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Calling all vexillographers! Cleveland group seeks designs for new city flag

The Flag of Cleveland was designed in 1896, the city's centennial year.
The Flag of Cleveland was designed in 1896, the city's centennial year. A vexillographer is a person who designs or makes flags.

A group is leading a charge to design a new city flag to display in government buildings, businesses and homes across Cleveland.

The CLE Flag Project co-organizer Brian Lachman said the current design — a red, white and blue block pattern with the city’s seal in the center established in 1896 — is “unattractive” and outdated, and his group wants to create something recognizable.

"In order to show your civic pride for the city right now, you have to wear a Cavs shirt, a Browns shirt or a Guardians hat," said Lachman, a Cleveland Heights resident. "We're looking for something that had a more unified symbol of the city as a total instead of a sports team or something like that."

While it may seem like a frivolous effort, design and branding are powerful when it comes to civic engagement and pride, said consultant Anne Berry, who teaches graphic design at Cleveland State University.

"Think of Obama's 'Hope' poster or even a Confederate flag," Berry said. "There are lots of symbols and imagery that we can immediately think of that hold a lot of power for us culturally... So let's also appreciate the deeper level of value and importance that this has for Cleveland as a community and something people can rally around."

The current flag was designed in 1895 by 18-year-old art student Susan Hepburn after the newspaper The Plain Dealer ran a contest to create the design, according to theEncyclopedia of Cleveland History. The selection committee was chaired by famed Ohio artist Archibald Willard, who painted the "Spirit of '76." Hepburn won 50 silver dollars and met her future husband when he, then a Plain Dealer reporter, presented her with the prize.

Lachman said the group of volunteers, which are partnered and fiscally sponsored by the Cleveland chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, spent months engaging more than 600 residents on the process before presenting Monday at a City Council caucus meeting, where they were met with mixed feelings from members of council.

CLE Flag Project organizers Brian Lachman (left) and Josh Harkleroad (right) present before members of Cleveland City Council.
Abbey Marshall
Ideastream Public Media
CLE Flag Project organizers Brian Lachman (left) and Josh Harkleroad (right) present before members of Cleveland City Council.

"I've been here 12 terms; I've never had any complaints around the flag," said Ward 8's Mike Polensek during a council committee meeting Monday. "Of all the stuff we got to deal with, we're going to change the flag?"

The contest is open to all Greater Cleveland residents, and some council members were critical about the possibility of adopting a flag designed by a non-resident.

"Our civic pride does extend beyond the city," CLE Flag Project co-organizer Josh Harkleroad responded. "Our people are very mobile... They're working Downtown. They're spending their money Downtown. And we want to make sure that everybody is represented."

Hepburn, who designed the current flag, was born in Ashtabula and was a descendant of early Western Reserve settlers, according to the encyclopedia entry on the flag.

Harkleroad said the committee that will select the finalists will be made up of Cleveland residents and business owners.

The finalists' cash prize and other financial backing will come from community members and businesses via a crowdfunding page, Lachman said.

Once final designs are picked, Clevelanders will vote on their favorite before organizers present it to Cleveland City Council for approval this fall.

Those interested in submitting a design may visit cleflag.org.

Abbey Marshall covers Cleveland-area government and politics for Ideastream Public Media.