The first attempt to introduce a civic flag came in an 1897 Milwaukee Journal contest. The winning entry included an oak branch with the motto "Steady Progress" over a cream-colored field. The flag never came into use.
In the 1950s, Milwaukee leaders discovered it was one of only four cities with a population over 500,000 without a flag, leading the city to hold a contest for flag designs. Former alderman Fred Steffan created a banner combining elements of some of the better entries. Despite its official adoption in 1954, the flag had gone largely unnoticed and underutilized.
In a 2004 poll conducted by the North American Vexillological Association (PDF link), Milwaukee’s flag was rated the fourth worst of all major cities in the United States, ranking #147 out of 150 cities, with a score of 1.59 out of 10.
Efforts to redesign the flag had been initiated three times since its adoption. The first two proposed redesigns were rejected. As of June 2016, The People’s Flag of Milwaukee became the third proposed candidate to replace the official city banner.
A flag should be simple and readily made; it should be different from the flag of any other country, place or people; it should be significant; it should be readily distinguishable at a distance; the colors should be well contrasted and durable; and lastly, and not the least important point, it should be effective and handsome.
— National Flag Committee of America, 1861
Milwaukee-based designer Steve Kodis launched an initiative focused on a simple idea: Milwaukee is a great city that deserves a great flag.
Kodis partnered with nonprofit Greater Together, a creatively-driven coalition dedicated to creating awareness, hope, and ideas that promote racial and economic equality in greater Milwaukee. This partnership started a larger conversation about Milwaukee today, but ultimately what we want Milwaukee to become.
Call for entries.
The design initiative led nearly a dozen workshops across the city to engage the public in an authentic way. Students and young people were encouraged to discuss their relationship with the city and their hopes for a brighter future. Professional designers volunteered to facilitate the workshops and mentor participants on the principles, and power, of design.
By April 14, 2016, over 1,000 designs were submitted by residents of Milwaukee and beyond, yielding more collective public participation than all previous flag design efforts throughout Milwaukee's history.
Meet the judges.
On April 23, 2016, five expert judges came together and narrowed down 1,006 flag design entries to 45 semifinalists and 5 finalists for exhibition at City Hall on May 14, 2016. The judges unanimously chose the finalists based on simplicity, symbolism, visibility at a distance, and uniqueness.
Compiler of Good Flag, Bad Flag: How to Design a Great Flag, Ted Kaye is a vexillologist and former editor of the North American Vexillological Association's Raven: A Journal of Vexillology. His knowledge and experience leading redesign initiatives spans the city to national level.
53206 native and MIAD graduate Xavier Ruffin has traded designing with Fortune 500 companies for creating music videos with Billboard’s hot 100 musicians and content with some of the world's largest online video providers.
After receiving her undergraduate degree from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, Jena Sher worked as a designer at CNN, where she realized how powerful words and imagery can be transformed through graphic design. After graduating from Yale School of Art (MFA, Graphic Design), she worked at Pentagram for Michael Bierut, tackling projects with thorough research, strong concepts, and meaningful identities. She now runs her own graphic design business in Milwaukee.
John Gurda is a Milwaukee-born writer and historian who has been studying his hometown since 1972. He is the author of twenty-one books, including histories of Milwaukee-area neighborhoods, industries, and places of worship. Gurda’s most ambitious efforts are The Making of Milwaukee, the first full-length history of the community published since 1948; and Milwaukee: City of Neighborhoods, a geographic companion that has quickly become the standard work on grassroots Milwaukee.
Milwaukeean and UWM graduate Steve Kodis is a graphic designer that believes design can make change better. Kodis began the initiative, leading the process from start to finish with generous support from local nonprofit Greater Together.
On May 14, 2016, the top 50 flag designs were exhibited at Milwaukee City Hall. Among those 50 were five finalists which were announced to the public by Mayor Tom Barrett and Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton.
Reggie Jackson, Head Griot of Milwaukee’s Black Holocaust Museum, presented a keynote address tying together Milwaukee's history of symbolism and the need for a positive symbol of the future.
Following the reveal of the five finalists, an online public rating process was held, asking Milwaukeeans to rate each flag on a 0–10 scale to determine the highest rated entry. The public rating process was covered by most major Milwaukee media outlets, rendering over 6,000 unique rating responses from citizens young and old.
Cream City Star
Sunrise Over the Lake
On June 14, 2016, Flag Day, "Sunrise Over the Lake" by Robert Lenz was declared the People’s Flag of Milwaukee. Rated highest amongst four other ﬁnalists, as determined by the public, the People's Flag will hereby ﬂy as a symbol of potential and aspiration.
Powerful when flying, and serene when at rest, our flag possesses the versatility to prevail as a symbol for all people of Milwaukee. It embodies the pride that Milwaukeeans share for our city with distinct and vibrant colors that shine as a beacon to guide us, honoring our past while looking forward to a new day.
Despite its adoption by the people of Milwaukee, the flag awaits the Common Council’s approval. To voice your support for official adoption, contact your city officials.
The People’s Flag of Milwaukee initiative is an ongoing effort to promote civic pride throughout the city. Sales of the flag go toward programs that introduce young people to careers in design which help all of us envision a brighter, more inclusive and diverse future.