On Air
0:00
0:00
Open In Popup
MPR News

Replacing Rochester's city flag design may be harder than it sounds

Share story

The Rochester flag flies at the City/County Government Center.
The Rochester flag flies at the City/County Government Center on Feb. 26.
Jerry Olson for MPR News

Rochester is among at least 60 U.S. cities that are reconsidering their outdated flags, and the effort comes at a moment of historic change for the city. 

The city of 100,000 wants to transform — physically, culturally and economically — under the Destination Medical Center economic development effort. 

That means picking a new flag design may be a lot harder than scrapping the old one. Flags matter.

Skyline of downtown Rochester, Minn.
The skyline of downtown Rochester in 2013.
Alex Kolyer for MPR News 2013

"Sometimes I bring up the topic of flags and people are, like, 'I don't care about flags," said Roman Mars, the host of a popular design podcast called 99% Invisible. "And then we start talking about flags and trust me, everyone cares about flags. There's just something about them that works on our emotions."

There's little doubt that's true of Rochester's flag.

Gizmodo, a tech website, rated Rochester's as one of the ugliest city flags on the planet. (The Minneapolis flag made the list, too.)

The design dates back to 1980, when a first-year student at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design won the design contest sponsored by the city. 

"Rochester, Minn., has a variant of the standard poor flag design that we call an 'SOB' flag — Seal On a Bedsheet," said flag design expert Ted Kaye, who wrote the book "Good Flag, Bad Flag." 

Kaye said Rochester's current flag violates four out of five basic design principles.

The U.S., Minnesota and Rochester flags wave in Rochester.
The U.S., Minnesota and Rochester flags wave in an early spring breeze at Hazama Park in Rochester, Minn., on Feb. 26.
Jerry Olson for MPR News

1) Keep it simple

Rochester's flag is busy. It features the city's name, and an airborne trio of Canada geese with several Mayo Clinic buildings in the background.

 2) Use meaningful symbolism

The geese are a bit of a stumper as an emblem of Rochester. You find them everywhere, but people here certainly don't love waiting for geese that stop traffic, or scraping goose droppings off the bottoms of their shoes.

 3) Use two to three basic colors

The Rochester flag has at least five.

 4) No lettering or seals

Rochester's flag has both. The text font, called Data 70, is a shout out to the other big business in town, IBM. The lettering looks like what you find along the bottom edge of a check. 

Rochester mayor Ardell Brede displays the city flag in his office.
Rochester mayor Ardell Brede displays the city flag in his office on Feb. 28.
Jerry Olson for MPR News

So, those are the four broken rules. Here's the one Kaye gives Rochester a passing grade on:

 5) Be distinctive or be related

Kaye said Rochester's flag contains symbols that you don't see on other flags, but that are like other flags, including Minnesota's.

Local photographer Shawn Fagan is among those pushing for an update. He hopes a new design will spark some enthusiasm for the city, which is trying to shed a reputation for being boring. 

"I'm incredibly jealous of somewhere like a Chicago, because you walk around and you see people with tattoos of the Chicago flag on their arms," Fagan said. "It's unreal. Let's get excited about where we are from."

Fagan says Rochester's flag should reflect the fact that the city is more than the home of the Mayo Clinic and a waning outpost for IBM. He plans to participate in the redesign process and will likely seek wisdom from Rochester's local flag expert, Lee Herold, the owner of Herold Flags and Flag Poles.

Lee Herold, owner of Herold Flags in Rochester
Lee Herold, owner of Herold Flags in Rochester, has thousands of flags in his shop.
Jerry Olson for MPR News

Herold is also the secretary for the North American Vexillological Association. Vexillology is the scientific study of flags. Who knew?

Herold says scenery is less important than identity in a flag design. 

"Just a pastoral scene doesn't generally make the best flag. You want something that really strikes more to heart," Herold said. "When people see it, they say, 'Yes. That's us.'"

But the "us" that is Rochester is in flux and difficult to define right now.

The Destination Medical Center economic development agency is trying to attract new development and workers to the city. At the same time, the Convention and Visitors Bureau wants to give the city a new brand identity. And there's some chafing locally over the question of who benefits from all these changes. Is it Rochester's residents or the millions who visit each year?

There's also no guarantee that the city council will adopt a new flag just because they are presented with new designs.

That's where flag expert Kaye has more advice for Rochester. He said that flag design can get political, so it's best to make sure key city leaders are on board with the idea before starting the design process.

"Changing the flag design is the easy part. Getting that flag adopted is the hard part," he said.

As Roman Mars says, everyone cares about flags.

Correction (March 6, 2017): An earlier version of this story misnamed the goose in Rochester's flag. It is a Canada goose, not a Canadian goose. The story has been updated.