361 State Flag Revisions: Alabama.
Dec 15, 2011 at 11:04AM
jj

First a little history of the Alabama flag, pulled from a bunch of sources, but primarily that of the Wikipedia and various government websites. Alabama first decided upon a flag in 1861. The Republic of Alabama Flag had "one side of the flag displayed the "Goddess of Liberty" holding an unsheathed sword in her right hand; in her left she held a small blue flag with one gold star. Above the gold star appears the text "Alabama" in all capital letters. In an arch above this figure were the words "Independent Now and Forever".  The reverse side of the flag had a cotton plant with a coiled rattlesnake. The text "Noli Me Tangere", ("Touch Me Not" in Latin), was placed below the cotton plant.wiki). There are no more two-sided flags, and that's a real shame, something we may correct over the next 50 redesigns if there proves to be a reason. I'm not sure the modern interpretation of the flag is doing the original design justice, as it really looks like someone in 10th grade did it. Someone who wasn't necessarily 'good at art.'

1861 Alabama State Flag:

1861 This flag was also referred to as the Secession Convention Flag:

So it took the state from 1819 until 1861 to come up with a flag (designed by a group of Montgomery southern belles) and the flag only flew over the capital for—drum roll—a single month. It was damaged by a storm and removed to the governor's office.

In 1865, a little something called the Civil War was just beginning to settle down, but the flag of the Confederate States (which could easily be our national flag if things went a bit differently) would influence flag design for the next century plus. (Whether or not this is unfortunate, I'd let you decide.) And during much of the war in Alabama, this flag was the one raised instead of an official state flag.

1865 Confederate States of America Flag:

Even more odd than that, and slightly hinting at a lose of identity due to the war, Alabama flew the flag of the United States instead of an official state flag until 1895, some 76 years after joining the union. Of course in typical bureaucratic style, the state actually agreed that they needed a state flag in 1891, but apparently it took four years to decide upon a design.

According to netstate.com, "Alabama Legislature authorized the "crimson cross of St. Andrew on a field of white" as its official flag in the Acts of Alabama. Reminiscent of the Confederate battle flag, it was designated that the crimson bars were not to be less than six inches broad and were to extend diagonally across the flag. Because Act 383 did not specify a particular format, the flag is sometimes depicted as a square and at other times depicted as a rectangle." Personally, I find it odd that they would be so specific as to the width of the stripes, but not decide upon a proportion. (We'll talk more about proportions later.)

Now, graphically speaking the Crimson Bars is not at all bad design. It's actually rather striking, with it's thick red cross and clean white background. A design critic would be hard pressed to find something wrong with it — perhaps because it's so simple. However, there are two fundamental flaws that I have with this working as the official state flag.

First let's go back even before the official state flag. During most of the 1800s, over what is now known as Alabama a Spanish flag flew over the state—which by the way gets its name because Tribal town is what Alabama means in the Creek Indian Language. Those early residents were called Alabamans. The Spanish flag that few was called the Cross of Burgundy and was used throughout the Spanish Empire and its territories like Peru.

Pre-1861 Flag:

This too isn't a terribly bad flag either. You get the cross aspect, the graphically pleasing red and white, plus a bit of toughness with the spurs on the bars, which I've learned are actually called a saltire, or Saint Andrew's Cross. It's an old heraldic symbol of an angled cross you can see on many flags, like Scotland for instance. Flash forward to the current design and let's talk about those fundamental flaws.

Current State Flag of Alabama: (Again, I'm giving it a gray stroke to better show the white field.)

Because there's not much wrong with the flag per se, we could call it a day and move onto Alaska. However, there are two glaring reasons why this flag needs to change. First, it's already being used in Ireland as a national symbol and is called, St. Patrick's flag. We are not a nation of followers, and as such, no state flag should be a mere duplicate of another government's flag. Just not acceptable. Secondly, and even more egregious is the fact that one state down, in Florida, a very similar flag is being flown as well. Check out Florida's flag:

Current Florida State Flag:

Now, we'll be correcting Florida's flag issues soon, but both of these have to go. (I'm not totally sure why they went the lazy route and simply put a state seal on their saltire.)

A Little Cultural Perspective.

I firmly believe that a state's flag should say something about the people that live there, and be unique to that area, and to that heritage. It should also be graphically pleasing since we're visual artists here. So let's take a quick look at a few things that could be flown as the state flag, and have a legitimate chance of being loved by the populace.

Alternate Alabama Flag #1:

I would wager my salary that at some point in the 1990s, there were more of these flags flown across the porches, offices, small-town businesses, RVs and car antennas of Alabama than any state or national flag. You have to know a little about NASCAR to understand. The sport has famously ardent fans. Alabama has a fast, 2-mile racetrack located in Talladega that was a favorite of the sports biggest star, Dale Earnhardt. And you could spot (and still spot) Dale Earnhardt fans by the graphic, reverse italic, stylized #3 across every square inch of clothing and vehicle they owned. The track was the spot for the late legend's last win, a come from behind victory in which he passed 17 cars in four laps. (You can - if you have the heart - watch that race here.) Earnhardt's nickname, The Intimidator, even fits the state's vibe, if you ask me. The driver meant so much to the sport, this track and to the people that I don't think you'd have a hard time passing this as the state flag of Alabama. Seriously. But that's not exactly what we're going for here either.

One could also make the case that the stylized A of the Crimson Tide of Alabama University would make for a handsome flag. But it's easy to choose some of the sports icons as state replacements, especially for those states that have such a close connection to a particular university or sport. I'm going to resist doing this throughout this process.

Alternate Alabama Flag #2:

 

THE REDESIGN

So, after learning all about the history of Alabama, I decided to do a few things. Since, it's the first flag I'll be designing of the 50, I'm going to let the saltire slide and try to use it in some way. I'm also going to try to use iconography that has been used in the past, and those options were:

  1. Lady Liberty. Associated more with other states and if you have ever driven through Alabama I'm not sure liberty is the first word you'd think of — no offense friendly Alabamans.
  2. Cotton. A cash crop for much of its history, I like the symbolism here with something soft yet has a hard edge. I also thought the challenge of representing a boll of cotton an interesting design challenge.
  3. Confederate Bars. I think it's safe to say that these will not be making an appearance on any flag I design. Argue for this elsewhere.
  4. Crimson Cross. Since this is an element in their current flag, I feel like I almost have to use it. Especially if I totally change Florida's state flag once we get to the F's.
  5. Red & White. It also seems prudent to keep the state colors of crimson and white in tact.
  6. I also am trying not to put words or letters on the flags, letting other elements communicate for themselves.
  7. I also want to present a design that actually would have a chance of being approved. A serious attempt as it were. (Sorry Earnhardt and Crimson Tide fans.)

That being the case, I worked up the first redesign of the state flags. I'm going to give myself an hour or so on each of these flags. Mainly because I don't have more time in my schedule and because I think a flag should be graphically concise. I believe Alabama will be one of the more difficult redesigns of all the 50, but trust this design not only respects the past, but also is more modern aesthetically. A case could be made for cotton, something simple and soft that can be used in millions of ways as a nice metaphor for the possibilities of the state. I know there's a connection to slavery and plantations, but I'm also looking forward to organic, home-grown cotton helping fuel a comback of American textiles. Or at least, that's how I'd sell it.  It's not the sexiest flag we'll be doing, but it's the first. Introducing the new Alabama State Flag.

The 2012 Alabama State Flag:

So you can see we've kept the cross, the colors, and the cotton from previous flags and simply gave them more of a graphic foundation. I don't believe a lot of the flags will use this simple process, but like I said, there wasn't a ton wrong with the design of this particular flag. We're starting out slow here. If you want more extreme redesigns, trust me, they're coming. I'm looking at you, Arkansas.

New terms learned:

Obverse: The side of a coin, medal, flag, etc., that bears the principal design (opposed to reverse).

Saltire: Angled Cross.

Article originally appeared on Graphicology (http://www.graphicology.com/).
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