Personal Projects

January 8, 2021

Redesigning the Mississippi state flag

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UPDATE: On January 11, 2021, Governor Tate Reeves signed HB 1. The new flag is now law.

You might have heard that the state of Mississippi is getting a new flag. In June 2020 the state legislature passed House Bill 1796 which sought to remove the state's 126-year-old flag. It was the only state flag in the country that featured the Confederate battle emblem. On June 30, 2020, the governor signed the bill.

The bill also established a flag commission that was tasked with coming up with a new flag. After a nearly two-month process, that flag was finalized and appeared on the November ballot as Ballot Measure 3 for voter approval or rejection. Almost 73% of voters approved it. This flag, dubbed the "In God We Trust" flag, features vertical bars and a circle of stars surrounding a magnolia in the middle. That magnolia was my creation.

When the flag selection process began, the commission asked the public to submit designs which must include the phrase "In God We Trust" as required by HB 1796. The bill was momentous, and I wanted to participate in this historical change. I was born and raised in Mississippi. Even though I moved away in 1999, it's the only place I've called home. My family still lives there, and I identify with the people and culture of Mississippi more than I do anywhere else. I decided the best way for me to give something back to my home state was to submit my own flag design.

Designing a flag from paper to pixels to PNG

My design journey started with listing out ideas for symbols, including a guitar, a mockingbird (our state bird), stars, the Mississippi River, and a magnolia (our state flower and tree) among other things. I sketched some rough designs on a drawing pad then vectorized my ideas in Adobe Illustrator. As I did this, I made notes on the specific aspects of Mississippi I wanted to represent in my design. This helped me better define the symbols I should use.

Various sketches of flag designs Sketches of flag designs where a guitar is the main element

After that exercise I eliminated some concepts and settled on the magnolia as the primary symbol. The magnolia is an official state symbol, and it's a great reflection of the state's people. Magnolias have been around for 90-100 million years. Because of this it represents longevity and perseverance. Mississippians are determined and enduring people, so to me the magnolia would be the perfect centerpiece to reflect them.

I also chose stars and stripes to represent other things. With these primary symbols in mind, I created many designs that were generally based on the same concept. The main difference among the designs was the arrangement of these elements. These variations all looked very similar to each other, but some stood out more than others. This was something I realized after I took a break from my work for about a day. When I came back to it with fresh eyes, I narrowed down the best designs to four candidates.

The final candidates for my flag design

After a bit more experimenting, tweaking, and rationalizing, I decided on the final layout for my flag design. I polished the details, but I left one important thing as the very last—the magnolia. I had used a placeholder up until this point. The magnolia was going to be the most difficult and time-consuming symbol. When it was time to work on that, my first decision was to rule out using clip art or stock imagery. It didn't even cross my mind to go that route. I was creating a state flag. Everything in it had to be original. And my magnolia had to look damn good.

Losing my marbles over a magnolia

Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.

Thomas A. Edison

There are different approaches to creating a magnolia in this context. One way is to go the app route. You know, it's how app icons tend to be symmetrical and use a flat design style. Another way is to use details in your art and an angled perspective; in other words, you make it look realistic. According to NAVA's best practices for flag design, the design must be simple. So I couldn't use a lot of details, shading, or shadowing, and I should avoid coloring the magnolia. But I also didn't want the flower to look like a computer icon. I did, however, like the idea of a simple and modern-looking graphic. Modern is actually a good thing here. Many state flags use their state seals as the centerpieces, which make them look stodgy and antiquated. I wanted to stay away from that.

When it was time to tackle this, I knew right away that since I'm not a flower expert, there was no way I could draw a decent magnolia from memory. So I went to the internet, looked at a ton of magnolia bloom images, and saved quite a few of them. My plan was to try each as the basis of my vector art. This was the process: open a random magnolia image in Illustrator, use the pen tool to trace the petals, then stylize it to make it my own.

But I ran into a problem. I tried a dozen images, and all of my vector drawings were awful. I was discouraged, but I studied each one and figured out why they didn't work. First, many looked like generic flowers. Magnolia blooms are visually unique, so if a photo doesn't capture the flower at the right angle, it won't translate the flower's unique characteristics in a simple vector drawing. You might be thinking, "If a photo didn't look right, why did you download it in the first place?" Actually the magnolias looked great in the photos because they were, well, photos. Photos have many visual details (e.g. shadows, color, texture) that give us full context of the subject matter. We take them for granted when we look at photos. The problem was that I couldn't use these details in my rendering. The petals—the foundation of my rendering—are key. They have to be photographed in the right position so that simple outlines will still convey the shapes unique to magnolias.

Not-so-great looking magnolia drawings

The second problem also had to do with angle but on the other end of the spectrum. If the flowers were at such an angle that their shape was exaggerated, then again without the extra visual details, the petals in a simple drawing looked like malformed blobs. It was difficult to tell if a photo would translate well into a simple drawing, so I was in a pickle. I risked wasting more time on other pictures if they didn't work out. After a dozen attempts I almost quit which meant I'd have no design to submit. I took a break for about a day.

I decided to try the magnolia one more time. I looked at a photo that was pretty, so I took a chance on it. This time the drawing didn't look nearly as bad as the others, but something was still missing. I decided to apply a technique I used on some cartoon drawings I had done recently. I tapered the outlines in some places and gave some of the outlines different stroke widths. It was a complete transformation. The flower looked natural and realistic without extra details, and it looked like an actual magnolia.

I added a few flourishes to the petals. They were my version of those "extra details," but I kept them to a minimum. I wasn't done with the magnolia yet. I still had to create the center which is composed of curly carpels. This took a day or so to nail down, but basically I decided to only represent the carpels in my drawing instead of including the stamens. I was finally done with this thing. I called my final flag design the "New Century" flag.

My final magnolia drawing My final flag design

I created a PDF to send to the flag commission. It started with a cover letter of who I am and why I wanted to participate. Following that were a symbolism guide, photos showing my design in real-life depictions, and a single page with just my flag on it. I was very proud of my design, but I knew the odds of getting picked were slim. Still, I put 120% of myself into this work, and that was good enough.

A guide to the symbolism in my final flag design

All eyes on the commission

I emailed my PDF a week before the deadline. About two weeks after the deadline, all the submissions were uploaded to a gallery on the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH) website. Scrolling through all 2,800 submissions was overwhelming, but it was cool to see so many ideas. I came across mine, labeled as K1215. After looking at the other designs, I realized that I should have simplified my flag. Even though it wasn't a crazy busy design, for a flag it had too much going on.

Nevertheless, it was clean and polished. Over the next two weeks each commissioner had to pick his or her top 25. In the next meeting they reviewed their selections and came up with a top 147 in round two. Those designs replaced the original submissions in the gallery, and mine made it in! At that point I was relieved, and even if I didn't make the next round, I'd be ok.

The commissioners again picked their favorites from round two and updated the gallery. My design wasn't there, but my magnolia was. It was incorporated into a couple of other flags. The commission had the discretion to mash up parts of different flags, or they could come up with completely original designs. I was quite surprised, and happy, that someone liked my flower enough to move it forward.

Over the next few weeks the commission narrowed the field to two flags, one of which had my magnolia. The MDAH's gallery displayed the two designs and a commenting feature to get feedback from the public. People could also vote on the flag they liked, but the votes were non-binding. Ultimately the commission would decide.

On September 2, the commission selected the magnolia flag in an 8-1 vote and branded it as the "In God We Trust" flag. Clay Moss, the vexillologist who advised the commission during the process, modified my magnolia's carpels so they're easier to see from a distance. The flag was presented on the November ballot for the voters to approve it. They did, overwhelmingly, and on January 5, 2021, the state legislature passed House Bill 1 ratifying the flag as law. Governor Tate Reeves is expected to sign it in the next several days.

The flag commission with MDAH Director Katie Blount standing in front of the In God We Trust flag projected onto a screen
MDAH Director Katie Blount (far left) with the flag commission. Credit: Barbara Gauntt, Clarion Ledger

Onward

Mississippi State University football player Kobe Jones running on the field with the new state flag
Credit: Mississippi State University

The whole process was unreal, but for the most part I kept my emotions and expectations in check. As much as I wanted my work to be on the new flag, there was no way to know what would happen at the commission meetings. So I stayed chill about it. In fact, my family was more excited about it than me. The most important thing out of all of this is that Mississippi has a new flag and can move forward. It's not going to fix everything, but it's a start. I'm extremely honored to be a contributing designer to the new flag, and I'm very proud of the voters and legislature for doing the right thing.