362. State Flag Revisions: Alaska.
Dec 15, 2011 at 02:39PM


Photo courtesy of Bob Bartlett Collection, University of Alaska Fairbanks, VF Addendum and Polar Regions Dept.Alaska has one of better flags currently being flown, which I think has something to do with the fact that they were the second-to-last state to join the union. Quite literally, their flag is more modern. At least I thought before embarking on this project. The flag actually has a long and interesting history and was produced via the much-hated open contest. Yes, a spec-contest. (See, this crowd-sourcing stuff isn't anything new, folks.) Seldom is the result of such things so restrained, however.

30 years before statehood, the Alaska Department of the American Legion held a contest to design a flag for the territory. The only caveat was this; submissions must be designed by Alaskan students in grades 7 through 12. Netstate.com, goes into more detail: "Contest rules were circulated throughout the Alaska Territory in January, 1927. The rules stipulated that the first stage of the competition would take place at a local level. Each town would set up a panel of judges that would determine the ten best local designs and forward these to Juneau where the final competition would take place. A total of 142 designs were forwarded to Juneau."

Obviously, I wanted to know what these 142 designs looked like, so I began to track them down and although I can't find all 142, I did stumble upon a few of the finalists. I have to say, these kids did a pretty good job. And stranger than that, was the decision of the board actually choosing the best submission. I'm not sure I've seen this happen in an open contest since.

35 of the Finalists: (click for larger version)

Courtesy of Alaska State Library

Even though it's not appropriate, young Jim Cavanaugh from Anchorage submitted a handsome design that I've included below, rendered a bit more crisply, just because he deserves it. Again, not appropriate for Alaska, but I'm sure some third-world dictator would do well to use this design. There are other worthy candidates in the set; Elizabeth Sheldon's Axe and Shovel, Louise Meal's Polar Bear, and Oscar Sandvick's pennant-shaped design stand out to me.

Jim Cavanaugh's Design:

According to Netstate.com, the wining submission was by a young 7th-grade student, 13-year-old Benny Benson from Chignik. And get this—little Benny was an orphan. You just can't write a better flag design story than that now can you? The funny thing I found (in addition to this heartstring-pulling tidbit) was that Benny was prolific. Of the 36 finalists I found, he had submitted three of them. In my mind, I imagine a passionate Benny, working long hours after getting the assignment in class, probably by candlelight, sweating over the details of all of his work. Who knows how many he actually designed, but I bet there was a lot of love put into his flags and that's kind of cool. Check out his 'losing' designs in the first column, fifth and sixth flags down, in the image above. Below, you can see the winning submission.

Benny Benson's Winning Alaska Flag Design Entry: (Click for larger version)

I like this Benny kid. Yeah, he was prolific AND an orphan, PLUS he looks a like a retro version of Vince Vaughn—at least in this picture. Not to mention that his submission was actually the best, like I said before. For his efforts Benny got a gold watch featuring his design and $1,000 that was supposed to go towards a trip to Washington, DC that never happened. (Travel from Alaska must have been a bit more difficult in those days.) I read somewhere that he instead used the money to study diesel mechanics. More cool stuff: the first time the flag was ever flown in Alaska, it flew over the orphanage Benny lived in, The Jesse Lee Home, on July 9th, 1927. Pretty darn neat, I say. In 1959, when Alaska became the 49th state, the official flag of the territory became the official flag of the state.

According to Wikipedia, "Benny looked to the sky for the symbols he included in his design. Choosing the familiar constellation he looked for every night before going to sleep at the orphanage, submitted this description with it: The blue field is for the Alaska sky and the forget-me-not, an Alaskan flower. The North Star is for the future state of Alaska, the most northerly in the union. The Dipper is for the Great Bear—symbolizing strength." Geez. He. Looked. To. The. Sky. Could this get any more poetic?

Here is another shot of Benny and his design:

Courtesy of Alaska State Library

Benny Benson clearly has played no small part in the design history of Alaska, and Alaska has tried to memorialize that as well. Below you can see a few of those remembrances, a memorial outside of Seward and a bronze plaque on his grave. Benny died in 1972 of a heart attack in Kodiak, AK. I would have liked to have met him.

Benny Benson Memorial:

Benny Benson Grave:

So, learning all of this (combined with generally liking the design) I'm asking myself: Who am I to mess with this a 13-year-old orphan's artwork?

Benny talks about this experience in this archival footage:

Again who am I to mess with this? Well, the answer is pretty simple. No one. But we're keeping Benny's design mostly intact, and tweaking a few things just to make it work well in relation to all the other flags. We're going to tighten up a few things a 13-year-old wouldn't have necessarily thought of and the flag designers should have, as well as adding back an element that Benny displayed in one of the images above. The result is something I think he would have liked.

Alaska's Current State Flag:

And another version (It's proving to be tough to find official version of the flags.)

It's actually rather striking for a flag and puts a lot of the previous 48 to shame, don't you think. Conceptually, it's pretty close to perfection, but it's not a perfect execution. The flag is supposed to be rendered in the same blue field as the US flag. This is all fine and good, except that's about the same color as more than half the current state flags. So I considered adjusting this. 

Official United States Flag Colors:

Let's deal with the color First.

We're going to step away from the more magenta-heavy blue of the USA flag and try something a bit more modern, and adjust the 'gold' of the stars to match. Above you'll see the official blue, along with how the blue is often displayed, both of which are not quite right. Below, you'll see the colors I prefer. Again, there's nothing wrong with the two blues shown above, except that they are prevalent throughout the state flags, and we're aiming for a design that stands out a bit more.

The other issue the final design should address deals with the accuracy of the constellation. Simply put, why shouldn't it be accurate? Take a look below at the flag overlaid with the actual constellation. (I'm sure the constellation changes slightly depending on where you're viewing it from, the time of night, the time of year and all that — but I have to decide on something here, and I chose a view from Alaska, fittingly enough. I'm going to give myself the freedom to rotate the constellation as needed to better match the original design as well as giving the star elements some room to breathe in the sky. 

Constellation vs Flag Star Layout:

Here's the constellation shot I'll be using: (Shot as close to Alaska as I could find.)

Even when rotated, the stars don't really match up with the original flag. There really isn't any reason why they shouldn't and after looking at it, I actually think it will make the design stronger. The angle and the relationship between the Big Dipper and Polaris, the North Star, should be honored. I don't think little Benny would have been upset with these few nudges, had someone collaborated with him back in 1927.

The last element I would like to add back into the flag, is the year Alaska became a part of the US as a territory. Like I mentioned in the Alabama piece, I don't want to rely on numbers and letters to carry the weight of a message, but I feel like this helps add perspective to one of the 'newer' states, eluding to the fact that it isn't so new after all. In the photo (far above) the date shown on the flag is 1867.

The historical significance of this date is when the US purchased the land from Russia. The University of Virginia has this to say about that purchase, "On March 30, 1867, Secretary of State William H. Seward signed an agreement with Baron Edouard Stoeckl, the Russian Minister to the United States. The agreement, widely referred to as "Seward's Folly" (and "Seward's Icebox"), ceded possession of the vast territory of Alaska to the United States for the sum of $7.2 million. Few citizens of the U. S. could fathom what possible use or interest the 586,000 square miles of land would have for their country. In a speech given at Sitka on August 12, 1868, however, Secretary Seward claimed he did not doubt "that the political society to be constituted here, first as a Territory, and ultimately as a state or many States, will prove a worthy constituency of the Republic."1 President Andrew Johnson sent General Jefferson C. Davis to command a military force of about 500 men to maintain peace and order, and expected that Congress would establish the civil organization of the territory."

So including the year 1867 on the flag, is kind of like a rebellious nanny-nanny-boo-boo to all of those that thought the purchase of Alaska, or "Seward's Folly" or "Seward's Icebox", was just that, folly. I think a flag needs a symbol like that.

After all this information and setup, the small changes may not seem like much, but sometimes that's what design is all about, small tweaks. And in this case, I think all of the context we have uncovered make the alterations more significant. Not all state flags will emerge so unscathed.

The 2012 Alaska State Flag:

For the record, the colors I've used are Pantone 303 U (blue) and Pantone 130 U (gold.) I tried a more gold looking gold, but that never quite works on something like a flag. I'm also using a standard 2:3 aspect ratio, which I think I'll carry throughout this project. (I believe the US flag is a 1:1.9 ratio, height to width.) And because I wanted handsome numerals, even though set at a small size, I chose Archer book.

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