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How not to design Mississippi’s new state flag

June 30, 2020, 11:33 AM UTC

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A vexillologist is an expert on flags—their design, history, symbolism, and uses. Ted Kaye, secretary of the North American Vexillological Association and editor of the group’s annual journal, has compiled a
Good Flag, Bad Flag” guide offering five basic principles for designing a great flag. They are:

  • Keep it simple.
  • Use meaningful symbolism.
  • Use two or three basic colors.
  • No lettering or seals.
  • Be distinctive, or be related.

Kaye’s list might also have included a sixth injunction: don’t use emblems of racism and hate.

The state of Mississippi has been in violation of that sixth rule since 1894, when conservative legislators, in an overt appeal to white supremacists and veterans of the Confederacy, adopted a state flag design dominated by the Confederate battle emblem. (See this account published by the Mississippi Historical Society.)

On Sunday, 136 years later, Mississippi lawmakers voted to retire the flag with its Confederate symbol effective July 15.

The bill, which the state’s Republican Governor Tate Reeve has said he will sign, is a landmark for Mississippi and the rest of the nation. Mississippi has the largest Black population of any American state. And yet, it has preserved the Confederate symbol in its flag, long after other southern states removed the battle emblem from their standards.

For decades, critics inside and outside the state have decried the design as a sign of Mississippi’s failure to come to terms with its history of slavery, segregation, and racial violence. The flag has undermined the state’s ability to attract investment, lure students and tourists, and participate in national sporting competitions.

Even so, many white Mississippians defended the Confederate emblem as a proud reminder of the state’s southern heritage. A 2001 referendum to abolish the flag was soundly defeated.

Fewer Mississippians are willing to rally round the flag in the wake of the gruesome killing of George Floyd while in the custody of white police officers in Minneapolis. As other states pull down Confederate monuments and strip the names of segregationists from buildings and institutions, Mississippi’s lawmakers, too, have voted for change.

For now, Mississippi has no flag. Sunday’s vote leaves unresolved the question of what the new design should look like.

For years, the frontrunner has been a design known as “the Stennis Flag” after its creator, Mississippi artist Laurin Stennis. Stennis is a woodblock printmaker by training, but in devising an alternative she consulted with Ted Kaye and other vexillologists. Her design features a large blue star surrounded by 19 small stars against a white background, with vertical red bars on either side. Its symbols draw from Mississippi history (which you can read about here). The Stennis flag has been endorsed by Kaye, and in a persuasive New York Times essay, by Mississippi’s poet laureate Beth Ann Fennelly.

And yet, as Fennelly concedes, succeeding on design principles doesn’t guarantee the Stennis flag can unite the state. Stennis is the white granddaughter of the late Democratic U.S. Senator John C. Stennis, a staunch defender of segregation who voted against the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Laurin Stennis hasn’t tried to hide her family background, and last week took to social media to announce she is “stepping away” from the campaign for the design and understands the “hurt and potential harm my last name can cause.”

Reeves originally said that the decision on a new flag should be made directly by voters. But the resolution approved Sunday calls for creation of a nine-person commission to design the new one, and requires them to include the phrase “In God we trust.” The commission would be charged with arriving at a design by September for it to be put up for a vote on the November ballot.

That approach would contradict Kaye’s “no lettering or seals” rule above. And the “Good Flag, Bad Flag” guide warns explicitly: “Don’t allow a committee to design a flag. Instead, empower individuals to design flags, and use a committee to select among them.”

In following the debate about how to generate a new flag design for the state, I found myself asking the question that’s been posed by a recently formed coalition of designers of color: “Where are all the black designers?” This would seem like the perfect opportunity to enlist their help.

More design news below.

Clay Chandler
– clay.chandler@fortune.com

NEWS BY DESIGN

I❤️ NY

Milton Glaser, the designer who came up with the iconic I❤️ NY logo, died on his birthday last Friday, at the age of 91. In his final weeks, Glaser was working on a graphic rendering of the word “together,” hoping to find a representation for how the isolation wrought by COVID-19 was a binding human experience.

Take off

Boeing has begun test flights of the updated 737 Max, which was suspended following two fatal crashes caused in part by flaws in the aircraft’s physical and systems design. Rather than designing a new plane, the manufacturer put bigger engines on the old 737 model. The modification made the 737 Max more susceptible to engine stalls so Boeing designed a software solution to counteract the risk—but then it didn't tell pilots about the new autopilot. 

Splash

Disney is rebranding its Splash Mountain rides to scrub out allusions to its controversial 1946 film Song of the South, which critics decry as racist. But the way Disney has arranged its business means rebranding the ride in Disneyland Tokyo might be harder than doing so at home.

Free speech

Goldman Sachs has released its own font—an inoffensive, sans-serif typeface—that is free to download, with a catch: you can’t use the font to write anything that disparages the bank.

Repacking for vacation

AirBnB co-founder Brian Chesky has some thoughts about the future of travel, claiming that “travel as we knew it is over…and it’s never coming back.” Chesky argues tourists will be more dispersed in the future, moving away from mega-destination cities and seeking more obscure and local places.

EVENTS BY DESIGN

Past: The annual BET awards aired online Sunday and was praised not only for handling the logistics of pulling together a variety of stunning virtual performances but for reckoning with the Black American experience.

July: Christie’s is planning a semi-virtual auction for July 10. The “first of its kind” event will livestream auctions from four cities—Hong Kong, New York, Paris and London; D&AD’s New Blood Festival—a celebration of upcoming talent in design—will be running online this year, July 6-10. The digital festival marks New Blood’s 40th anniversary.

September: Art Basel in Switzerland—initially rescheduled from June to September—has been cancelled, set to return in June 2021.

Ongoing: Dezeen’s Virtual Design Festival has been extended to July 10

Cancelled: The Geneva Motor Show, which was rescheduled from this year to March 2021, has been pushed back to 2022 as organizers say there was weak demand from exhibitors. As several automakers have turned online to launch new marques during the pandemic, even a 2022 motor show might be ambitious.

QUOTED BY DESIGN

“The coronavirus oil shock is not a one-off crisis; it is a dress rehearsal for a future fast unfolding.”

Amos Hochstein, former U.S. Special Envoy for International Energy Affairs and current senior vice president at Texas gas producer Tellurian, highlights the looming economic crisis of peak oil and argues for a collaborative design approach to stave off the calamity.

The recent oil crash to a price point below the cost of production threatened to tank the national budgets of oil-dependent economies. Hochstein cautions “the international community must be prepared to manage the fallout in countries that depend on oil for their revenue.”

“That work should begin with a rejection of the siloed approach we take to our global policy, in which climate negotiators, national-security experts, and business leaders are rarely in the same room, across the same table from one another.”

Perhaps there should be room at the table for designers too, who will be tasked with creating the tech, products and systems that will transition the world away from oil.

 

This week’s edition of BxD was curated by Eamon Barrett. Email him at eamon.barrett@fortune.com