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Mayor dreams of replacing seldom-seen city flag

Good luck finding one flapping in the breeze, but the city of Duluth has an official municipal flag. It's just that the only two we know of reside in the mayor's reception room and Duluth City Council chambers.

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Downtown Duluth aerial (2015 News Tribune file)

Good luck finding one flapping in the breeze, but the city of Duluth has an official municipal flag. It's just that the only two we know of reside in the mayor's reception room and Duluth City Council chambers.

Mayor Emily Larson would like to see that change, and referred to the current design as "a missed opportunity."

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City of Duluth

"It really is just a corporate seal on a sheet, so it doesn't really tell our story," she said, noting that the desire for a better flag emerged as part of a wide-ranging comprehensive plan for Duluth.

Roman Mars, who produces "99 Percent Invisible," a podcast on design, said modern-day vexillologists (people who study flag design) frown on banners such as Duluth's. He said they call such flags "SOB's" - short for "seals on a broadsheet."

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"Here's the thing about municipal seals," he said. "They were designed to be on pieces of paper, where you can read them, not on flags 100 feet away, flapping in the breeze."

Brandon Hundt, a writer for City Pages, noted that Duluth had made a common blunder with its flag. He offered the following assessment of the design in a recent piece on Minnesota municipal flags: "So close, yet so far away. Why is it that politicians can't resist plopping seals over the tops of flags? 'I think we really need a seal!' said no one ever. So how does this keep happening???"

Larson said Duluth's current flag fails to communicate or connect with people, which may explain why it never caught on.

"Most people probably don't even know that we have a city flag, let alone why it shows what it shows," she said.

Duluth's official flag design was adopted via a City Council resolution in September 1979.

A website called "Flags of the World" said: "The green, white and blue represent Duluth's woods, snow and streams."

The cross pattern apparently pays homage to a host of Scandinavian flags, and the fleurs-de-lis in the upper-left and lower-right quadrants were a nod to Greysolon Sieur Du Lhut, the French explorer from whom the city drew its name.

As for the busy seal at the center of the flag, it contains a steamship to honor the city's maritime heritage, a shock of wheat to represent the movement of grain through the port, an oak tree to recognize the city's prominent forest products industry, 11 stars around the wheat to honor the 11 towns that combined to form Duluth, and an eagle that was said to symbolize "protection, wisdom and magnanimity." The final seal ingredient - a bough of laurel branches - apparently represents achievement or victory.

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Duluth's flag violates many of the tenets of good design laid out by the North American Vexillological Association, which offers four primary guidance principles:

• Keep it simple. The flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory. Use meaningful symbolism. The flag's images, colors, or patterns should relate to what it symbolizes.

• Use two or three basic colors. Limit the number of colors on the flag to three which contrast well and come from the standard color set.

• No lettering or seals. Never use writing of any kind or an organization's seal.

• Be distinctive or be related. Avoid duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections.

Larson believes a good flag could bolster Duluth's sense of identity.

"It could be a really galvanizing part of our future story together as a community, to have this new image and symbol," she said.

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Chicago flag

Mars points to Chicago as a city that got its flag right. The popular Chicago flag is widely displayed, with its four red stars to commemorate key points in the city's history, sandwiched between two blue horizontal bars to represent Lake Michigan and the local waterways that flow into it.

"A great flag is something that represents a city to its people and its people to the world at large. And when that flag is a beautiful thing, that connection is a beautiful thing," Mars said.

Larson said one of Duluth's strengths is that it's composed of many distinct and unique neighborhoods. She said a common flag that resonates with residents throughout the city could help strengthen people's sense of unity.

"We're seeing a real resurgence of municipal pride around the country, and flags actually are a part of that. They help anchor community identity," she said.

No task force or formal initiative to design a new flag for Duluth has been launched yet. But Larson said such an effort could emerge within the next year or two, if people are interested.

"I would envision a process by which community members can submit ideas or concepts, and we would have a way in which the public would participate in helping to choose that," she said.

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