Seattle, your flag isn’t as beautiful as you are. You could do better.

At least, that’s the opinion of one Portland-based flag scholar who’d like to see cities across the land improve their banner designs.

Seattle’s official flag is turquoise and white, with swirling currents flowing around the city’s seal — a profile of Chief Sealth — and the words “City of Goodwill” and “Seattle.”

This breaks two of five key flag rules, according to Ted Kaye, a member of the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA), the compiler of “Good Flag, Bad Flag” and an unapologetic vexillonnaire: It’s too complex and it shouldn’t have lettering.

According to NAVA

5 key elements of good flag design

1. Keep it simple.  The flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory.
2. Use meaningful symbolism. The flag’s images, colors or patterns should relate to what it symbolizes.
3. Use two or three basic colors. Limit the number of colors on the flag to three that contrast well and come from the standard color set.
4. No lettering or seals. Never use writing of any kind or an organization’s seals.
5. Be distinctive or be related. Avoid duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections.

Most important, he said, it fails to serve a flag’s most basic purpose: to be instantly recognizable at a distance.

“It’s time for an update,” Kaye wrote in an email on the eve of Flag Day. “A great city deserves a great flag, and Seattle’s doesn’t do the city justice.”

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He gave Seattle’s flag — which was named by Gizmodo as one of the ugliest city flags in the country — a grade of “C.”

More than 120 U.S. cities have recently adopted or are considering adopting redesigns of their flags, according to the Portland Flag Association. Kaye would like the Emerald City to join them — and to encourage that, he’s not above poking at Seattle’s historic rivalry with Portland, which has a flag that’s consistently rated in the top 10 among U.S cities.

In a 2004 survey of 500 members of NAVA and the public, Seattle’s flag came in 30th place among 150 cities, with a score of 5.3 out of a possible 10 points.

Portland’s flag, by contrast, garnered a score of 8.4 in that same survey, putting it in seventh place, Kaye said.

Washington, D.C., Chicago and Denver have flags that consistently place among the best-designed.

Spokane and Pocatello, Idaho, ranked among the worst in the 2004 NAVA survey. Pocatello has since done a redesign, and Spokane this week set in motion plans to do the same.

Seattle’s first and only official flag was adopted unanimously by the City Council in 1990, when the city was on the verge of hosting the Goodwill Games, according to Seattle Times news coverage from that time.

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Erik Lacitis of The Times reported that then-council President Paul Kraabel was dismayed that his city would have no flag to fly at the games. Without committee approval or guidance, he set out to rectify that on his own.

On the back of a paper place mat in an Italian restaurant in Wallingford, Kraabel sketched out the Space Needle, a ferry and some mountains. He thought it looked good, but his friends disagreed. An architect friend of his, David Wright, created the design that was adopted, The Times reported.

The flag didn’t catch on much beyond the Goodwill Games. Only three were made; two can be seen at the city’s archives, and one cannot be found, according to The Evergrey.

The city’s poor showing in flag-design ratings has, over the years, sparked redesign conversations on Reddit and websites for flag lovers.

Riley Raker, a graphic designer with Blank Space, was inspired to try his hand. Using three colors and the city’s stylized portrait of Chief Sealth, he brought the image forward and got rid of all lettering.

Seattle-based graphic designer Riley Raker tried his hand at a redesign of the city’s flag. (Riley Raker)
Seattle-based graphic designer Riley Raker tried his hand at a redesign of the city’s flag. (Riley Raker)

Kaye found Raker’s efforts to be effective.

“It’s an interesting improvement,” he said. “It’s still too complex, but quite attractive.” He noted, too, that the colors are good.

Raker said he never proposed the new flag design “in a serious way, but I would be thrilled if Seattle followed … cities like Chicago and Portland that have almost iconic designs and can be used by the citizenry more than the current one is.”

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said she’s up for the challenge.

Her spokesperson, Mark Prentice, said in a statement that Durkan believes “the most beautiful city in America should have the most beautiful, well-designed city flag in America.”

“She is open to exploring a refreshed design for Seattle,” Prentice wrote, “and, much like the Reign and Sounders, beating Portland consistently.”

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Other Washington cities’ flags

The flags for Washington cities and towns vary widely. Tell us in the comments which ones you think are the best and worst, and how you think Seattle’s flag stacks up.

‘The worst-designed thing you’ve never noticed’

The topic of city flags got more attention after Roman Mars, host of the podcast “99% Invisible,” gave a TED Talk about them in 2015. Mars called out Pocatello’s particularly hideous banner, prompting the movement toward changing it.

 

Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf and producers Laura Schinagle, Nick Saffan, Taylor Blatchford and Jeff Albertson contributed to this report.