Symbols of Des Moines

Its time to bring back the Des Moines flag.

I’ve had an on-again, off-again conversation with several of my friends about the need for better symbols that represent and identify Des Moines.

If you think about it there isn’t really a single visual identity for this place; there’s no timeless symbol that stands on its own to represent the people or community. There’s not a slogan that people identify[1] with nor is there even an agreed upon name for “people from Des Moines”.

Quick side note: What should you call people from Des Moines? Are we Des Moiners? Des Moinians? How about Demons? I once asked the Greater Des Moines Partnership communications staff how they refer to people from Des Moines in an official context and they said, “well, usually we just say ‘People from Des Moines’”.

There are few symbols that get brought up regularly as potentially representative of the community, but none without major flaws: the Travelers Insurance umbrella (great landmark, bad symbol since it actually represents a company and one that isn’t even part of our community anymore), our skyline (fun skyline but not really distinguishable as a Des Moines symbol since it looks a whole lot like most other cities skylines) and the Iowa State Capitol Dome (which I’d say is certainly iconic but more representative of our state than our city).

Many large cities — those large enough to support major league sports franchises — have adopted/appropriated their Major League Baseball club’s classic logo to represent their community. Think of the “B” from the Red Sox cap, the “TC” from the Twins cap or the “KC” from the Royals cap.

A striking scene in New York City showing care for the people of Boston, represented by the Red Sox “B”, after the Boston Marathon bombing. Image via Elite Daily.

Des Moines isn’t big enough to support a major league franchise and the minor league ones we do have don’t have symbols that work since they’ve all decided to represent the state rather than the city[2] (the Cubs being a Chicago-thing and the Wild being a Minnesota-thing makes these specific ones even more problematic).

The Des Moines Flag

At about this time last year I found myself sitting in a converted high school auditorium in Sioux Falls listening to one of my favorite podcasters, Roman Mars, recreate a few episodes of his popular 99% Invisible podcast live on stage. The audio engineering is neat to watch in person and, of course, he has that voice.

“We’re #2! We’re #2!” — Chicago’s flag

One of the episodes he shared that day was from early on in the podcast, Episode 6 from October 2010, and it was called 99% Symbolic. It’s a short 4.5 minutes exclusively on flag design. Specifically, city flag design and why Chicago’s flag is one of the best there is, at least according to the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA) — a bunch of folks who think so much of flag design that they developed a rubric of what makes for a good flag and completed a survey that ranked the design of 150 US city flags (Chicago’s flag actually comes in at #2 bested only by the flag of our nation’s capital, Washington, DC).

I’ve always admired flags but never had put much thought into how they represent a community or how they’re literal symbols of civic pride, which is exactly what we’ve been seeking in this Des Moines symbol conversation.

So, I pulled out my phone and searched to see if Des Moines had a city flag. It turns out that we do and its a great one.

The Des Moines flag in all its vexillological glory.

It keeps with the basic principles of flag design. Its simple enough to draw from memory. The symbols are meaningful showcasing the three arched bridges[3] that cross the Des Moines River. Its only three colors. It doesn’t use text, logos or the city seal. Its both connected and distinctive, relating to both the State of Iowa flag and the US flag with its red, white and blue color scheme but different from both by depicting the symbolic bridges.

Its actually ranked as the 14th best on NAVA’s survey of city flags (you didn’t expect to find a Des Moines ranking in this post you’d never heard of, did you?).

Despite the awesomeness of our flag, the City of Des Moines stopped flying it in 2008 after they rebranded to this logo[4]:

Another Side Note: The city now puts this logo on a banner and strings it up on a pole in front of City Hall as if its a flag but we’re not fooled.

The flag is that symbol for Des Moines

Last week we made up a run of t-shirts for the members at Gravitate — the entrepreneurial center of gravity in downtown Des Moines — featuring the flag. I wore one around town on Saturday and was surprised at how many people recognized it and commented on it[5].

Des Moines flag t-shirt and laptop sticker

While it may take awhile to catch on here like it has in Chicago (in the words of Roman Mars:),

The design of the Chicago flag has complete buy-in with an entire cross section of the city — its everywhere. Every municipal building flies the flag. Every 20 year old’s messenger bag and hoodie has one. It’s a distinct symbol of Chicago’s pride.

I think that Des Moines is ready for it.


[1] “Des Moines: Hell Yes” is the closest/best/obvious choice for this and you can get your official/unofficial slogan tees at RAYGUN (Speaking of RAYGUN, see [5] below)

[2] Standard small-market thinking (thats the subject of another post).

[3] So meaningful that we’re paying extra for faux-arches when they replace the Grand Avenue bridge next year according to Tim Meinch, currently of the Des Moines Register.

[4] Via Emily Schettler, then of the Des Moines Register.

[5] One person said, “Did you get this at RAYGUN?” Which is pretty much the highest compliment you can get for a quasi-civic pride t-shirt in Des Moines. No word yet on how RAYGUN feels about the comparison.