demographics of the city, you’re not representing the city. What I do like about our flag is it represents the city. For all of its design flaws, it does capture the city’s culture at a point in time, and that’s something I think we can all get behind, right? Why not just embrace the flag we have?”
I agree with Evan that the idea of creating an alternate flag, one that would practically fly in opposition to the original, is bizarre at best and gross at worst. Not only that, creating a secondary flag would render the very name of this latest competition—The Greater Together People’s Flag Competition—meaningless. How does an alternate flag represent a sense of “togetherness” and the “people”?
But maybe things are different this time. I reached out to Kodis via email and asked him what, if anything, had changed since I last spoke to him in November. With heavy hitters like 88Nine and Greater Together backing his latest push, might it actually lead to a new official Milwaukee flag? Here’s what he said:
I partnered with Greater Together, started by Ken Hanson of Hanson-Dodge Creative, which has brought with it a team of folks to help with our initiative. We have led, and are leading, several design workshops across the city: UWM, MIAD, Mount Mary University, Washington High School, Bay View High, Bradley Tech, Ronald Reagan High, and MATC. Our submission count is just shy of 500 flag designs now. The deadline for submissions is April 14.
We’re flying Ted Kaye in from Portland to act as a consultant for the judging process. John Gurda will be one of our five judges. Judging will commence on April 23.
Then, we have a City Hall exhibit on May 14 to showcase the top 50 designs, which will include the 5 finalists. Those 5 finalists will go up for a public vote. On June 14 (Flag Day) we will unveil and announce the winner at 88.9’s headquarters downtown.
The city is involved, I’m meeting with Alderman Kovac tomorrow morning actually, and [he] helped us coordinate the exhibit on May 14. We will be presenting the finalist to them for consideration/adoption but have not [Kodis’ emphasis] received the definite “yes” that they will do so. I believe they’re patiently waiting to see how this all unfolds, and rightfully so.
To be clear, everyone’s heart is obviously in the right place with this. For all its charm and history, the Milwaukee flag is a mess. I wouldn’t mind seeing some small updates—County Stadium is still on there, for Christ’s sake—but an entirely new flag? I dunno. An alternate flag? No thanks.
And hell, if you’re truly looking for a clean, modern design that “the people” can rally around, I submit that Milwaukee already has one: the ubiquitous MilwaukeeHome T-shirts. There. Done. Milwaukee! Do we really need to reinvent the wheel again—even if that wheel is old, outdated, and has a weird UFO in it?