Civic Iconography: Raising The Queen City’s Standard

This is the second in a series of posts about civic design, iconography, and branding. Some of these ideas I’ve had for awhile, but now with GOOD Ideas for Cities coming to Cincinnati I figure it is a good time to share. The first post in this series was about Cincinnati’s own typeface. Read it here.

The flag, or standard, of Cincinnati is the subject of this post. To begin, a quick description of the flag via the Fountain Square blog:

The flag design was the result of a contest and the winning design was selected in 1895, but not formally adopted until 1940. The blue color represents the river, the red “C” stands for Cincinnati, and the Buckeye leaf on top is for the State of Ohio. The symbols in the center of the flag all have significance and represent important qualities of a city. The Winged rod signifies commerce and the serpents represent wisdom. The scales signify justice and the sword represents authority and power. Lastly the phrase “Juncta Juvant” translates from Latin to “Unity Assists” or “It’s better to work together”.

The winged rod encircled by two serpents is a caduceus. It and the other symbols within the “C” are taken from the city’s seal circa 1819:

Seal of the City of Cincinnati

Aaron Renn, The Urbanophile, wrote an excellent piece one year ago titled “Civic Iconography Done Right – Chicago’s City Flag” in which he explained:

I’ve written on a number of occasions on why cities should look to strengthen their visual identity and distinctive character using civic icons or images that can provide a powerful graphical or design representation of the city. For example, I wrote about I wrote about how London’s use of its civic icons – it’s red buses, black cabs, bobby uniforms, phone booths, and tube logo – had assumed an almost totemistic stature there.

In the United States, I’d have to rate Chicago far and away #1 in the use of official civic symbols (maybe the best in the world for all I know), and also note the overall high level of design quality of these objects.

Renn goes on to display a whole assortment of symbolic adaptations based on the Chicago flag. Chicago’s flag lends itself well to customization because it is both simple and recognizable.

Here’s an image of the Chicago flag for your reference followed by a collage showing some of the ways Chicagoans have personalized the city’s standard:

Flag of Chicago

Chicago’s Wrigley Field even displays the city flag of Cubs’ opponents, via baseballchurch:

Chicagoans also have a fairly good understanding of what the city flag’s symbols represent:

In 2004 the North American Vexillogical Association (NAVA) asked its members to rate the flags of 150 American cities on a scale from 1 to 10 based on his or her personal opinion about what constitutes a good flag design. Cincinnati’s flag ranked relatively high at 22nd nationally. Washington DC placed first and Chicago came in second. Indianapolis and Louisville also placed well with ratings of 8th and 9th, respectively. The rest of the results can be viewed here.

Cincinnati’s flag is older than most with a creation date of 1895. The flags of the other four cities listed were adopted decades later: Washington DC (1938), Chicago (1939 based on 1917 design), Indianapolis (1963), Louisville (1949, though a new flag was adopted around the time of NAVA’s ranking due to the Louisville/Jefferson county merger in 2003). In the cursory search necessary to find the origin dates of those flags, I see that the flag of Cincinnati is the only one of these five without its own wikipedia page…something else do to…

I think Cincinnati’s flag is charming. It’s uncomplicated and symbolic yet detailed and specific to Cincinnati. It lacks the stark simplicity of a naval signal flag which cannot be said for many other flags. Cincinnati’s flag design feels handmade and almost artisanal, like it wouldn’t be out of place hand-drawn in pen and ink for the Original Maker’s Club. That’s only my opinion, however. Someone who ought to know better is Ted Kaye, the NAVA survey’s organizer and Portland, Oregon-based author of Good Flag, Bad FlagBack when the survey was released, the Enquirer quoted Kaye as saying, “Cincinnati’s flag scored well because it has a very modern look.” Tomato, tomahto. Regardless, Cincinnati has a nice flag.

In another stellar post from The Urbanophile, he shares a presentation of “15 Quick, Easy, and Cheap Ways to Make a Big Urban Design Impact in Indianapolis” and the lessons from it can be applied to Cincinnati. Two in particular relate to this post:

  • Embrace the city flag:
    • Indy has a pretty awesome city flag – it is even better than some countries’ – but you rarely see it.
    • You should see the city flag everywhere the US and state flag are flying
    • It ought to be on every city letterhead, uniform and vehicle
    • Private businesses and citizens should be encouraged to fly it as well.
  • New Street sign with iconography
    • Design a new street sign that incorporates the city flag. How hard is that?
    • Even better, use that as the base design, but if the street is named after a person or place, replace the flag with an artist’s rendering of the eponymous person, as in this example in the lower left from Madrid.

Street sign with iconography, via

Now imagine Cincinnati’s flag coupled with its own typeface on its street signs. How great would that be? That’s one simple and easy way to make Cincinnati more unique and attractive.

The flag and seal aren’t as prevalent as I think they should be, but they’re not total absent either.

Building Cincinnati snapped these photos of the city flag and seal (via UrbanOhio):

Flag of Cincinnati, credit: buildingcincinnati

Detail on the former Second District Police Station, Arch Street, credit: buildingcincinnati

The pillars at Washington Park also bear the city’s seal. Here’s a pre-renovation closeup of the seal on the column. Once I obtain an image of a refinished pillar, I’ll replace this image.

Washington Park pillar with city seal, via ink on urbanohio

Flickr user elycefeliz snapped this photo of the city seal at the Fire Museum of Greater Cincinnati:

Seal of the City of Cincinnati at the Fire Museum of Greater Cincinnati, via Elyce Feliz

Brad Thomas from the CincyStreetcar blog created this streetcar logo is based on the city seal and incorporates the design elements of the flag. Thomas explains:

The colors of the 3 wavy lines (symbolizing the river) are the same as the 2 straight lines of the seal (symbolizing railroad tracks). And the Streetcar logo is the same color as the “C”.

Update: Twitter user Queen City Beer Nerd (@QCBeerNerd) shared the following photo of the University of Cincinnati’s football team running onto the field with a Cincinnati flag- which they did before every home game:

University of Cincinnati Bearcats running onto the field with a Cincinnati flag

Update II: Sara Bedinghaus shared this photo of the door knobs at City Hall that bear the city seal:

Cincinnati City Hall door knob bearing city seal, via Sara Bedinghaus

Icons and symbols of a city help tell its story. They intrigue visitors, remind locals of our history, and cultivate a sense of place. Cincinnati’s story, it seems, has flummoxed even some of the city’s top PR pros. So much so that there’s an entire Story Project dedicated to developing Cincinnati’s “master narrative“. It’s an interesting campaign and one that I will discuss more fully in my next post in this series.

Lastly, if you’d like to fly the flag of Cincinnati, you can buy them online and hopefully at a local flag store if you’re in the city. The National Flag Company at 1819 Freeman Avenue in the West End might be a good place to start your search if you want to support a local business. Know of a local flag shop that sells Cincinnati’s flag? Leave a comment, and I’ll update his post. Thanks!

8 Responses to “Civic Iconography: Raising The Queen City’s Standard”
  1. Nemo Wolfe says:

    I’ve been trying to find a lapel pin made from the city flag. I’d much rather sport that than Ohio or even the U.S. flag.

  2. Quimbob says:

    The staff & snakes is a caduceus. Usually represents Mercury/Hermes. That’s kinda cool, tho, what with the printing & broadcasting industries that came along in the city later on.
    My only issue with the flag is that I think it’s “skinny” & has too much white space.
    But you’re right, it could be used a lot more.

  3. Williams says:

    This cleans up the interior nicely but the buckeye leaves should also be brought forward time. Perhaps they could larger and slip downward onto the face of the “C”.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] Streetcar among other things. A color scheme has not been selected yet. It would be nice to see some elements of the city’s flag incorporated, however. UrbanCincy has a nice rundown of the entire address […]

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