You probably didn’t know Salem had a flag. Or that its design is so bad by certain standards that someone is hosting a contest to design a new one.

Brian McKinley is on a mission to make Salem’s flag better.

As a member of Salem’s planning commission, he started a subcommittee in January with the intent to change the flag with its white star radiating yellow, blue and green, the word “Salem” and an outline of the Oregon State Capitol.

The subcommittee’s efforts were sidelined because ofCOVID-19, but McKinley is forging ahead with a contest that will run until July 2021.

Flag designs can be submitted online to

McKinley said the flag design was created in the 1970s after local banks held a contest to promote tourism. Not many people know of its existence. One flag is hung in the city council chambers at City Hall.

McKinley said students in the Young Leaders Program at Willamette University will judge the entries and announce finalists next year. Then, he’ll take the winners to Salem City Council for a final decision, but said he’s unsure what the city council’s appetite is for changing the current design.

So far, McKinley has gotten seven submissions but expects there will be hundreds by the time the contest ends. He’s posted about the design contest on pages aimed at flag enthusiasts, as well as on online forum Reddit to spark interest.

Salem’s flag violates many of the five rules for “good flag design” according to the North American Vexillological Association, a group of people passionate about flags.

The rules include keeping the design simple enough to draw from memory, two to three basic colors, no lettering or seals and must be distinctive.

It should also include meaningful symbolism, like the French tri-color flag which used to represent the French Revolution’s goals for liberty, equality and brotherhood.

“It screams 1970s. It says Salem on it. I think it’s just a simple design they copied from the State Capitol. If you look at the rotunda inside, you see the star with five things radiating outside of it,” McKinley said of Salem’s flag.

He said flags invoke spirit and civic pride and serve as a way for a community to rally around a cause.

McKinley pointed to Portland’s flag — a green field with a white four-pointed star radiating blue and yellow stripes — as an example. Portland’s flag was ranked seventh out of 150 city flags in a 2004 survey by the North American Vexillological Association and features prominently at Portland Timbers games. Salem’s flag was ranked 51st.

“They fly it like there’s no tomorrow. If we can come up with something that even approaches the feelings (associated with the Portland flag), then I will be very content with the process that we went through,” McKinley said.

McKinley, who’s the director of the Oregon Legislative Education and Outreach Office, said he’s always been interested in the concept of flags.

Later, when he became director of Oregon Boys State, an American Legion summer civics camp, he taught the kids how to make proper flags for each city they were creating at camp during the 12 years he worked there.

The changes he made at Oregon Boys State, he said, were direct descendants of the original conceptual country he made in the 1980s.

Each year he brings Ted Kaye, a world renowned vexillogist based in Portland who wrote a book on what makes a “good flag,” to the leadership camp to teach kids about creating flags that are representative of something.

“Flags are such an important and integral part of civics that we overlook. We see the flags but don’t realize their importance,” McKinley said. “If you doubt the impact of a flag, go to the State Capitol and run up the Nazi swastika and see what reaction you get from that.”

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