Jennifer Brooks
See more of the story

We need to talk about the flags, Minnesota.

Somewhere up a flagpole in Rochester right now, three geese are winging their way along a field of blue, above a stylized skyline and across a municipal seal encircled by the words ROCHESTER MINN in an old IBM font that probably looked cool when the flag was designed in 1980.

In survey after survey, a divided nation has come together to name Rochester's flag one of the ugliest on Earth.

In Duluth, they don't really fly the flag. Because if they did, all that passers-by would see would be the fuzzy blob of the city's corporate seal, flanked by some fleurs-de-lis on a vaguely Scandinavian field of blue and green.

Yes, Rochester has a flag and Duluth has a flag and St. Paul has a flag and Mankato has a flag and Crystal has a flag. Your town probably has a flag and it's probably shoved in a drawer somewhere because nobody wants to look at it.

Now Duluth and Rochester are in a race to replace their old flags with something they could proudly hail and maybe slap on a coffee mug to sell to tourists.

Rochester has it narrowed down to two finalists. Polls are open in Duluth right now to anyone, resident or not, who wants to help choose a new flag.

Flag redesign competitions are an amazing blend of civic pride, creativity, flag plagiarism allegations, and public meetings where people complain that the city should prioritize potholes over flags and then fill potholes with flags.

"People get very heated about flags," said Adam Fulton, deputy director of planning and economic development for Duluth and part of a group that's been working to redesign the meh municipal flag for the better part of a year.

Coming up with a banner to rally your town — something simple, elegant and identifiable at a glance while it's fluttering high in the air — is exactly as hard as it sounds.

The North American Vexillological Association, dedicated to the celebration and scrutiny of flags, defines a good flag as a bold, meaningful symbol of the place it represents, and so simple a child could draw it from memory.

Never, ever, put words on a flag. A flag you have to explain is a failed flag.

Roman Mars, host of the 99% Invisible radio show, blew America's mind in 2015 with a TED talk that revealed both the existence of municipal flags and the cold fact that most of those flags are terrible. American communities have been scrambling to fix their flags ever since.

Sharp-eyed vexillologists — whose dedication to clarity and simplicity does not extend to their hobby's name — quickly spotted that two of the nine finalists in the Duluth competition looked strikingly similar to designs submitted by other people in other flag redesign contests.

Those two flags are still in the contest for now while the Duluth Flag Project tries to decide whether the similarities are plagiarism or simply the result of everyone watching the same TED talk and churning out a bunch of flags with bold chevrons, swoopy lines and one offset star.

A good flag shows what a community values. The nearly 200 submissions to the Duluth flag competition — some in crayon from local schoolkids — are a kaleido­scope of everything that makes Duluth Duluth. The sharp green slope of the city angling down to the Superior shore. The sun rising over the great lake. Loons. Agates. The Lift Bridge.

"What's the point of having a flag that just sits in a corner?" said Lee Herold, who owns a Rochester flag shop and helped found the Rochester Flag Project in the hope of giving Rochester the flag it deserves. A bold, elegant flag. A flag that symbolizes everything Rochester has been and will be.

A flag with 66% to 100% fewer geese.

A good flag, he said, is a banner for people to rally around. It reminds them that they are part of a community larger than themselves. It is why Herold Flags and Flagpole, and almost every other flag shop in the country, sold out of American flags after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

After years of work and more than 170 design proposals, the Rochester Flag Project has it narrowed down to two finalists.

One, chosen by a panel of judges, is a stylized version of the current flag: three stars glowing over a blue horizon inside a golden ring. The other, chosen by popular vote, is the silhouette of a goose, winging its way across a blue sky over a field of green.

Please keep the exasperated members of the Rochester Flag Project in your thoughts, and possibly in your donations, as they work to create full-sized versions of both flags they can display around town in the hope of breaking the flag deadlock.

In Duluth, organizers say one of the nine final flag redesigns seems to be leading the pack, although they won't say which one. Voting — open to residents and nonresidents alike at — runs through June 21. (One person, one vote, please.)

Check them out to see which one says "Duluth" to you.