The Quest to Redesign Washington’s State Flag — and Honor Its Natural Landscape

by Pria Mahadevan and Emily Denny |March 2, 2023
man waving a green and blue flag

Graphic designer Bradley Lockhart stands with his proposed design for a new Washington state flag. The flag focuses on the diverse landscapes of the state, from coast to mountains to agricultural lands. (Courtesy of Bradley Lockhart)

In 2015, the small town of Bellingham in northwestern Washington held an unofficial flag design contest run by a local arts organization. That’s where Bradley Lockhart first got a taste for flag redesign. A graphic designer by training, he submitted his idea for a new city flag — and won. Slowly, local businesses, nonprofits, and everyday citizens began requesting and using his flag. Within two years of the contest, Lockhart’s design became the official town flag, featuring imagery honoring its coastline, Indigenous people, and waterfalls.

Fresh off the heels of his first success, Lockhart then turned his attention to the next level up: the Washington state flag. The official symbol has a dark green background with a seal of George Washington, a man who never set foot in the state, pulled from a postage stamp.

man holding a flag with water squiggles and green lines

Lockhart stands with his design for Bellingham’s flag. The design was officially adopted by the city in 2017. (Courtesy of Bradley Lockhart)

“I was like man, this is just kind of embarrassing,” Lockhart said in an interview with GlacierHub. “That’s what inspired me to be like, if I can make this flag for Bellingham, I should at least try to come up with my own idea for Washington.”

In the summer of 2017, Lockhart boarded a flight to Hawaii with his family. With just three colored sharpies in hand, he spent the six hours of airtime sketching draft after draft. By the time the plane landed, he’d gone through more than four dozen versions and had settled on the one he thought best evoked what he felt was most distinctive about the state — its diverse landscapes. Just as Lockhart’s Bellingham flag captured the city’s coastal setting, his draft for a new state flag conjures the state’s coastline, its mountains, and its rich agricultural lands.

On the left, the official state flag of Washington. On the right, Lockhart’s proposed redesign. (Right image: Washington Secretary of State. Left image: Courtesy of Bradley Lockhart.)

The flag is color-blocked in half lengthwise, with sky blue on top and forest green on the bottom, representing the state’s landscape. On the left, five overlapping triangles represent the five volcanic mountains in the Cascades, all of which have glaciers. The triangles extend into straight lines on the right, which pay homage to the orchards and agricultural livelihoods in the eastern part of the state. Finally, atop the mountains Lockhart placed a compass rose, meant to represent the history of navigation in the Puget Sound. “I really did want it to be purely geographic, so that it felt like it could stand the test of time.” Lockhart explained. “It’s hard to create a symbol of people and culture that doesn’t feel that at some point, eventually, it’s going to be dated.”

In the face of a warming climate that has caused some of the glaciers atop those mountains to have almost completely disappeared, Lockhart hopes that his flag offers a symbol of what once was, as well as all there is to save. “Having a flag that is this pure, real version of Washington, could be seen as somewhat of a pledge to try and preserve it.”

In the years since, Lockhart has pushed for the state of Washington to adopt a new flag, whether the design is his or someone else’s. He began by publishing his design for a new state flag on social media. His posts elicited strong reactions — clearly, he’d struck a nerve. “It made some people excited, and it made some people upset,” he recalled. But Lockhart was unfazed, recalling that the same thing happened when he put forth his redesign for Bellingham’s flag. “At first, people hated it. Now you can’t walk down the street in Bellingham without seeing the flag.”

According to Ted Kaye, a vexillologist — a person who studies flags — strong public reactions are simply part of the flag redesign process. “You’re losing a flag that people are accustomed to. I call it the ‘ugly baby syndrome,’” Kaye said in an interview with GlacierHub. “Every mother loves her baby. She thinks her baby is beautiful, even though it could be the ugliest baby ever. But she’s been looking at that baby over and over and over again. And she’s used to seeing it. And so, the same thing happens with those state flags. I’m used to seeing it; I grew up saluting that flag. I love that flag, even though it’s an ugly flag, or a poorly designed flag.”

From a design perspective, Kaye views Washington’s current flag as a mixed bag. “On the positive side, Washington’s got the only state flag that’s green,” he said, noting that the trees and forests of the state make the color logical. However, he notes that the seal doesn’t make much sense. “The seal belongs to the government. But the flag belongs to the people.” Kaye argued that a flag with a seal emblazoned on it makes it harder to fly in front of your private home. “People use these flags to represent their belonging to the state, not their connection to the government.”

But Kaye warned that the design case might not be strong enough to prompt a redesign. Not all flags follow the same pathway to an official redesign — and not all approaches are equally successful. In his years of experience advising on flag redesigns across the country, Kaye has seen two primary motivators for changing a state flag. The first arises when a flag is deemed offensive, like the old Mississippi or Georgia state flags that contained the Confederate battle flag, or Massachusetts’ current state flag that depicts violence towards Native Americans on its seal. Kaye says those redesign processes typically garner more political support in state legislatures, given the risks associated with supporting offensive symbols.

And then there’s pushing to change a state flag on the basis of design itself. “The redesigning of a flag because it’s a poor design is a much heavier political lift,” Kaye explained. “But that’s what Brad Lockhart is trying to do in Washington.”

Lockhart, for his part, remains optimistic. The Kickstarter he launched in October promoting and selling the new state flag design raised more than two times its goal. Outside of Washington, Utah recently decided to redesign its flag on the basis of design, and that process is nearing completion. Critically, Utah’s redesign relied on multiple rounds of public and artistic input — something Lockhart has said he’s open to pursuing with the state. Ultimately, Lockhart sees this process as much more than switching out the piece of fabric flying in front of a building. “I like to tell people that, yeah, the flag is a symbol of pride. But it’s also a symbol of obligation — obligation to the ecosystem, and to the neighborhood, and to your fellow community members,” he said. “If you’re flying a flag, then you’re proud of where you live, and then you should be nice to the people there, you should care about the environment, you should care about the culture — it just creates this connection to where you are.”

An example of the merchandise Lockhart sold on his Kickstarter. (Courtesy of Bradley Lockhart)

Kaye also believes that well-designed flags have a social impact, though in a slightly different way. “I believe that we can tell when a city or state flag has been truly embraced by the population it represents when we start seeing it show up as a tattoo,” he said. “And I’ll tell you, I don’t think there are any tattoos of the Washington state flag.”

With the 100th anniversary of Washington’s state flag approaching on March 5, Lockhart feels like there may be real momentum to make a flag redesign happen. But to him, the first stage of the process has already been achieved — getting people talking about the state flag in a critical, thoughtful way.

GlacierHub is a climate communication initiative led by Ben Orlove, an anthropologist at the Columbia Climate School. Many of GlacierHub's writers are Climate School students or alumni.

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Kayleen Kamikawa
Kayleen Kamikawa
6 months ago

Love the new design! Let’s change it!!! Born and raised Washingtonian here.

phil allen
phil allen
6 months ago

Who else has proposed a design? ..

Reply to  phil allen
3 months ago

I’ve seen over 120 other designs from different artists. Here are some of them:

Washington Flag Redesigns

5 months ago

Looks like a heartbeat that flatlined. The state should make an official competition like Utah just completed.

4 months ago

love it

4 months ago

I LOVE the new design! It is beautiful craftsmanship!

BB King
BB King
3 months ago

Nope. George Washington deserves to be on our flag.. Not some dumb lines.

Poland Can Into Space
Poland Can Into Space
Reply to  BB King
3 months ago

Come on . . the Washinton flag is kind of a bad flag. Washington never even set foot in Washington state. So I don’t believe he should be on the flag.

Reply to  Poland Can Into Space
2 months ago

I LOVE the new design! It is beautiful craftsmanship!