Though Alex Gilkey ’21 graduated in the spring, the recent Kenyon alumnus has maintained a unique connection to the Hill through his pursuit of vexillology, the study of flags. After four years of extensive research, Gilkey has started to sell his redesign of the Kenyon flag, with the goal of one day officially changing the current iteration.
“My hope is that by [the College] seeing students using this symbol, knowing that it’s a change in the right direction, they would maybe want to start using that as well,” he said.
As a first year, Gilkey embarked on a personal mission to learn more about the Kenyon flag. Gilkey’s initial interest in vexillology started after watching a TED Talk by radio producer Roman Mars, who shed light on the often-overlooked details of flag design. Mars laid down a basic foundation for the universal rules of “good” flag design, which include simplicity and meaningful symbolism.
“The reality is, people don’t realize the power of a well-designed flag. It’s basically free advertising for [the place it represents],” Gilkey said. “If you’ve ever been to Chicago, you’ll see that the flag is used everywhere because it’s visually appealing and represents the city’s past. The same is true for Washington, D.C. and Portland, Oregon.”
Gilkey believes that Kenyon has the potential to improve its current flag, which doesn’t appeal to Mars’ standards of “good” flag design because of its complex colors and intricate wording.
Gilkey’s commitment to vexillology continued to deepen throughout his time at Kenyon. During his sophomore year, he reached out to College Historian and Keeper of Kenyoniana Thomas Stamp ’73 to learn more about the significance of Kenyon’s flag and shield.
“[Kenyon] cares a lot about our iconography,” Gilkey said. “The shield has been around for almost 100 years … We care a lot about that symbol specifically.”
Although flag designers typically stray from putting shields directly on the flags, Gilkey emphasized the importance of preserving certain heraldry in a creative way. “Vexillologists have rules that they can rely on to transfer what they like about a seal or shield and put that into a flag,” Gilkey said. “Design-wise, that’s where I wanted to start… I wanted to take the three main elements of the [Kenyon] shield and put that onto a flag.”
Gilkey’s redesign is evocative of his extensive planning, research and understanding of the Kenyon community and history.
“I wanted to give these symbols [from the shield] meaning,” Gilkey said. He explained that the crosses are representative of Kenyon’s academic disciplines: the fine arts, humanities and natural and social sciences. The shield also bears a chevron to reflect the cumulative journey that Kenyon students experience during their four years on the Hill. In his redesign of the flag, Gilkey incorporated the College’s traditional colors — purple, white and gold — to respectively represent community, truth and excellence.
Gilkey didn’t only consult Stamp, the Campus Senate, Student Council and President Sean Decatur throughout his process — he also reached out to the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA), of which he is now an avid member.
NAVA prides itself on being “the largest organization of flag enthusiasts and scholars in the world,” making it the ideal body to examine Gilkey’s redesign. A panel of NAVA experts compared the original Kenyon flag with Gilkey’s drafted version, which he describes as a “rudimentary” design created in Microsoft Word. His design, although preliminary, received a rating of 8.9 out of 10, compared with the original Kenyon flag, which was awarded only 2.5 points.
Additionally, Gilkey made significant progress in raising student and community awareness of his vision. His proposal for a new flag was officially supported by the Student Council in 2020, and he has engaged in several conversations with Decatur about moving forward with a new design. Though the process for official approval is tedious, Gilkey is currently taking a “bottom-up” approach by selling his redesigned flags directly to students.
Gilkey recognizes that it may take time for a more official marketing approach to occur, and for now is satisfied with connecting on a personal level with the student body.
After ordering around 50 flags, Gilkey has sold nearly all of them, and hopes to order more if he continues to receive interest. He is committed to selling his flags at as low of a cost as possible, while in the process donating 10% of proceeds to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, an issue that Gilkey explored at length as a sociology major at Kenyon.
“I view flags as being representative of what a community wants to be and what it strives for,” Gilkey said. “It’s something that we can take with us, [something that] we can physically hold and say, ‘These shapes and colors represent what we strive to be in our best state.’”
Anyone interested in purchasing a flag can contact Gilkey at firstname.lastname@example.org, reach him on Instagram through @alex.gilkey, or visit his website www.alexgilkey.com/