For those who are not familiar with Tulsa’s flag, it consists of the city’s seal over a white background. Such a design is too common in the United States. About half of the state flags consist of a symbol, usually the state seal, over a blue background. The repetition is boring and makes it more difficult to distinguish between different flags.
Considering that being a clear symbol of something is the whole point of a flag, the similarity is a problem. Also, putting a seal on the flag violates some of the basic principles of vexillology, the study of flags.
According to the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA), flags should follow five basic principles: 1) they should be simple enough to draw it from memory, 2) they should have meaningful symbolism, 3) they should only have a few colors, 4) there should be no lettering or seals and 5) they should be distinctive or clearly related (think of the Nordic countries).
The reasons for most of these basic principles are fairly obvious, or at least should be. (Considering how many states use the seal over a blue background, perhaps distinctiveness is not an obvious goal). But anyway, it might not be immediately apparent why seals and writing are such bad things to put on a flag. If a flag is supposed to clearly represent a particular place, writing “City of Tulsa Oklahoma,” which is on the flag as a part of the seal, will make it perfectly clear what the flag is supposed to represent.
A 2004 report from NAVA ranking the flags of 150 American cities explains why seals and writing are bad. The first reason is that “A flag is a graphic symbol, not a verbal display.” Basically, putting letters on a flag entirely defeats the purpose.
As NAVA’s official report on flag design puts it, “one might simply write the name of a country or location on a white sheet and wave it around.” Secondly, “Lettering is nearly impossible to read from a distance, hard to sew, and difficult to reduce to lapel-pin size.”
Think of the flags of the United States, the United Kingdom or France. All of those flags are extremely easy to recognize even at a distance because of their iconic designs. If the words on a flag are all that distinguish it from others, it will be useless at a distance.
There is one other reason NAVA notes for not putting words on a flag. “Words are not reversible.” This means that flag manufacturers are left with two options: they can either make a flag that has one side backwards, or they can make the flag double-sided. The former is obviously not a good choice, and the latter increases the costs of manufacturing.
So how did Tulsa do in NAVA’s ranking, with its seal and white background? It scored 124 out of 150. Now, there is one caveat in that ranking — it was determined through an Internet survey. However, that is not enough reason to disregard the survey. It was posted only on websites for flag enthusiasts, but more importantly, the principles of flag design are based on simple aesthetics. Does one really need to know a lot about vexillology in order to know that the flags of Washington, DC (#1) and St. Louis (#5), which have distinctive and pleasing designs, are superior to the flag of Pocatello (#150), which literally has a copyright notice on the flag itself?
Luckily, there is a campaign starting to get Tulsa’s flag changed so it no longer has the seal on it. According to the Tulsa World, the campaign is being led by two residents named Jacob Johnson and Joey Wignarajah. Part of the reason they’re wanting to change the flag is that Tulsa restricts the use of the city’s seal, so using the flag in memorabilia is legally questionable.
The campaign will be conducted online and with private money. Their website is tulsaflag.com. They plan on taking suggestions through November, designing in December, voting on designs in February and presenting the winner to the City Council in March or April. The public should keep in mind the five principles of flag design while recommending and voting on the new flag.