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A Missouri county asks for help designing a new seal after old one turns heads online

St. Francois County

Updated January 6, 2022 at 12:08 PM ET

In theory, the seal of St. Francois County, Mo., has all the trappings of a normal, classic government seal: A bald eagle pictured across a waving American flag, with a Bible, cross, shovel and pickax all encircled by the text "The Great Seal of St. Francois County" and "In God we trust."

But normal, classic government seals do not typically get a lot of attention on social media.

Posted to Reddit's "CrappyDesign" subreddit over the weekend, the modest St. Francois County seal attracted nearly 17,000 upvotes and comments describing it as "free clip-art," "Adobe photoshop free trial" and "strong 'Made in powerpoint' vibes."

Now, commissioners in the small, rural county in eastern Missouri say they will hold a public contest for a new seal.

"There's a fever pitch, I understand, on social media about the seal of the county," said Presiding Commissioner Harold Gallaher at a county commission meeting on Tuesday.

The quantity of images on the seal — and that they are full-color photographs rather than more simple renderings — makes it "an artistic and a design challenge," said Ted Kaye, the secretary of the North American Vexillological Association and compiler of the group's guidebook for flag design called "Good Flag, Bad Flag."

"It's a challenge, even for county seals. Often seals are quite detailed because they're meant to be put on a piece of paper and seen close up," he said. "This is clearly a kitchen sink seal."

How the current seal came to be

The impression on social media that the seal was designed by an amateur turns out to be correct: Gallaher, who is in his 70s and has a background as a mechanical engineer, designed the county's current seal in 2018.

"I've said a 5-year-old kid with a high fever could do a better job than I did," he said Tuesday at the county commission meeting.

At its unveiling in 2018, Gallaher said the county seal had not been updated "in years," according to the Daily Journal newspaper. "So, with some simple software, I brought up this new one, and we've adopted that now as our county seal," he said then.

In an email to NPR, Gallaher explained that before 2018, the previous county seal only existed in the form of a fabric needlework design, meaning it could not easily be reproduced by a printer.

He learned of the issue with a printing deadline just days away. "I found some software and designed a digital seal with the same elements as the original. I wanted an 'aggressive' eagle as most seals make the eagle appear stuffed. I am not an artist, but it worked for the time being," he said.

Over the years, Gallaher said, negative comments about the seal have outnumbered the positive comments.

"I have always told the person making any comment that I would welcome any improved design ideas they may have, but no one ever went that far," Gallaher said. "Now, with the matter at such a high-attention getting furor, it is time to make it a project and get the job done — and done well."

It's time for a new one

At the Tuesday meeting, Gallaher declared that the time had come for something new, joking that the current seal is "proof positive that I am not artistically inclined."

The parameters of the contest will be announced at the county commission meeting next Tuesday. Although the county is not willing to spend taxpayer funds on design fees, the winner will receive a small prize funded by donations from county officials.

Ideally, Gallaher said, the new seal should include all of the symbols on the current one, along with a new symbol representing the county's many parks. It should also include less of the color red ("It fades too quickly," he said).

Perhaps most importantly, the new seal should be "better than the seal we have now," Gallaher said Tuesday to a round of laughs.

Kaye, the flag design expert, says many of the same principles of successful flag design can also be applied to seals — namely, "simplicity, meaningful symbolism, few colors and distinctiveness."

This story originally appeared in the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.