The fate of the flag: the design thinking behind NZ’s biggest brand refresh

The re-design of the New Zealand flag has been a source of vigorous debate. New Zealanders have questioned whether we can afford the $26 million when so many other social systems need attention. Other New Zealanders have wondered whether we ought to redesign it at all when our forefathers fought and died under the flag while others think the change is long past due and we ought to rid ourselves of the Union Jack for another emblem more befitting of our current identity. Then of course there’s the design perspective. Some have questioned whether sourcing designs from the public was the way to go and have wondered whether the panel has enough design nous to make the right decision. We asked Designworks owner Sven Baker who had five designs make the long-list what he thinks and also had a chat to panel member and Saatchi & Saatchi chief executive Nicky Bell to see what the panel thinks a good flag should represent.

The panel released the long-list of designs yesterday, after whittling down 10,000 designs to 40 after receiving guidance from a number of cultural (including tikanga), vexillology, art and design experts to provide confidential technical feedback on the designs under consideration, a released issued by the Flag Consideration Panel says.

By mid-September the panel will announce four alternative designs that will be ranked by eligible voters in the first binding referendum later this year. The second referendum will be held in March next year where New Zealanders will decide between the current flag and the preferred alternative. 

Designworks group chief executive Sven Baker submitted about 100 designs to the panel, of which five were chosen for long-list.

We asked Baker how long it took him to churn that many designs, to which he replied: “I can’t remember, I was under the influence of red wine”. Fair enough.

“There’s never going to be an ideal process that pleases everyone,” Baker says. “The referendum is in the spirit of democracy and to give people a reference point in terms of four short listed designs makes sense. As a professional designer, would I have done it that way? Probably not. But I think it’s a legitimate approach.”

He says with his own designs he tried out a variety of approaches. “I went very wide. I didn’t go in with any preconceptions and I wanted to explore an incredibly wide range of approaches around iconology. All the usual suspects got explored: the silver fern, koru and the Southern Cross were the obvious ones,” he says. “There is a strong theme that went through the long-listed designs. There were very few wild cards.”

He says he’s not too sure why so many of his designs ended up on the long-list. “It’s curious. Because all the ones they selected are all different. And not necessarily the ones I thought would have gone through. I can’t read the minds of the selection panel but I guess they picked a diverse range of the designs I submitted. But I can’t give a rationale as to why they selected the ones they did.”

It’s interesting that the strong voice opposed is, in a large part, of the cost of the project, he says. “But no designers were paid in the creation of design. It’s the process that has incurred significant cost.”

He says he doesn’t think the fact designers weren’t paid for their submissions devalues the profession in any way. “I think it’s a personal choice for people who felt compelled to put the time and energy into considering the issue and putting forward designs of their own free will. I certainly did it willingly. I know there is a purist professional voice that will say you shouldn’t do it but I think it’s a unique once in a lifetime opportunity for all designers to express themselves.”

He says it would be unrealistic to invite such a large participation and expect remuneration. “I don’t think it would have been a good idea to incentivise the winning entries either. I think it’s a fair approach that they invited people to give their time willingly.”

He says he thinks the panel is an impressive group of people. “I can’t comment on their credentials … Could they have benefited from a reflective professional designer, probably. I think it’s an impressive group of people and we entrust these processes to people who have proven and demonstrated capability in broad walks of life. I don’t necessarily think it’s just a design issue.”

The focus has to be on the intent rather than the individual designs, and the intent is for New Zealand to find a unique and bold voice in the world in terms of its identity as represented by its flag, he says. “To be future focused and stand out rather than blending in is the whole purpose I guess.”

“I think it [the flag]should be distinctive and it should have iconology that all New Zealanders can relate to from all cultures. So if you go through the list there’s some core territories. The koru, silver fern and the Southern Cross are not surprising so I think all of them resonate in different ways for different people.”

He says his personal preference is for the silver fern. “I guess through the process I went in with no preconceptions and through the process my personal preference became pretty clear and that’s towards the fern as a contemporary mark that is to New Zealand what the maple leaf is to Canada,” he says. “It’s distinct and it’s highly used already with government, sporting and cultural events and it’s unique and that’s the number one priority of the flag, to be unique. And I don’t think it necessarily has to conform to conventions but for us to stand out we should be bold in the way we think about the design and its uniqueness … It’s just a fascinating process and interesting, that collective consciousness being raised around our national identity.”

Saatchi & Saatchi CEO and member of the panel Nicky Bell was too busy to talk, but provided brief email responses saying she would have more time to discuss the flag design a little further down the track.

She says the panel is tasked with considering what New Zealand feels is unique and important about our country and look at the designs in relation to that. “There’s a lot of focus on making sure that the flags are clearly from Aotearoa New Zealand whilst also being true to the principles of good flag design.”

She says all great country flags represent their identity as a nation and help unite people. “Obviously they also adhere to the principles of good flag design and are distinctive, simple, enduring and work well in all situations from celebration to commemoration.”

Some values New Zealanders say the flag should stand for are: Commonwealth, past, present, future, independence, democracy, equality, history, freedom, heritage, Maori, green, British, tradition, united, unique, Kiwi, free, Pacific and justice to name a few suggestions submitted to the panel over a ten-week period. “Each week the panel published this [the suggestions]on the website. As you would expect, the key values and themes were relatively consistent throughout the ten-week process.”

Every member of the panel viewed all 10,292 designs and greatly appreciated the thought and hard work that was put into the flag suggestions, Flag Consideration Panel chair John Burrows says.

“We would like to thank everyone for their design suggestions and we’ve been impressed with the very high standard. The Panel made a unanimous decision and selected flag designs we believe best reflect New Zealand’s identity, as shared with us in the values and themes that New Zealanders expressed throughout this process.”

He says the panel made its selection of flag designs that it believes best represents the range of suggestions it has received. “It is important that those designs are timeless, can work in a variety of contexts, are simple, uncluttered, balanced and have good contrast.”

The designs will be subject to further robust checks and verification, including intensive intellectual property review, to ensure designs are workable and that there are no impediments for them moving forward in the process, he says.

“As you will appreciate, the panel must remain neutral and unbiased. We will be taking into account a number of factors including design, practicality and technical considerations and will announce the four alternatives by mid-September. Eligible voters will then rank these four alternatives in the first referendum later this year,” Burrows says.

While there eas plenty of discussion about the lack of people turning up to the roadshows, a release from the panel outlines how many New Zealanders have connected with the project: 10,292 alternative designs published, 850,000-plus online visits, 6,000 visits to workshops and information stands, 1.18 million-plus people reached by Facebook, 146,000-plus views of the NZ flag history video and 43,000-plus New Zealanders have shared what they stand for (online and via post).

Flag Consideration Project timeline:

Discuss – May 5 2015

New Zealanders are asked what they stand for. Flag design guidelines are made available.

Create and Share – Until July 16 2015

New Zealanders suggested and shared flag designs until July 16 when suggestions closed.

Select – September 2015

A shortlist of four alternative designs will be selected by the panel.

Referendum One – November-December 2015

The first postal referendum will determine the preferred alternative.

Referendum Two – March 2016

The second postal referendum will be held to decide between the current flag and the preferred alternative.

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