Sunday, March 13th, 2011

Civic Iconography Done Right – Chicago’s City Flag

I’ve written on a number of occasions on why cities should look to strengthen their visual identity and distinctive character using civic icons or images that can provide a powerful graphical or design representation of the city. For example, I wrote about I wrote about how London’s use of its civic icons – it’s red buses, black cabs, bobby uniforms, phone booths, and tube logo – had assumed an almost totemistic stature there.

In the United States, I’d have to rate Chicago far and away #1 in the use of official civic symbols (maybe the best in the world for all I know), and also note the overall high level of design quality of these objects. Today I want to focus on one particular aspect of this, the city flag and its uses.

The city flag is pictured at the top. I included a border on the image because of the white field. This was rated as the #2 city flag in America by the North American Vexillological Association after Washington, DC. I actually like Chicago’s better, because the aggressive asymmetry of DC’s flag is a bit off-putting to me.

The Chicago flag is also highly symbolic. The two blue stripes symbolize the cities waterways – the top Lake Michigan and the North Branch of the Chicago River, the bottom the South Branch and the I&M Canal – while the three resulting white stripes represent the North, West, and South Sides of the city. The stars also symbolize various things. There were originally only two stars, with the others added later, and there are periodic calls to add a fifth star, though four seems about right to me.

If you come to Chicago you’ll notice that the city flag is ubiquitous. In fact, the first place you notice it is when you arrive at O’Hare, where you see a large row of huge alternating US and Chicago flags at the roadway leading into the terminal. You’ll notice that the Illinois flag is missing. Illinois has, like most states, a lousy flag. While you see it at government buildings and around downtown, it is much more rare than Chicago’s own flag, giving what I think is a powerful sense of how the city likes to think of itself as a standalone entity in its state and region. (The contrast with Indianapolis is an interesting one. Indy also has a fabulous city flag, but one much more rarely used. And despite Indiana also having a somewhat dubious state flag, it is much more common to see in Indy than the city’s own flag. Of course, it is the state capital as well, but I don’t think that is the full explanation).

Here’s a picture of the bridge over Michigan Ave, featuring bold use of flags:

One thing that sets Chicago apart is not just the city’s own use of the flag, but its widespread adoption by others. Here’s one flying over the entrance to Marshall Fields on State St.

An office building Michigan Ave. This will mark our last appearance of the Illinois state flag, so let’s wave goodbye to it.

This extends far beyond downtown, however. Here’s a bank in West Lakeview:

Even this Irish bar on Southport couldn’t resist getting into the act:

But what really puts Chicago into a class by itself is the way that the city and its citizens have embraced the flag imagery to infuse into the design of other objects, and even sometimes themselves.

First the city. Here’s Chicago’s police car livery, which is based on the city flag. It’s also one of the finest police car liveries in the world. I’m not sure how far back this dates, but it’s as least as far the Blues Brothers movie. I don’t recognize the font (though I’m sure someone will post it about 5 seconds), but I love its aggressive blockiness that is perfect for the City of Big Shoulders:

There’s an actual city flag in gold trim near the rear of the blue stripe if you look. When you contrast more current designs with this classic, you can see that in Chicago, as in any number of cities, quality of public design has actually declined in some regards.

Here’s someone who did their bicycle up in city flag style:

Both the Sun-Times and the Red Eye (a free daily distributed by the Tribune) used the city flag for their election day issues:

Local bookmark sharing site the Windy Citizen uses the city flag as the basis for its site design:

If you’ll note the social media sharing icons at the bottom of this post, the one that enables submitting to Windy Citizen is a star from the city flag.

You can even buy Chicago flag soap:

Sorry, I don’t have a link to where you can buy this, but again, I’m sure one will be forthcoming from a commenter.

Here’s one even I think it a little crazy. People are starting to tattoo themselves with the city flag. Here’s a picture of local mixologist Charles Joly I found via the 312 Dining Diva.

I’ve personally seen multiple people in my neighborhood with city flag tattoos on their arms. Talk about pride and loyalty. But I guess that level of fanaticism is what Chicago has managed to inspire.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Civic Branding, Urban Culture
Cities: Chicago

42 Responses to “Civic Iconography Done Right – Chicago’s City Flag”

  1. Anna Brawley says:

    Great post, and very true! I was telling someone (not from the Midwest) the other day about how visible Chicago’s flag is, and even having been a resident for 3 years I had no idea what the Illinois flag even looked like. Being from Columbus Ohio, I appreciated seeing a distinct, recognizable, colorful flag.

    Two more instances of the Chicago flag being appropriated by well-known local institutions:
    Gapers Block (with black and red instead):
    Intelligentsia’s flag diner mug:

  2. Anna Brawley says:

    … And I think if Chicago had gotten the Olympics, it definitely would have warranted a fifth star, although you’re right that four is better.

  3. Matthew says:

    Great post–I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on Chicago’s city branding on a national or international level.

    The Obama campaign’s head designer took part in a London identity contest that produced some interesting results, despite being not selected. Linked here:

  4. Matthew says:

    Also reminds me of the only mention of Chicago I’ve seen in Monocle–in their city rankings issue. They had heard great things but when you look at the murder rate, there’s not much more to say.

  5. Jason Stokes says:

    This is very common in St. Louis as well. I, among several others I know, have a St. Louis flag tattoo. It’s prominently displayed around the city, and has similar iconography as the Chicago flag.

  6. Jason Stokes says:

    Let’s try that link again (though that Beatles video is rather funny)

  7. Michael says:

    Less well known but also interesting is the Chicago Municipal Device.

    Noticed it around the city for a while before I knew exactly what is was.


  8. DBR96A says:

    It sort of reminds me about how the prominent color scheme in Pittsburgh is black and gold. The city’s flag has two vertical black fields on both sides of a gold field featuring the city’s seal. The Pittsburgh Police have adopted the color scheme as well, and as we all know, the city’s sports teams — the Steelers, Pirates and Penguins — all sport the colors as well. This guy is wearing a Kris Letang (#58) jersey and waving a Terrible Towel at the 2011 NHL Winter Classic at Heinz Field. If he was wearing a Pirates hat, he’d complete the black-and-gold trifecta of Pittsburgh sports. The city’s prevailing color scheme also got a major publicity boost in the last few months, with rapper Wiz Khalifa releasing a song called “Black And Yellow,” which is basically a Pittsburgh anthem that became an unofficial Steelers anthem during football season as well. (OK, so the “gold” in Pittsburgh’s prevailing color scheme is really a yellowish-gold color.) The video does a good job as well, with several city shots of Pittsburgh, plus a group of people waving Terrible Towels near the end. “Black And Yellow” actually spent one week at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 last month, probably assisted by the Steelers’ appearance in Super Bowl XLV.

  9. William says:

    Chicago does not stand out for the fact that the citizens have embraced it’s iconography, there’s certainly other cities (like St. Louis) that exhibit a similar pride. The difference with Chicago is the powerful way the great iconography meshes with the epic scale, power, and pride of the city.

  10. John says:

    Great post. The soap, and some great art prints of the Chicago stars from the flag, can be found at:

    The flag and its stars have an interesting history, tied to a design contest originally. And the stars are unique, a true “Chicago Star” design, with angles for the points different than any other out there (despite teh fact that you sometimes see other 6-pointed stars substituted for the official design).

  11. Evan Summers says:

    I have always noted the prevalence of the Chicago flag tattoo. I’ve met everyone from CPD officers with the flag tattooed onto their chest on to the ubiquitous Chicago bike messenger with the flag wrapping their calf.

    There is a legend that Warren Buffett once said a key point to his acquisition of Harley-Davidson was due to brand recognition; stating something to the effect of “I like any brand where its customers tattoo the logo onto their body.”

    If Warren is buying Harley stock for the long term, I’m buying Chicago stock.

  12. Tom says:

    Take a look at the symbol of Madrid, Spain. It’s seen everywhere. Police car doors, on the door of the all white taxis, buses, the flag. It’s a bear climbing a strawberry tree (there’s a story) Classico.

  13. Tim G says:

    The CTA’s logo appears to be based on the same color scheme. It’s displayed prominently on the new 5000-series ‘L’ cars that are coming into service.

  14. Roland S says:

    ^^ I don’t think CTA’s color choices come from the city flag (although it would be cool if they did). The blue is not the light sky blue of the city flag, but a darker more intense blue, and the red seems a little paler.

    I think CTA’s color scheme was implemented in 1976 for the bicentennial (until 1995 or so, all railcars were red/white/blue) and while the logos/fonts/signage have been updated since then, the colors have not.

    I’m actually considering getting a tattoo based on the city flag. It’s the only design I’ve entertained for more than a few weeks. (If I still want it in 9 months, I’m getting it)

  15. Alex B. says:

    DC’s flag is just as ubiquitous these days in the District.

    You may not like the flag’s design, Aaron, but it has plenty of precedent – it’s based on the Coat of Arms of George Washington.

  16. Erik W says:

    While I like the topic and the concept of cities embracing iconography to enhance their brand and identity, the subjectivity and general inanity of the claim that Chicago does it best is underscored by this sentence:

    It’s also one of the finest police car liveries in the world.

    Really? You may travel a lot Aaron, but that’s a pretty ridiculous claim!

  17. Matt says:

    Speaking of the awfulness of the IL flag (gotta love the puking eagle and clipart graphics)- apparently Wallace Rice (same guy who designed the Chicago flag) created a variation for the state’s centennial, which is also brilliantly simple and iconic. Check it out here:

    They need to bring that back, stat.

  18. Neil says:

    I think you can buy the bike too from Roscoe Village bikes, though I don’t see anything on their website about it. I haven’t lived near there in a long time, but I seem to remember them touting them as custom built bikes.

  19. Aaron Brown says:

    I also love how the flag is taken and incorporated by local businesses into their logos. A great example is Goose Island, which includes this flag on all pint glasses at their brewpub:

  20. Wad says:

    Pro wrestler CM Punk wears the Chicago stars of his hometown on his trunks and boots.

    For a second, I thought it was him in the bartender photo.

  21. The typeface on the police car looks a lot like Eurostile to me, one of my favorites!

  22. I just got to give a shout out for the Flag of….Maryland.

  23. Paul says:

    I know it is en vogue to trash and/or marginalize the City of Detroit, but you obviously have not seen its flag. It is far more iconographic of a city’s history than Chicago’s city flag.

  24. John Morris says:

    Let’s compare for a moment how well known the Pittsburgh Steelers logo (which is actually the US Steel logo)is with Chicago’s flag.

    Perhaps 15% of Americans would identify the Chicago flag, while over 85% would know the Steelers logo and connect it with Pittsburgh. Likewise with the Back and Yellow, color combo.

    Only the Texas star and perhaps the California Bear flags are known better.

  25. Vin says:

    Yeah, I think you can take this one a little too far. This seems like the sort of symbol that insiders – Chicagoans – get, but few others do. I had never heard of nor noticed nor seen the Chicago flag until I lived there, and when I moved back to NYC, I promptly forgot about it again until this post reminded me. There are far, far more potent symbols of Chicago than the flag.

    That said, I’ve lived in NYC for 25 of my 26 years and I had to Google its’ flag (and once I saw it, I thought “oh yeah, that thing” – it’s not bad, but not great). So I’d guess branding success is relative.

  26. John Morris says:

    Same here. I have seen this flag, but didn’t quickly identify it with Chicago.

    IMHO, there is something a little wrong about that flag for Chicago. The simplicity is nice–but the red star in the U.S. is very much connected with Texas. I know these are different stars, but it still reads wrong.

    Also the baby type Blue just doesn’t connect well with “the city of broad shoulders”.

    To me, the strong colors used by the Chicago Bears and Bulls-fit the image better.

    For most people–the sports team logo’s are the single biggest urban brands.

  27. John Morris says:

    Blue and Red, particularly in the U.S. are generic colors and hard to create particular images with.

    Black and Yellow/Black and Gold is a combination not seen all the time.

  28. John Morris says:

    Pittsburgh used to have a Chicago style hot dog place downtown. The owner used Bears and Bulls logo’s to link it to Chicago.He clearly felt people would not know the Chicago city flag here.

  29. AF says:

    @ Paul, 8:48am

    Detroit’s flag certainly crams a lot more info in than Chicago’s, but that’s the problem. A good iconic flag should be simple enough to draw from memory. That is one of the first principles of good, bold design. No one is going to sit down and draw the Motor City’s flag from memory, incorporate it into their business logo, or get it tattooed on their person.

    Inclusion of the coat-of-arms is one of the worst and most common mistakes in flag design.

    For the record, I think the two best state flags, the ones that stand out from the field of drab coat-of-arms, are Colorado and Arizona.

  30. John Morris says:

    I do like Maryland’s flag. Also, the basic design and color scheme of Pittsburgh’s city flag are easily remembered.

  31. Dan J says:

    Here’s a Chicago-area hip-hop artist wearing a U.S. flag shirt drawing all flag elements from corresponding parts of the Chicago flag.

  32. Thanks for all the great discussion.

    One thing I’d add is that it isn’t necessary for the use of things like flag to carry external branding presence. They strengthen that subtle sense of a particular place when you visit whether you knew about them before or not.

  33. Chris Barnett says:

    John Morris, I almost wrote the exact same line about the medium blue paired with white edge stripes in the Chicago flag: not a good look for The City of Broad Shoulders.

    AF, I agree with you about Colorado but would put New Mexico and Alaska in the top three US state flags for both simplicity and branding. Maryland gets a runner-up spot for boldness.

    Colorado’s flag is just plain bold, good design. New Mexico and Alaska’s flags send a clear message about who and where they are as states. Maryland’s take on “coat of arms” is hands-down the best Euro heraldry-based flag in the US, way better than the couple of dozen boring state flags made up of “shields on a field”.

  34. John Morris says:

    This should lead to a post about sports logo’s which are in most cases the defacto flags of cities most people know.

    For example, I have no idea what the flag of Los Angeles is but if I see purple with gold, I think LA.

    Again, it wasn’t entirely a planned act of branding, but the strong connection of black and yellow with Pittsburgh is known everywhere.

    I also, don’t know what New Orleans city flag looks like but the Saints,fleur-de-lis is a strong, well known logical city brand.

  35. Jean-Luc says:

    Here’s the city of Los Angeles flag:

    But a far more potent symbol of LA that you see everywhere in the city is definitely this:

  36. John Morris says:

    Outside LA, I really think the Lakers are what most people know. The team projects a certain Hollywood star, LA style.

  37. Jason Tinkey says:

    Didn’t expect to see a shot of Charles Joly on here! Super nice guy, and mixes a mean cocktail, to boot.

  38. MetroCard says:

    How about you do an article about major cities that don’t see themselves as stand-alone entities, like Indy?

    You raised a good point about the strength of civic pride; now go ahead and expand on cities with an obvious lack of city pride.

  39. MetroCard, I don’t see “pride” and “standalone” as necessarily related attributes. Indy is not a standalone city in that it clearly sees itself anchored in Indiana and the Midwest. Chicago doesn’t really see itself as part of Illinois at all. But I don’t think that’s got anything to do with pride. I think Indy can take a lot of pride in itself as a Hoosier city.

  40. MetroCard says:

    See, that’s my point. Cities that aren’t stand-alone entities lack pride because they don’t have identities. For example, Lake County has an identity much different than the rest of Indiana, thus the strong civic pride.

    There was an article in the Star back in December about how the new JW Marriott hotel wanted to emphasize a distinctively Indianapolis experience for guests when it opened. Some of their ideas include decorating the hotel with artwork depicting “elegant farm scenes” and incorporating “weathered barn doors”.

    This does more harm than good, in my opinion, not because having an agrarian heritage is something to be ashamed of, but because it reinforces a stereotype that really isn’t accurate for the city of Indianapolis itself and it illustrates how the city doesn’t have enough pride to emphasize its own identity.

  41. TLjr says:

    Please note that the Texas flag has a white star on a blue field. Chicago’s four pack of six-pointed red stars are pretty rare.

    However, the single 5-pointed star of Macy’s is way too reminiscent of North Korea. I’d be far more forgiving of the Macy’s takeover if they’d kept the Field’s green.

  42. Wad says:

    @TLjr, that sounds very much like the Heineken logo. :)

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