Take a good long look at the state flag of Nebraska, everyone.
Mark well its concentric circles crowded with golden text, its deep blue background, its central scene busy with contrasting colors. Then, reflect on this crucial question: Would you even be able to tell the difference if it were flying upside-down?
Apparently state lawmakers couldn't. In fact, for a span of 10 days earlier this year, not a single visitor to the Nebraska Capitol noticed that the flag had been hoisted upside down — not even state Sen. Burke Harr, who related the story in January.
"It took someone drawing it to my attention before it was changed," he told the Legislature's Executive Board in January, according to the Omaha World-Herald.
An awkward situation, to be sure — but the flap over the flag also drew his attention to something else: Is the official flag really such a muddle that the average observer can't tell its top from its bottom?
The question alone stirred uncomfortable doubts for Harr, who says it doesn't have to be this way. Or, as he phrased it in the legislative resolution he introduced earlier this year, "the possibility of a better-designed, more iconic Nebraska flag exists."
He called for a 10-member task force to "develop a recommendation for the design of a new flag for the State of Nebraska which conforms to the flag design principles of established vexillologic organizations."
And to gin up a few credible alternatives, he partnered with flag experts at the North American Vexillological Association — who, by the way, conducted a 2001 poll panning Nebraska's flag as the second-worst in the U.S. and Canada — and Skillshare, a New York-based online learning community.
Together, the group pulled together some guidelines on what would make for a good flag — both for Nebraska and in general — and they put out a call to Skillshare's users earlier this summer: Can you design a flag that is better than the one that is flying now?
"It's not about 'does this look cool' or 'is this a fun idea,' but actually does it represent the spirit of the people of Nebraska? Does it represent their history?" Alyssa Demirjian, Skillshare's director of content and partnerships, tells NPR. "I would be looking for something that is unique and memorable and reproducible, so that the flag can become part and parcel of the life of the state."
She says they received around 40 submissions before the deadline Thursday — roughly a dozen of which they passed along to Harr's office for consideration. Harr has said he will deliberate and "select the best designs to incorporate into his ongoing campaign."
Now, Nebraska's is not the only state flag that has been the subject of dispute in recent years. Violence in Charlottesville, Va., earlier this month renewed a debate in Mississippi over whether its flag's incorporation of a Confederate symbol is appropriate. And Georgia — which edged out Nebraska for absolute worst in that 2001 survey — redesigned its own flag after a campaign to remove its own Confederate symbols.
Some have argued against the change to Nebraska's flag, saying that the proposed redesign would be too costly and that it's better, in state Sen. Steve Erdman's words, to "continue to honor the Nebraska State flag, which was designed by our forefathers back in 1925."
Still, Demirjian maintains that a redesign is in keeping with a state's changing understanding of itself.
"Design is very much like language, in that it will evolve over time as our society and our contexts change," she says. "Something like updating a flag to represent what a community is like right now — it's not meant in any way to replace or gloss over their history, but rather gesture to it and make a connection to where we are right now."
Below, you'll find four of the submissions Skillshare passed along to Harr's office, along with the designers' reasons behind the symbols they chose.
Catherine O'Brien's submission:
"The colors represent the sky, land and sun, symbolizing the openness of the Great Plains, as well as a similar tone to the previous flag, a nod to our history as a state. The two overlapping circles symbolize the community that permeates all throughout the state's citizens. The green lines represent our strong agriculture background."
Jeni Paltiel's submission:
"The line across the center of the flag traces the curve of the Platte [River] across the state, creating a yellow bottom half of the flag that echoes the rolling Sandhills, fields of goldenrod and prairie grass waving in the breeze. The top half is the wide blue sky I remember from my childhood, so big you could watch cloud shadows pass for miles across the open land. The design has a graceful sense of motion that conveys the flowing Platte and Missouri rivers, the wind rippling a field of wheat, and the movement of pioneers and progress. This flag retains the blue and gold color scheme of the current flag, updated with more modern versions of the colors."
Paul Weber's submission:
"Nebraska is a flyover state, we know that. We're really proud of that too. No one comes here in the hopes of making it big. The people who live here, live here because they want to have a good life through hard work. The pall in this flag is a stylization of the Platte River, and its two main tributaries which flow through Nebraska. The name comes from the French for flat, because it is a really wide shallow river. It has a similarly wide, flat flood plain. This flood plain has been instrumental in Nebraska history. The Mormon and Oregon trails followed the banks of the Platte, as do the transcontinental railroad, the Lincoln Highway and Interstate 80. All the people who wanted to get rich quick on the West Coast used the Oregon Trail and the transcontinental railroad to get there. Everyone who was content to live a simple life settled in Nebraska to live an agricultural life. Even while much of our population lives in cities now, agriculture is the backbone of our economy, and the spirit of those pioneers still lives in us today. So I made the field of my flag gold, to represent the wealth that our agriculture brings us. I decided to make the Pall red, because red is the color of Nebraska football, and our state was actually named after the river, although the state got the Otoe name (which translates to 'wide flat river') and the river got the French name."
Chris Lampe's submission:
"This flag design has a white background with red and black stripes and a dark gold five-pointed star in the center. The colors were inspired by the Omaha, Ponca and Arapaho tribal flags, (they also happen to be the same colors used by the Maryland state flag). The white background signifies the establishment of Nebraska as a free territory and a legacy untarnished by slavery. Black parallel bars represent the railroad and Nebraska's role in the nation's expansion west. The red stripes acknowledge the sacrifices made by those who settled here and the cost to those who were displaced. A single five-pointed star represents the uniquely Nebraskan way forward — the nation's only unicameral state legislature. The star is in gold like the dome of the Capitol building and the gold color also represents the role corn plays in the state's history. The stripes give the flag an east-to-west orientation, echoing the state's borders. The white background is wide and open, emulating the geography of Nebraska's Great Plains. Using the same symbol that represents Nebraska on the Flag of the United States, the five-pointed star links Nebraska with the rest of the nation. The star is located in the center of the flag, just as Nebraska is located near the center of the contiguous United States. This design is simple and distinctive while still fitting in along side some of the most envied state flags in the country. It is a timeless design that will never become dated. It grows on you. Of all the designs I've tried, this is the one I kept coming back to. It feels more and more like Nebraska every time you see it."
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