Calling all vexillologists (or artists): Please design a new and better city flag

I was sitting at my desk last week looking out the window, because part of the job of writing is looking out the window, and my eyes stumbled upon the Long Beach flag, along with the beautiful California flag and the American flag, which has inspired plenty of laudatory and florid odes. And it struck me how hideous the Long Beach flag looks, especially when flown alongside, though never as high as, the two superior flags.

Do you even know that Long Beach has a flag? Do you know what it looks like? Would you wear a Long Beach flag T-shirt, if anyone was in such a hurry to take a financial bloodbath to manufacture such a thing? Maybe. Maybe you would if you wanted to win an ugly T-shirt contest or want to go trick-or-treating as a walking business card for a mid-1960s-era public administrator.

Trash-talking about the Long Beach flag gets easier if you can turn your eyes away from the horror for a moment to check out its dubious and immensely uninspired history. I think I could go unchallenged if I said never was less effort put into the design of a flag.

In the early 1960s, it was determined that Long Beach needed a flag and the city held several design contests, with submissions coming in from area artists and other creative types, but city administrators didn’t like, or couldn’t agree, on any particular design.

Eventually, perhaps growing tired of the chore, it was decided to just swipe the Port of Long Beach’s flag, which was designed in 1964 by Harbor Department Director of Administration Al Maddy who was, demonstrably, not an artist.

The port’s logo was removed and the city seal of Long Beach was inserted in its place, and the port’s name was deleted and replaced with the words “City of Long Beach, the International City.” Boom. Done. Approved in 1967. People put more thought into what kind of potato chips to buy with their lunch, and those decisions are never as aesthetically disastrous.

Port of Long Beach flag, the “inspiration” for the Long Beach city flag.

Roman Mars, the producer and host of the 99% Invisible podcast, gave a remarkable TED talk in 2015 called “Why City Flags May Be the Worst-Designed Thing You’ve Never Seen,” in which the design buff discussed vexillology, the study of flags. He made a couple of sort of wry observations that could pertain to Long Beach’s flag. “Good design and democracy don’t go together,” and “If you have to write the name of your city (on its flag), your symbolism has failed.”

Perhaps the most renowned vexillologist in the country is Edward Kaye, who wrote the bible on flag design, “‘Good’ Flag, ‘Bad’ Flag: How to Design a Great Flag,” and it’s just a 16-page bible that you and our current city leaders can download for free. It includes five basic rules for a great flag, most of which were not considered by the pencil-pushing designer of the Port of Long Beach flag, and by dint of vexillological plagiarism, the Long Beach flag.

  1. Keep it simple. While the Long Beach flag isn’t overly complicated, it’s got too much stuff on it to be termed “simple.” The flag of Japan is simple. The flag of Switzerland is simple. Most vexillologists have no quarrel with the majority of national flags, but the farther down the hierarchy you go, the worse the flags become.
  2. Use meaningful symbolism. The American flag is rife with symbolism. The Long Beach flag has a bit as well: The blue symbolizes the Pacific Ocean; the white symbolizes clean air (there is room for bickering there) and the yellow symbolizes the sand on our stretch of beach.
  3. Use two or three basic colors. Yellow, white and blue. Three. Check, but there are a bunch more on the incorporated city seal, about which more in just a second.
  4. No lettering or seals. D’oh! Delete the city seal and the verbiage altogether on the city flag and now you’re getting somewhere with a simple and nearly elegant swirl of yellow, white and blue. But city leaders everywhere like to hit people over the head with a chatter of words, whereas national flags tend to keep their vexillological mouths shut.
  5. Be distinctive. Except in a good way. Both Roman Mars and Ted Kaye are enthusiastic fans of the flag of Chicago, as are residents of that city, where the flag is flown everywhere and Windy citizens are proud wearers of T-shirts bearing their flag. As Mars says, “if you see your own city flag, like it, fly it, but if you don’t maybe it doesn’t exist, or  maybe it does and it just sucks.”

The incorporation of the city seal is perhaps the most egregious design flaw in our flag. The North American Vexillological Association in 2004 ranked the flags of 150 U.S. cities and Long Beach came in at No. 90, and most of the cities below it on the list also incorporated, or used solely, their city seal.

Long Beach’s seal, adopted in 1931, is a problem all by itself, with more than two dozen elements crammed inside a circle, dominated by a way overdressed and somewhat zaftig Queen of the Beaches. Elsewhere, there are such long-departed or outdated fixtures of the town, including the Rainbow Pier, the Municipal Auditorium, a tri-motor airplane, the motto Urbs Amicitiae (the Friendly City), and a grab bag of miscellaneous items: a bear, a cornucopia, some factories spewing smog, and an Aladdin’s lamp perched on a book.

City of Long Beach seal.

The 1931 seal was itself an update from the city’s original seal, which was described in a 1920 cry for an update as “showing a little platform sticking out in the water with a boat apparently about to run into it.”

Obsolescence and progress are the bane of city seals. There was a movement afoot to update our current seal in 1958, but that, too, would’ve been outlived by the city by now as its proponents back then suggested it include a Douglas “plane of the future” (Douglas was bought by Boeing in 1997 and Boeing’s last C-17 flew off in 2015), the USS Long Beach atomic cruiser (decommissioned in 1995), and a nod to the Miss Universe Pageant (which left for Miami after the 1959 contest).

City seals work fine on the sides of city vehicles, three-ring binders, letterhead or windbreakers, but they’ve got no place on a fluttering flag, and a redesign, which is sorely needed for our city’s flag, should not include one.

There’s a lot of Long Beach residents’ minds these days regarding change as we struggle into an unsettling, uncertain future, and to ease that journey by making changes for the better—and that’s everything from taking a hard look at who we’ve been honoring with our schools’ names to reforms in government and policing.

Long Beach will emerge from the current waves of anger and protest, just as it will also, somehow, emerge from the ravages of the pandemic, a city different in ways that are impossible to imagine.

The only thing certain is change, and a new flag and, possibly, a new seal are things that should change as well, if for no other reason than to reflect what it is when we think about all that’s good with Long Beach, its people, its heritage, its industry, its beaches and everything else we’d like people, whether they’re residents or visitors, to think about our city.

That’s a lot to consider and I don’t mean to clutter up the flag again. Good design doesn’t mean dumping all of the above into a flag. Keep it simple and beautiful, because Long Beach, for all its faults, is still a beautiful city, and it will still be beautiful after our recent historical and ongoing troubles, and it deserves a flag that symbolizes the fact.

If you have ideas for a design that would make a (much) better flag or seal for Long Beach, the Post would love to see them. And we’ll make sure the right people see the best ones. You can email your designs to me at [email protected], or send them by mail to Long Beach Post, 211 E. Ocean Blvd., Suite 400, Long Beach, CA 90802.

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.
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