Milwaukee’s Flag Is a Lesson in the Dangers of Crowdsourcing

8 Jun

My friend, Tom Shamy, turned me on to an excellent TED Talk by Roman Mars, on the dearth of well-designed city flags.


The Beer City Flag is a Show of Bad Banners.

Mars does an excellent job in his presentation on explaining the foundations of flag design, and critiquing some examples. However, in what I assume is an unintended bonus, one of the points he makes is a perfect lesson in the dangers of crowdsourcing.

He describes the city flag of Milwaukee, Wisconsin as, “one of the biggest train wrecks in vexillological history.” The flag is the result of a 1955 contest, which no one actually won, including, it would seem, the good people of Milwaukee. A politician (yes, you read that right) used parts of several submissions to create the final version, which tries really hard to symbolize everything significant to Milwaukee, and in doing so even includes a second flag! Not having learned their lesson the first time, Milwaukee ran a contest in 1975, and again in 2001. (Remember, folks, three strikes and you’re out.) The latter contest received 105 entries, but the Milwaukee Arts Board couldn’t agree on a winner. Mars’s response to this bureaucratic gridlock, although I doubt he intended it as a warning against crowdsourcing, actually nails it:

“Good design and democracy just simply do not go together.”

Exactly. Good government may come from getting input from constituents, assembling it into a bill, arguing its merits in both houses of the legislative branch, and passing it into law. But, good design comes from hiring professional designers, and paying them fairly for their expertise, instead of soliciting a slew of free ideas, to be reviewed and picked over by committee, and reassembled as its members see fit.

Gap learned this lesson the hard way back in 2010, when they pulled the plug on their much-loathed new logo. The update received a huge outcry on social media, not to mention a reaction from AIGA denouncing the use of crowdsourcing in the project.

The Milwaukee flag is a perfect example of a state government exploiting the citizens who it is supposedly there to represent. Maybe members of the Milwaukee design community should fly the flag upside down in protest? If they did, it certainly would make it look any worse, and it would be a fitting distress signal as crowdsourcing eats away at their livelihoods.


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