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What Would a Redesigned San Francisco Flag Even Look Like?

As a campaign to revamp the city flag gets under way, we asked four designers to imagine a new banner for the city.


The official San Francisco flag, designed by John M. Gamble in 1900.

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Jeremy Fish, city hall artist-in-residence.

(2 of 5)


Eric Heiman, Volume principal and cofounder.

(3 of 5)

Mende Design.

(4 of 5)

Rachel Berger, California College of the Arts graphic design chair.

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To a design purist, San Francisco’s flag is all kinds of wrong. Dating from 1900 and featuring a phoenix rising from a crown of flames (a reference to the city’s recovery from the fires of the 1850s), it violates more than a few rules of good flag design. Roman Mars, host of the culty design podcast “99% Invisible,” is so bothered by our flag that he devoted a good portion of his TED talk earlier this year to dissecting it. “The phoenix doesn’t work,” he declares. “It’s a strange clip-art kind of thing.” The creature’s expression is weirdly imperious, the small ribbon of text below is vexing to decode (just try making out Oro en paz, fierro en Guerra—Spanish for “Gold in peace, iron in war”—from any kind of distance), and the whole thing is nearly impossible to casually doodle. For Mars, the fact that the city’s name appears on the flag is “pretty unforgivable.” After all, the Stars and Stripes doesn’t read “USA.”

Later this year, Mars plans to launch a competition to revamp the flag, with the help of design software company Autodesk. The contest has no official relationship with the city yet, but Mars is hopeful that city hall will join his crusade to overhaul a symbol that few recognize and even fewer appreciate.

But what would a more representative, doodle-friendly San Francisco flag even look like? In a just-for-kicks, totally-unsanctioned-by-the-mayor exercise, San Francisco invited four local designers and artists to imagine a new banner for the city.

Jeremy Fish
Inaugural artist-in-residence, city hall
Alone among our flag renderers in his fondness for the current iteration, Fish designed a new version only for a “worst-case scenario.” If the flag must change, he wants the new one to use all the elements of the old: “Aesthetics,” he says, “should never outweigh history.” He amped up the text size and made each graphic element heavier—doing his best to increase legibility from afar. “I thought I’d make a more tattoo-able version of it,” he says. In his version, the phoenix has lost its haughty glare. “I tried to make him look more somber and still. Like, yeah, he’s rising up out of the flames, but he’s comfortable at this point.”

Eric Heiman
Principal and cofounder, Volume
Riffing on the classic three-bar format, Heiman opted for a color scheme that evokes San Francisco’s “three-layer environment—the sky, the fog, the land,” he says. The tripartite structure also signals the fact that San Francisco is foggy nearly a third of the year: “I thought, ‘Could the flag have a degree of infographic built into it?’” The circle doubles as the sun and the letter O, a nod to the region’s original occupants, the Ohlone. The green triangles—code for Twin Peaks and a reference to seismic activity—pay tribute to the municipal terrain. “People and companies will come and go, but that landscape will always be here,” Heiman says.

Mende Design
Jeremy Mende, creative director
The bison silhouette refers to the nonnative bison in Golden Gate Park—apt symbols, the designer believes, for the city’s population of transplants. “Everyone can remake themselves in San Francisco,” says Mende. The banner's other prime elements riff on familiar flag tropes: The bison’s three colors reference the diversity suggested by the rainbow LGBT flag. The star’s position mirrors that of the red star in California’s bear flag. “The star is black,” says Mende, “because San Francisco is a land of inward thinkers, people who are into the dark matter behind ideas.”

Rachel Berger
Graphic design chair, California College of the Arts
Berger is the only designer who submitted a flag that also works upside down: Its zigzagging arrow can point up in prosperity and down in hardship, allowing the flag to change with the times. Since the gold rush, says Berger, “the story of San Francisco has never been flat. It always seems to be a huge windfall for someone or a huge loss for someone else.” The flippable design gives the flag a built-in capacity for social commentary. “If you’re feeling like you’re going down while everyone else is going up, you can say that with your flag,” she says.


Read more New Rules of Design coverage here.

Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco

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