An eye-catching flag is popping up across Sioux Falls that has somehow managed to combine resident-input and international influence into a design that organizers say properly represents of one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities.
The unofficial flag of Sioux Falls is emblazoned with a pinkish red, symbolizing the area’s quartzite, blue and white stripes ascending across the image symbolizing the falls, and a yellow starburst that acts as a wink to South Dakota’s state flag.
Organizers say the representation is perfect, in part, because of its origins.
In early 2014, OTA, founded by Milbank native Hugh Weber to celebrate and encourage creative work in Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota, hosted Roman Mars, of the hit design podcast 99 Percent Invisible, at the Washington Pavilion. During a live podcast on vexillology (the study of flags), the host-city was actually called out as one of only three major U.S. cities without an official flag. The design-centric audience caught the jab.
“In this huge audience, I’m sitting there thinking, ‘This is my first year on the job, how do I get involved?’” said Kellen Boice, who had just joined as director of the Sioux Falls Design Center.
Boice wasn’t the only one inspired. The weekend after Mars’ visit, organizers received dozens of calls and messages showing support and wanting to get involved in the creation of a city flag. Weber says the excitement encouraged them to take up the task.
“Sioux Falls kind of prides itself on having a lot of the same resources and tools and spirit of a larger city, so maybe this is something that can rally the community leadership as well,” he said.
Creatives got to work. OTA teamed up with the Sioux Falls Design Center and American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), creating the mouthful-organization The Committee to Establish a Suitable Flying Banner for the City of Sioux Falls (CESFBCSF). They roped in vexillological expert Ted Kaye – who recently designed the Portland city flag, among other projects – and Roman Mars even stayed involved in the mission.
A suburb of South Dakota’s largest city recently fast-tracked the adoption of an official flag. The City of Brandon approved a flag this past May, after holding a similar contest in which the submission titled “Our Spirit Shines” was ultimately selected. Around the country, vexillologists consider Sioux Falls, Fargo, N.D., and Hilo, H.I. to be the only major cities without official flags.
Ninety-one people submitted designs – the youngest was 5 years old – and more than 3,000 people voted on them all in a SurveyMonkey poll that required 20-30 minutes to complete. A “People’s Choice” based on the polling results was determined, along with a “Best in Show” flag, selected by a panel of vexillological and design experts.
The participation rates stunned organizers, and Weber says the voting results were especially sweet – because they matched.
Both the general public and a team of experts selected a flag created by a designer with connections to the United States and abroad. Max Rabkin is an American citizen, raised in South Africa, who was studying in Germany at the time of the contest. He found the project in a vexillological sub-group on Reddit.
“There’s something great about the fact that the flag that Sioux Falls felt represented itself best is also a flag that was designed by someone who was observing it from the outside,” said Weber. “So often I think a city is perceived differently by the people who live there than the people who visit or see it from the outside, and in this case, it was a perfect mirror. So it’s a pretty great balance.”
Boice agrees. “I feel like he encompassed everything about our city without ever stepping foot here,” she said, which allowed it to resonate with the public. The simple, clean aesthetic also made it popular from a design angle.
“When we look at how diverse the community has become, that can be something that challenges people who have been here for a long time. this [flag] can become an element that unifies across backgrounds and across worldviews. And I think that’s a super exciting thing. Nothing else can be truly inclusive.”
So why is this vexillologist-certified, publicly-approved banner still under “unofficial’’ status?
Weber says as the contest was underway, organizers sent information on the process to the City Council and mayor’s office, and followed up with the results. Nothing happened.
Organizers returned multiple times to City Council meetings to introduce the flag, trying to get officials on board. They thought concerns about extra spending might be a roadblock, so Boice says they offered to cover the costs of flags for the City Council chambers and the mayor’s office. Still, no traction.
At-Large Sioux Falls City Councilor Theresa Stehly wasn’t a member until the latest introduction of the flag, in June 2016, but says other issues, specifically challenges surrounding the new City Administration Building, were dominating the new council’s time.
WHAT MAKES A GOOD FLAG?
According to the North American Vexillology Association (NAVA), well-designed flags have five things:
- They’re simple: a child can draw them from memory.
- They’re meaningful: images, colors or patterns should relate to what they symbolizes.
- They have 2-3 basic colors.
- They don’t include any writing or seals.
- They shouldn’t copy other flags, but can show connections to other places through similarities.
ABOUT THE DESIGNER
MAX RABKIN is an American citizen who grew up in South Africa. In his submission, he told the Flag Committee he’s not in any design-related field, but was left with “a strong impression of the importance of flags as a symbol of who we are” when he witnessed South Africa become a democracy and adopt their current flag.
“I think it’s a great idea, but we need to work on a process to make it fair for all involved,” said Stehly. “I think we would all probably agree that this needs to have more public input, and a process needs to be put in place.”
She added, “If the mayor isn’t supporting a proposal, it makes it very difficult to bring into fruition. I think the hope would be, for people wanting to implement a flag, that it would happen after the next mayor is elected.”
Sioux Falls Mayor Mike Huether has declined to comment on the issue.
“I can see where community leadership that’s focused on infrastructure and development can see something like a flag effort as insignificant, or even potentially a distraction,” said Weber. “But I think it’s one of those items that [for] a city that’s growing, that’s diversifying both its economy and its people…this was an easy win, and remains an easy win, for a city councilman or mayor that recognizes the city needs icons, and needs identifying, creative elements to draw it together.”
Kelsie Thomas, a Sioux Falls native and doula by trade, is one person drawn to the rallying power of the unofficial icon. She wasn’t originally involved in the 2014 project, but began searching for a symbol after the collapse of the downtown Copper Lounge building in December 2016.
“When that building collapsed, all I wanted to do was wave something and be like, ‘We can get through this, we can do this, but it’s going to take all of us,’” she said. “Having something like this can bring us all together.”
“It’s a ‘real thing’ because the people picked it up versus a bunch of organizations, where you’re getting paid to do your job to push something. This is not that. Nobody’s getting paid.”—Kellen Boice
She bought 25 flags from a site online and started giving them out, eventually bringing one along to the Women’s March in downtown Sioux Falls this past February. Boice, also in attendance, still remembers the sight of it flying.
“After three years in a row of trying to push this and getting deaf ears every time, and then to see somebody that I had never met before flying this flag, I thought, ‘Holy cow this is what it’s about,” said Boice. “It was Kelsie that inspired me to keep pushing, not under the Design Center umbrella, but just as a citizen of Sioux Falls, as a native, and saying, ‘This does matter.’”
“Let’s take it out of the organizations and let the people have it.”
Since then, they say, the flag has hit a second wave.
Organizers say the flag is popping up in more places than they expected through grassroots efforts. Flags fly from businesses and homes across town. Businesses like Unglued and Scratchpad Tees offer flag pins, stickers, postcards, and apparel. Anyone who visits siouxfallsflag.com is able to download a graphic-standards image of the flag for free.
This is possible, they say, because of a final gift from the flag’s designer – allowing the image to become public domain.
PERMANENT FLAG SWAG
A partnership with Vishnu Bunny Tattoo is helping the flag become a permanent addition to Sioux Falls. Owner Brian Gochal will provide a business-card-sized flag tattoo free of charge ($150 value), courtesy of “The People’s Rally,” for the first five people who call the tattoo shop with the request. If you want a different tattoo incorporating the flag, they’ll take $100 off the price. Call Gochal at (605) 357-8288 to set up an appointment.
“What it means is that [Rabkin] could have been printing flags and shirts and buttons and pins and whatever else, but he opened that up so that the community could do whatever came naturally. And I think it’s made all the difference,” said Weber.
In that spirit, Boice says their goal is to always break even – putting profits from flag-related products back into efforts to spread it around the city and hoping other residents join in.
“Nobody owns it. If you want to make and sell things, no one’s going to ask you for royalties,” she said. “I think that’s the next thing – to get it out there, to let people know that, ‘This is yours, it’s a gift to you.’”
Public acceptance, they say, is more important that an official seal – that, as “The People’s Flag,” it’s more valuable to see it flying freely in the streets than from city buildings.
“At some point, I think you hit a tipping point, that if there’s no formal City support, it really is relatively insignificant,” said Weber. “When you start seeing it on porches and windows and on laptops, at a certain point, you hit a threshold where it might not be the official flag of Sioux Falls, but it’s certainly the Sioux Falls flag.”
Thomas agreed. “We don’t need to strong-arm change. We can just let it happen,” she said, “because what’s building out of this – bringing community pride, bringing strength and love to right here within our streets – that’s already happening.”
“The goal of the flag is already being achieved. It doesn’t need an official stamp.”
As Sioux Falls grows into a larger Midwest hub, organizers say the concept of a centralizing symbol is more important than ever. More elements have the potential to divide a city now growing in diversity, but the flag is something all residents can gather under.
“We come from different places, we worship differently, we speak different languages, but a flag that has been uniformly accepted by a community can become something that’s all of ours,” said Weber. “And I think that’s the beauty of community – to find those things that bring us together.”
For more information, visit siouxfallsflag.com.
WHERE CAN YOU FIND IT?
Sioux Falls Flag swag is up for grabs at a growing number of spots around the city:
Fernson on 8th
201 N Weber Ave., Sioux Falls
705 West Ave., Sioux Falls
106 W 11th St., Sioux Falls
307 E 12th St., Sioux Falls
218 S Phillips Ave., Sioux Falls
209 S Phillips Ave., Sioux Falls
ON THE STREET
605 hit the streets of downtown Sioux Falls to see what people thought of the flag. Here are some opinions from locals.
“There’s a flag for that?” —Abby
“I love it, because it’s symbolically representative to the town’s foundation and a nice change to a cookie-cutter flag layout.” —Charlie
“I like it; it’s a really nice flag. I would give it 10/10, because it’s simple and clean.” —Jonas
“I like it. It’s not traditional South Dakota style, and it isn’t too busy.” —Jayde
“One word. Generic.” —Gene
“I think the flag is pretty cool.”—Noah
“I think it’s ugly, and I don’t see how it represents Sioux Falls.” —Clint
“In general I like it, and I think Sioux Falls needs a flag. I like the design because it’s simple. But I do think it’s a little similar to the Denver flag.” —Synthia
“I personally think it’s ugly. It’s a bad flag. The zig-zag lines are distracting, and the sun is out of place.” —Mark
“I haven’t even noticed that we have a flag.” —Gale
“I think there should be a re-vote where more people can be involved in the process.” —Brooke
“It’s a cool design. I don’t know if it’s needed or not, but it’s a cool thing to have, and I like it.” —Tony