The use of a crown image to represent King County -- which was named (originally) not for a monarch but for Vice President-elect William Rufus de Vane King (1786-1853) -- dates back to the 1950s. In 1960, a graphic arts firm received $1,000 for a revised crown logo, which featured a six-pointed crown and the words "King County" inside a circle.
Ten years later, a bolder design was sought to make the logo visible at a greater distance and, according to some reports, to avoid confusion between county vehicles and those belonging to KING-TV. The King County Arts Commission, for which the redesign was a top priority, selected Mits Katayama to create the new insignia.
Katayama, a charter member and past president of the Society of Professional Graphic Artists (now SPGA/Seattle Chapter of the Graphic Artists Guild), was a prominent Seattle graphic designer. Born in Auburn, Katayama was interned as a teenager along with his family and other Japanese Americans during World War II. After being released, he graduated from Seattle's Garfield High School and served in the Army before beginning a career as a commercial artist. Katayama designed the signage system used at Sea-Tac Airport in the 1960s. In the 1970s he developed environmental design and signage for the Woodland Park Zoo. In recent years, Katayama has become known for his children's book illustrations.
Katayama's insignia retained the concept of a crown inside a circle, but featured a much bolder, three-pronged crown, inside two thick concentric circular bands, above the words "King County." The design, for which Katayama was paid $1,000, was unveiled by the 12-member County Arts Commission on January 26, 1971. It was incorporated into new Department of Public Safety badges and used on patrol cars and other county vehicles, and on County signs, forms, and stationery. The design was slightly modified in 1984, when the band of the inner circle was made thinner.
The Crown Deposed
Over the years, various proposals were made to change the logo. In 1995, in anticipation of the January 1, 1996, merger between King County and Metro, County Councilmember Louise Miller and Executive Gary Locke (b. 1950) promoted a contest to create a new logo. Eight finalists were selected but the council was not impressed with any of the designs and no change was made.
Although the County Council had voted 10 years earlier to make Martin Luther King Jr., rather than Vice President William King, the County's namesake, none of the logos proposed in 1996 included an image of the civil rights leader. However, in 1999, Councilmember Larry Gossett (b. 1945) introduced a measure to change the crown logo to a likeness of Martin Luther King.
In a 2016 article, Gossett recalled that his proposal was inspired by Eddie Rye Jr., who in the early 1980s had led the successful effort to rename Seattle's Empire Way in honor of Martin Luther King. At the 1999 Martin Luther King Day March and Rally (an annual event that counted both Gossett and Rye among its key organizers) at Garfield High School:
"Eddie Rye Jr. turned to me in front of the crowded gym and demanded that I sponsor an ordinance changing the King County logo from an imperial crown to the image of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Eddie argued that in 1986 the county's name was changed to honor ... Dr. King. The crowd responded with wild applause. It took several years and enormous community pressure to make the image of Dr. King our county logo" (Gossett).
Gossett's proposal was resisted, in part because of an estimate that changing the logo would cost $3 million, which was later withdrawn as greatly inflated. Another stumbling block was that the 1986 Council motion redesignating the county in honor of Reverend King lacked legal effect, because only the state legislature can officially name or rename counties. That obstacle was cleared in 2005 when the legislature passed and Governor Christine Gregoire signed a law renaming King County in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.
On February 27, 2006, the County Council voted 7-2 to replace the 35-year-old crown logo with an image of Dr. King. Following a competitive process in which 29 local and national firms vied for the contract, Gable Design Group, Tony Gable, Nancy Mitsui Frederick, Alan Jennings, and Karin Yamagiwa Madan, with Vivian Phillips and Sharon Maeda Gable, were selected to design the new logo. The new logo was unveiled on March 11, 2007, in a ceremony at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, and the council unanimously adopted the design the following day. The new logo was phased in over five years as the county used up materials featuring the old logo before ordering replacements with the new one.