Utah’s state flag is an ‘S.O.B.’ and one Republican lawmaker thinks it’s time for a change

In vexillology — or the study of flags — there are five basic principles that guide good design: simplicity, meaningful symbolism, limited use of colors, no lettering or seals and distinction from other flags.

Utah’s official state flag violates essentially every one of these principles.

“The Utah flag is considered by these vexillologists to be an ‘S.O.B.’ — seal on a bedsheet,” said Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton. “It really is a mess. They’ve thrown everything in there but the kitchen sink.”

Handy said he was recently introduced to the topic of flag design by constituents who advocated for a redesign. Over time, he said, he was convinced that a new flag would be good for the state, and he’s preparing legislation to create a flag review commission.

If approved by lawmakers next year, the commission would seek input and design ideas from the public, Handy said, before making a recommendation to lawmakers ahead of the 2020 legislative session.

“This will be one of those things where people say, ‘Oh, Legislature, you’re wasting time and money again,’” Handy said. “As I have thought about it, I think it’s an important discussion. We pride ourselves on so many good things that are happening in the state of Utah, why not have something that’s a very powerful symbol of our state?”

The general design of Utah’s flag is more than 100 years old, with the state seal emblazoned upon a blue background. It has gone through various updates, including adoption of its current design in 2011, and includes images of an American bald eagle, arrows, sego lilies and a beehive on a white shield, the words “Industry” and “Utah," the dates 1847 and 1896, and two United States flags, all ringed in a gold circle.

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah's first flag sits on a work table in the basement at the Rio Grande Depot, home of the Utah state historical offices, on Feb. 15, 2018. Archivists are concerned about the current storage facility and the potential for serious damage from water to the collection of artifacts and documents it houses.

While many of those symbols are tied to specific elements of Utah history and culture, they effectively blend into incomprehension when the flag is displayed high in the air.

Chance Hammock, a Utah resident and self-described “armchair amateur vexillologist,” said the state’s flag would be difficult to pick out of a lineup of U.S. state banners, many of which are also blue-backgrounded S.O.B.s.

“Right now," he said, “Utah’s flag looks like 30 other state flags.”

Hammock, who previously worked for Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, said he pitched the idea of a new Utah flag to Handy after bumping into the lawmaker last summer.

He gave Handy the example of the Four Corners region, where the borders of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico touch at a single point. There you have three of the best-designed flags in the country, Hammock said.

“Then you’ve got Utah,” he said, “which is a seal on a bedsheet.”

Handy was also encouraged by Joseph Shelton, who runs the website UtahFlag.org as co-director of the Utah Flag Group. The website includes a brief primer on the principles of flag design and invites visitors to submit their own vision for a new Utah flag.

Shelton said his interest in flag design grew while serving as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He and a friend on the mission would regularly design their own flags, which led them to seek out Handy after their missionary service.

He said the issue may not be as dire as other topics lawmakers face. But he added that residents of states like Colorado and Arizona will often display their state flags on clothing or other items, and it bolsters a sense of pride and camaraderie.

That doesn’t happen, he said, in Utah.

“We absolutely need to change the flag,” Shelton said. “There is something to be said for having a good flag.”

Handy emphasized that his bill would not affect the state seal. And any potential redesign would follow and incorporate feedback from Utahns.

“It’s not a mandate to change the flag,” he said. “It’s a mandate to say, ‘Let’s review it.’”

His bill also comes during a time when Salt Lake City leaders are considering a redesign of the city’s flag. Mayor Jackie Biskupski last month announced the launch of a survey that will be followed by a call for design submissions.

Attempts to redesign flags in other states have proved to be controversial, like the debate over Confederate symbols on the flag of Georgia, or the use of an unofficial “people’s flag” in Milwaukee.

Hammock said he’s encouraged, but also “a little bit scared” that Handy is sponsoring legislation aimed at reviewing the flag. A successful redesign must include and incorporate public opinion, he said, but there’s still the potential for disagreement.

“If you’re going to change the flag,” he said, “people need to have buy-in.”