The Case for a Saint Paul Flag Redesign

One thing I noticed very early on when I moved to Saint Paul was how difficult it was to get involved with city government and politics.

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(Inside Saint Paul City Hall/Ramsey County Courthouse – Photo by Dave Orrick / Pioneer Press)

For starters, I noticed a stark difference between St. Paul’s city hall and that of Minneapolis. The Minneapolis city hall is open, you can gather in the foyer. Minneapolis city council members face residents when they meet. By contrast, Saint Paul’s city hall reminds me of what I assume Kim Jong Un’s rec room looks like. There are metal detectors, security guards, a giant rotating statue bearing down on you surrounded by black marble beams and zero windows.

The city hall chambers are also missing translucent windows – instead decorated with stained glass figures (all men). City council members sit in a circle facing away from residents. Nothing about the built environment invites participation in city government, including our city flag. Did you know we even had a city flag?

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(Los Gatos certainly doesn’t look like a gem…)

There are some who do know Saint Paul has a flag and even fly it outside their home (myself included). Some very much like the current design, which is great, but let’s break down how it is currently maintaining the inaccessible nature of our city government.

Good flag design is important.  If you don’t believe me ask Roman Mars (seriously, watch his TED Talk it’s awesome). People are aware that countries and states have flags but for the most part people don’t know that their city has a flag as well. The reason most people don’t realize their city has a flag is because they are generally terrible.

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(Photo Credit Chicago Times)

However, some cities get it very right. A perfect example is the Chicago flag. You can find it all over Chicago – there’s a whole website dedicated to Chicago flag tattoos – and it’s known across the country and the world. Police in Chicago actually have their flag placed on their caskets when they pass rather than the American flag.

Why is the Chicago flag everywhere? Why do so many people love it so much? The answer is pretty simple – it follows the five principles of design that every amazing flag follows:

  1. Keep it simple. Nothing captures this better than the Japanese flag. A good flag design should be so simple a child could draw it.
  2. Use meaningful symbolism. You can read about the history and symbolism of the Chicago flag here.
  3. Use 2 or 3 basic colors. This maintains the simplicity that every flag needs.
  4. No lettering or seals. Our Minnesota state flag is a disgrace in this respect.
  5. Be distinctive or be related. Sometimes the good designs are already “taken”. However, a flag’s symbols, colors, and shapes can recall other flags—a powerful way to show heritage, solidarity, or connectedness. This requires knowledge of other flags.

Now let’s take a look at how the current Saint Paul flag stacks up.

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Saint Paul City Flag

  1. Keep it simple. The Saint Paul flag is relatively simple but still too cluttered and probably too complicated for a small child to draw. Flags are seen at a distance so having too many fine details is problematic because you really can’t see them when the flag is being flown anyway.
  2. Use meaningful symbolism. The Saint Paul flag is thoughtful about what important aspects of our city are included – a blue mid stripe representing the Mississippi River; a small cabin stands for Father Gaultier’s original St. Paul chapel; a dome represents Minnesota’s Capitol and a winged wheel indicates St. Paul’s position as a transportation hub. The flag also contains a star of the north, symbolic of Minnesota, and a red shield, representing the progress and spirit of the city, while gold stripes are symbolic of the future.
  3. Use 2 or 3 basic colors. This principle is definitely followed.
  4. No lettering or seals. Unlike the Minnesota flag, the Saint Paul flag doesn’t add it’s seal but does for some reason include the name of the city. Now to be fair, originally the flags designer Gladys Mittle, an art student at the College of St. Kate’s, did not include the name but if you have to put the name of your city on your flag you have failed.
  5. Be distinctive or related. The Saint Paul flag is fairly distinctive and gives a nod to the state of Minnesota through the north star.

Is our city flag utterly and completely hopeless? Not at all. But just like our city government it isn’t accessible either. Sure, folks like myself who pay attention to city politics and actively engage in them fly it, but do others? The answer is largely no. My own next door neighbor who has lived in Saint Paul for decades had no idea what it was for until I told her (even putting your name on a flag apparently doesn’t really help).

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(Redesign ideas by Joe Totten and Kevin Gallatin)

Great flag design encourages involvement and city pride and can connect us in ways most people don’t even think of. Mayor of South Bend Indiana Pete Buttigieg, a current presidential candidate, described their recent redesigned flag as an “appropriate exclamation point to the South Bend 150 celebration” and a “unifying symbol that let’s all of us, literally, wear our city pride on our sleeve”.

A great flag can stimulate a local economy, advertise a city all over the world and be a welcome sign to visitors and new residents. If our flag was great it wouldn’t require us to defend how great it was. It would be seen everywhere without much encouragement. Our flag is neither absolutely terrible or particularly great. Much like many aspects of our city, let’s take the good and strive to make it better, more inclusive, more accessible and something everyone, not just the few, feel proud of.

Brandon Long

About Brandon Long

Brandon moved to the Highland neighborhood with his wife in 2012 to begin his Master’s degree in Occupational Therapy at St. Kate’s. He began work at the Minnesota Autism Center as an occupational therapist in 2015. Brandon served as an elected At-Large board member of the Highland District Council on their engagement committee and helped found the neighborhood non-profit Sustain Ward 3. He currently works for the Union Park District Council.

18 thoughts on “The Case for a Saint Paul Flag Redesign

  1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    I think the current design is fine, personally. It looks better, too, if you use the “original” 1932 version that does have the text banner. The banner was added afterward by some unknown insecure individual at the Chamber of Commerce.

    For more on the history of the Saint Paul flag, check it out here:

    If you’d like to to buy one from me, you can do that here:

    saint paul flag without banner

  2. Matt SteeleMatt

    Everything can be improved. But if we’re going to improve a flag, please come help those of us in Minneapolis

  3. MPLSUrbanite

    Good read!

    MPLS resident here. The St Paul flag has a better design than the MPLS flag IMHO.

    One thing stuck out to me about your piece: “Great flag design encourages involvement and city pride and can connect us in ways most people don’t even think of.”

    Not sure how much city pride people have in Minnesota. When you ask someone where they’re from, they’re likely to say Minnesota, and maybe the Twin Cities, rarely Minneapolis or St Paul. Ask some from Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, etc and they’re likely to call out their city before they call out their state. Part of that may be a convenience thing; people aren’t great at geography so it’s easier to call out your state. Part of that may be that state pride is huge here, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

    Could a cool new flag spur more civic pride? Perhaps!
    Should you fly the flag as a means to spur more St Paul pride? Absolutely!

      1. Daniel ChomaDaniel Choma

        I personally think we should keep the state flag. It symbolizes ugly history, and ugly history gets waxed over and edited because we want to tell our kids that the future will be better than the past.

        It may be more realistic to tell our kids that the future will hold the same ugliness as the past in a different context and by informing them and educating them about history they will have the moral capacity to handle the ugliness of the future effectively.

        In the case of the state flag and seal which show the credit swaps that incentivized poor farmers to take land from the Dakota, I think it’s especially important to remember and commemorate. Since these events happened at the same time as the American Civil war, it’s always going to difficult to teach it in a classroom setting as historically important things were happening elsewhere so the tendency to focus on the Civil War and not the US Dakota War will always be there.

        An ugly flag to me is a necessary reminder of this ugly history as the flagpoles themselves are planted in land the natives never believed was meant to be owned in the first place.

        1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

          Disagree, Dan. Put it in a museum, sure, but these sorts of symbols (lots of other examples too) should not continue to be at the center of our shared identity.

        2. Andrew Evans

          Daniel, I completely agree with you and things like this serve as the spark that could ignite someone’s interest in our early history – which, at least to me, early American history was more interesting than I thought it would be. It was also less good/bad as I thought it would have been, there are many shades of grey that don’t get taught in high schools or even entry level college classes.

          That said I couldn’t care less about state or city flags. Shortly after the civil war people seemed to stop seeing themselves as a native to a state (i.e. country) and more of a American. I haven’t done research enough to pin it to something specific, but by WW1 and maybe by the Spanish American War, the army and troops were designated at a federal level (as in no 1st Minnesota, etc). At that point, to me, state flags stopped having as much meaning. Not that I’m a huge federalist, or libertarian, I don’t think 50 separate states is as practical as it once was, but I don’t see the use in states flags these days, or feel they instill as much as they once did. So maybe they are better off in a museum.

  4. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

    St. Paul’s flag is defensible without the text banner. What’s not defensible is the flag of the city of Minneapolis, nor the flag of the state of Minnesota.

    I really don’t understand why there isn’t more of a push to do better on either count. Surely everyone can agree that the current offerings are garbage. Pass a bill, start a contest, assemble a select committee, schedule a vote. Done, done, done.

  5. Ray Bell

    Jesus Brandon do some research. St Paul city Hall is also the Ramsey county courthouse. They have to have security.. If you want to volunteer in your community just contact your local city council rep and ask if you can be on a volunteer task force or citizen committee. You gotta put the work in man.

    1. Brandon LongBrandon Long

      Wait…is Jesus helping me with this research? Or is my first name Jesus now?

  6. Monte Castleman

    Removing the shield and name and making the star bigger would be a big improvement.

  7. St Paul guy

    Hey, those redesign images from Joe Totten and Kevin Gallatin are intriguing. Especially the diagonally striped one. It seems to follow the 5 design principles quite well.

    Bill L, feel like getting a diagonally striped St. Paul flag printed up? I’d buy one! 🙂

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