Syracuse, Orange, and Identity

Written by: Eric Hart



Time to read 6 min

The identity of the city of Syracuse, NY, has a deep-rooted connection to the color orange. It's even prominently featured in the city's new flag. Let's explore the reasons why "Syracuse Orange" endures and my decision to include it in the city flag.

The Orange Debate

A hot topic in comment sections during the semi-finalist round of the Syracuse flag redesign competition (including the First Light flag) was whether or not the flag should feature the color orange.

Half of the online commenters felt that it just wouldn’t be a Syracuse city flag if there was no orange in the design. The other half felt that the city flag should absolutely not use the color orange in any way in hopes of distancing the new city identity from that of Syracuse University’s, which prominently features orange.

I felt strongly about including orange in my flag design and naturally sided with the prior, but it’s important to make clear that both sides had a valid argument. Diving deeper into the history of orange in Syracuse gives some context as to why folks felt the way they did and why I ultimately chose to use orange.

The History of Orange in Syracuse

There’s no denying that the color orange is indelibly linked to Syracuse. In order to have a conversation about the color orange in Syracuse, we have to talk about Syracuse University. It’s a clear fact that the university is the reason why orange has permeated the city.

Due to the national popularity of collegiate sports, people naturally think of the color orange when they think of our city. Syracuse University often does fairly well and garners lots of attention. Our collegiate sports teams are named the “Syracuse Orange” across all sports categories. Their jerseys are all orange. Live sporting events on television display our teams’ stats atop orange chyrons. Fans that flock to our college stadium adorn themselves in orange. Our team mascot, Otto, is a furry, orange blob. University advertising throughout the city is designed in orange. It’s all orange, all the time, and it all comes from SU. So, where did the university’s use of orange come from?

The roots of orange in Syracuse can be traced back to the Dutch establishing New Amsterdam (later known as New York City) under their “House of Orange” flag in 1625. It was a tri-color flag of blue, white, and orange. The university referenced this historical account when they switched their colors from pink and green to blue and orange in 1890. It was said that orange was chosen because it was, “symbolic of the golden apples of Hesperia, of the glory of the sunrise, and of hopes of a golden future. It is the hue of strength, vigor, and confidence." There’s also a story of a professor from the class of 1877 who submitted orange as a color option because, "to his knowledge, not a single university or college had orange alone as its color." After orange was officially chosen, our collegiate teams became the “Orange Men” from this point forward.

Not to put too blunt a point on calling themselves the Orange Men, in 1931, university athletics came up with the idiotic idea of debuting a new mascot called, “The Saltine Warrior,” a wildly racist caricature of a Native American member of the Onondaga Nation dressed in a headdress and war paint. The mascot danced around stadiums and elicited belly laughs from the crowds. Mercifully, after 40 years of mocking the skin color and culture of the native people from whom Syracuse stole its land, the mascot was finally retired in 1978. Otto, the circular, hairy, orange meatball, was unleashed in 1980, and the team started the slow transition to becoming simply the “Syracuse Orange.”

Orange Expansion

As collegiate sports became more nationally renowned in the early to mid-1900's, the color orange began to slowly expand its presence throughout Syracuse culture in places that had no connection to the university. Local companies, institutions, and residents chose to leverage the brand equity orange was earning through university athletics to brand their intellectual property with a Syracusan flair. Today, you can find orange used in countless ways all over the city. Some examples would be in the branding of:

-The Syracuse Orchestra

-Taste of Syracuse

-Syracuse Nationals

-Public Art Murals

-YWCA of Syracuse & Onondaga Co.

-The Great New York State Fair

-Dinosaur BBQ

-Rosamond Gifford Zoo

-TAPS The Arts Project Syracuse

-Nave Law Firm

-Oh My Darling

-Syracuse Northeast Community Center

-Onondaga County Public Libraries

-Advance Media New York

The color orange has escaped the confines of history and the university to weave its way into the very fabric of our daily lives. I’d argue that the color orange is now so strongly connected to the city of Syracuse that if the university were to disappear tomorrow, the color orange would stick around as part of our identity for at least another century. This is as much a testament to the marketing acumen of the university as it is to the feeling among residents that orange is truly a part of who they are. It’s the everyday people of Syracuse that have given the color the power that it has today. It’s the people who will pass Orange on to the next generations of Syracusans.

Using Orange in Syracuse's New City Flag

The color orange has accumulated strong brand recognition that has ripened alongside our city. In my opinion, not leveraging this would have been a sorely missed opportunity. For me, a Syracuse city flag that lacked the color orange would be missing an important historical connection to our past and would have put the flag at a disadvantage during the flag redesign competition. Orange, in all its diverse flavors and meanings, is something we Syracusans rally behind. A flag with no orange would have been a flag with no support.

I also wanted to use the color orange to help conjure feelings of fellowship and cooperation with Albany, our state capital, and New York City, New York State's most prominent city. Both of their flags use orange as a reference to New York's Dutch history.

The central orange star in Syracuse's First Light flag is meant to symbolize the sun, warmth, regeneration, restoration, courage, passion, creativity, and strength. These concepts were important for me to build into the city flag because I believed the flag needed to be an aspirational symbol for the city. We are a city that has had a rough go of it for decades, and we're finally on the precipice of a new, brighter future as our local economy starts to grow, strengthen, and modernize. Deciding to position the color as an energizing symbol of growth for Syracuse felt natural. It was figuring out how exactly to use it visually and symbolically that was the challenge.

Interestingly, although the orange six-pointed star is the flag's main feature, the proportion of its orange color only represents 7% of the colors present on the flag. This visual balance was intentional. The orange gives the eye a solid, central element to focus on, but never becomes overbearing. This balance is reflected in the fact that, although Orange is an indelible part of Syracuse’s identity, it is far from the only part.

From a technical standpoint, the specific orange color in the flag, HEX #FF671F, comes from the British Navy's "Flags of All Nations Standard Color Set.” This standardized set of colors, specifically created for use in flags, has been used by flag designers around the globe for decades. It is generally accepted that flags should use colors from this set unless a valid reason can be provided for a departure. It’s a wholly different shade of Syracuse orange than the “SU Primary Orange,” #F76900, that the university uses. This was an intentional decision. I wanted to utilize an orange that would be unique to the city and distinct from the university. In fact, I'm hoping to rehabilitate our thinking that orange = university. The color is much more than that now, just like our city.

Wrap up

After all is said and done, I stand firmly by my decision to utilize orange in our First Light city flag. Honestly, I was happy to see the heated debates online about its use because it let me know the color was important to our residents. I could see that the decision to use the color or not would have a real, tangible effect on their local identities. Orange has been a part of our local identity for 134 years. It has since exploded from its modest origins as a university color and has been embedded into every nook and cranny of city life. I'm happy that the orange in the First Light flag can pay homage to this history and serve as a guiding light to help propel ourselves together, ever upward.

Check out a few products below that feature the new Syracuse orange present in the First Light flag.

Eric Hart in front of Syracuse City Hall

The Author: Eric Hart

Eric is owner of First Light Syracuse Goods™ and design studio Hartbreakers Creative. He's an eighth-generation Syracusan and designer of the Syracuse city flag, "First Light."

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