(ideas.) I hadn’t thought much about flags until I saw a tweet from Marian Liou suggesting Atlanta needed a new one. Following that was a link to a TED Talk about flag design by Roman Mars of the acclaimed design-oriented podcast called 99% Invisible. It seemed like a healthy distraction from all the political drama and coronavirus news, and it was – it’s worth a listen. It’s called “Why city flags may be the worst-designed thing you’ve never noticed.”
The talk references a 16-page book called Good Flag, Bad Flag that consolidates insights from top vexillologists and vexillographers into five primary rules for flag design: 1) Keep It Simple. 2) Use Meaningful Symbolism. 3) Use 2 or 3 Basic Colors. 4) No Lettering or Seals. 5) Be Distinctive. It also includes other good recommendations, such as, “Don’t allow a committee to design a flag.”
The City of Atlanta’s current flag is a flagrant violation of rules four and five, and in any case, it’s boring. I’ve never seen it used as a symbol of civic pride the way Roman Mars describes city flags in Chicago, Washington DC, and Amsterdam. Imagine if Atlanta – a city with a rich legacy worthy of such pride – had a great symbol to rally around, whether in times of crisis like the current pandemic or annual celebrations like the birthday of Atlanta’s most notable native son, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I’m a designer, so naturally, the idea that Atlanta lacks a graphic reflection of its latent civic pride sent me down a rabbit hole wondering what an aspirational symbol might look like. This is the flag design I came up with. It unshackles Atlanta’s phoenix from the city seal and emboldens its historic linework with vivid colors and a graphic mark that can be recognized a hundred feet away.
- The phoenix recalls Atlanta’s burning and rebirth, the crucible of its destiny.
- White represents the city’s ongoing reconciliation with history.
- Blue represents its commitment to peaceful engagement and nonviolence.
- Red represents bravery, determination, and the continuous battle for freedom.
The idea of a new flag at least gave me something to think about that night rather than falling asleep on the couch while scrolling through all the bad news in the world. It has been over a week since then, however, and I can’t get it out of my mind. It’s not a trivial issue. A great Atlanta flag would create a visual symbol of shared values and demonstrate solidarity with our neighbors enduring crises like natural disasters or personal tragedies. It would also display civic support and celebration of Atlanta’s extraordinary progress, culture, and people – including frontline workers during COVID-19.
Those needs got me thinking more about Atlanta’s symbol, the phoenix. People often frame the city’s burning in 1864 as a low point in the city’s history. Or at least they imagine that the story of the phoenix rising from the ashes of the Civil War is separate and distinct from Atlanta’s celebrated role in the Civil Rights movement, but of course, those stories are intertwined. In fact, the burning of Atlanta was an essential act that helped end the war, break the chains of slavery, and bring this great experiment of a nation back together. And whether it was the intention behind the original phoenix or not, that reunion also laid the literal and metaphorical foundation for Atlanta’s legendary “resurgens” – its rebirth – and it set a course for everything that followed, including our ongoing fight for racial justice.
Atlanta’s burning was not something to mourn. It was the necessary and destructive crucible that gave birth to Atlanta’s destiny. Our phoenix flies from the ashes of the Old South, weeping “good riddance.” It speaks to our often-painful history but does not wallow in it. Our phoenix flies instead toward liberation, equality, justice, and freedom.
In light of this history and the challenges we will continue to face in the future, there could be real and tangible value in the design of a new city flag that conveys and provokes a sense of shared civic pride. It can remind us why we loved Atlanta in the first place, and it can compel us to make choices that are better aligned with its vision. And right now, in the midst of this global pandemic that has amplified every injustice and inequity that is baked into American life, such a symbol might inspire us to find hope in the possibility of Atlanta’s forward focus and its continuous reinvention and rebirth. >> Ryan Gravel