Close your eyes.
Can you picture the flag of the City of Memphis?
Did you come up with anything? Did you even know that the city has a flag?
In some places, municipal flags grace t-shirts, bumper stickers, and koozies. Flags are marketing masterpieces for places like Denver, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. Citizens embrace them; visitors seek out souvenirs emblazoned with them. Not so in Memphis.
There are five basic rules of flag design, as compiled by Ted Kayne, a former editor for the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA). Vexillology is the study of the history, symbolism, and usage of flags. While Memphis’s flag follows some of these principles, it boldly breaks with others.
One: Keep it simple.
Flags are meant to be easily recognizable while flying or hanging limp from a pole, hanging downward, displayed with other flags, enlarged, or miniaturized. They should be so simple that, in Kayne’s words, “a child can draw it from memory.” Memphis’s flag has the bones of simplicity with its colored blocks, but the city seal considerably heightens the complexity. In comparison, the State of Tennessee’s tri-star flag meets this requirement, with its small number of large shapes, bold and limited colors, and distinctive placement of elements.
Two: Use meaningful symbolism.
Take another look at the flag and note the angle of the line dividing the white portion from the blue and red areas. It is roughly equivalent to the angle at which the Mississippi River runs along the Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi borders. The location of the seal at the intersection of the colored portions of the flag mirrors the location of Memphis at the meeting point of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas (red, blue, and white, respectively).
For symbols to be meaningful, they must resonate with the people they aim to represent. Memphis’s status as a major distribution hub has been an important source of income for its residents, and even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic. The city’s location along I-40 and I-55, the distribution facilities at the industrial port on Presidents Island, the FedEx Express World Hub, and the railroad intermodal facilities mean that planes, trains, barges, and trucks are constantly moving through the city, and the Mid-South in general.
Three: Use 2 or 3 basic colors.
White, red, blue, yellow, and black are all considered basic colors. It is also important to separate dark and light colors to create effective contrast. The original city ordinance adopting this flag called for white lettering on the gold seal. Since people could not easily make out the white on yellow due to poor contrast, commissioners changed the lines to black; this change became official in the City Code of 1967.
Four: No lettering or seals.
This rule is the one Memphis’s flag most flagrantly violates. The city seal itself has its own interesting history. E.A. Bushnell created the first seal, which included symbols for the lumber industry, trains, and industrialization, in 1909. The City Council adopted the current seal, drawn by architect Alfred Lewis Aydelott, in 1967. This seal features an oak leaf to reference the hardwood industry, a cogwheel and cotton boll to symbolize Memphis’s role as a major cotton market, and a steamboat to represent the Mississippi River and the port.
Interesting history notwithstanding, the seal has no place on the municipal flag. It is too hard to read a seal when a flag is flying or miniaturized. Better to take a symbol from the seal and use it as a stylized symbol (see rule one).
Additionally, as historian Wayne Dowdy stated in 2019, “…it could be said that the seal does not reflect how far Memphis has come economically and socially.” The river is still economically important to the city, but cotton and hardwood are no longer at the center of the city’s economy.
Five: Be distinctive or be related.
Good designs recall or reference other flags through their symbols, colors, and shapes, without duplication. The Memphis flag echoes the Tennessee flag by utilizing the same colors. No complaints there.
The City of Memphis flag follows some, but clearly not all, of these rules. In 2004, NAVA members ranked Memphis’s flag 54 out of 150 municipal flags. On a 0-10 scale, the flag scored a 4.56 – .29 points behind Nashville. By comparison, the top ranked flag scored a 9.17 (Washington, D.C.) and the lowest scored a dismal 1.48 (Pocatello, Idaho).
The elements of a striking municipal flag exist in our current one: it has geographic symbolism, a basic color scheme, and strikes the balance of recalling the state flag while remaining distinct. What it lacks is a unifying symbol to replace the seal.
This issue strikes at a larger question: how do Memphians define ourselves? After radio host Roman Mars described their terrible flag, citizens of Pocatello, Idaho, took the opportunity to start the process of designing a new flag. Along the way, they defined their civic culture and had important conversations about their community’s legacies and opportunities.
In his TED Talk, Roman Mars stated, “A great city flag represents its city to its people, and its people to the world at large.” Memphis could use new symbols; ones that acknowledge our history, while recognizing the significant changes that have taken place. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time we’ve redefined ourselves. The original seal stood for 53 years. The current seal and flag have been around for 54.
Fifty years is a good run. It’s time to ask who we are now.
Caroline Mitchell Carrico is a native Memphian and the Manager of Programs at StoryBoard Memphis. She enjoys researching the city’s past and pulling it into the present. When she isn’t reading and writing, she can often be found cheering on her kids’ soccer teams.