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If the governor signs the bill, the state will join a wave of city and state flag redesigns across the nation and cap a process four years in the making.
Utah’s state flag is an S.O.B., or what vexillologists—those who study flags—call a seal on a bedsheet. But, following the narrow passage of a bill Thursday, that may be about to change.
The Utah House approved a new state flag by a 40-35 vote, while making the current flag the “historical state flag.” The new flag features a mountain landscape, beehive, and a five-pointed star to represent both hope and 1896, the year Utah became a state.
The bill passed after a nearly 35-minute debate on the House floor, “longer than every other piece of legislation considered during that time,” the Salt Lake Tribune reported. “Between committee hearings and floor debate, discussion and debate ate up nearly three hours during the 2023 session. For comparison, consideration of the $400 million tax cut package consumed just one hour and 15 minutes this year.”
That the process was contentious is not surprising. Ted Kaye, secretary of the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA) and author of the flag design book, Good Flag, Bad Flag, told Route Fifty last month that the process to adopt a new flag can be long and fraught with detours. “I always tell officials that 10% of the process is design and 90% is politics and public relations,” he said.
In Utah’s case, that’s been true. The effort to redesign the flag launched more than four years ago, ultimately culminating in the creation of a state flag task force last year that sifted through 7,000 flag designs and 44,000 public comments before picking the finalist.
That flag, with a few tweaks, was approved by the Utah Senate at the end of January and languished in the House until it was finally approved last week. The bill now heads to Gov. Spencer Cox, who has not indicated whether he’ll sign or veto the bill. He has until March 23 to make up his mind.
But in kicking off the process in 2019, Cox, co-chair of the task force, and other state leaders said the flag should have a simplified design that is more iconic—much like flags in neighboring Colorado and New Mexico.
The purpose of a flag, according to Kaye, is to represent something distinctively at a distance. Seals are designed to be on stationary paper, not flying in the breeze 100 feet away where no one can make out the shapes or tiny lettering. Utah’s current flag, which is the state’s seal on a blue background, is similar to nearly 20 other state’s flags.
“Utah is a very distinctive state, but our current flag blends in with many other state flags. We can do better,” Sen. Daniel McCay, the bill’s sponsor, said when the task force was announced. “The new state flag can be simplified with a design that is both innovative and memorable.”
If signed into law, Utah will be the third state to approve a new flag in the last 20 years. It comes on the heels of a wave of flag redesigns, particularly by municipalities, across the nation.
“Whereas 20 years ago, we saw one or two redesigns, today hundreds are doing it or have processes underway,” Kaye said.
In addition to Utah, Massachusetts is exploring alternative flag options, and there is a bill in Minnesota that would create a commission to redesign its flag.
Kaye, who has consulted on hundreds of city and state flag overhauls, credits the rise in redesigns, in part, to Roman Mars’ 2015 Ted Talk on “why city flags may be the worst-designed thing you've never noticed.” Host of the podcast 99% Invisible, his talk has garnered nearly 7 million views.
In it, Mars reviews the five basic principles of flag design according to Kaye’s book: simplicity, meaningful symbolism, few colors, no lettering or seals, and distinctiveness.