12 February 2010

Passport design fail

I know I won’t win friends by saying this, and I know not many people will agree with me when I say it.  The new New Zealand passport design, featuring as it does the bold silver fern on black markings of countless All Black rugby supporters’ banners, is a step backwards in terms of design and I wish I could keep my old one. 

I’ll even go further and say that the growing trend of stamping this silver fern logo on everything to do with New Zealand has only slightly more merit than the feeble cliché of replacing the letters ‘…ns’ at the end of words like Visions or Creations with the letters ‘…nz’ to make Visionz or Creationz, which in turn is just about as clever as those tedious people who think writing in Comic Sans gives a document a non-threatening, easy-read feel or that the sign-writing for children’s playcentres has to have ‘adorable’ mis-spellings or the letter S written backwards to simulate innocent ignorance. 

There.  I said it.  I’ve equated the silver fern, beloved symbol of many thousands of New Zealanders, with the trait of ignorance.  If I had a house New Zealanders would probably now try to burn it down, because that’s what we do now when something disagreeable happens.  Pitchforks may well be involved at some point too.

This all begins in my recent application for a replacement passport to my trusty old document, which is now slightly worn around the edges but full of hard-won border stamps.  (It always feels like a bit of a let-down if they don’t bother to give you a stamp when you enter a new country, doesn’t it?)  Due to my upcoming travel arrangements I felt I should probably apply for a new passport early, despite my current one being valid until August.  My preliminary queries to the DIA office at the NZ High Commission in Haymarket revealed that they were still issuing the old format NZ passport, which was something of a relief – I wanted to get my application in before the old stock ran out and was replaced by the new upstart passport.

But as soon as I opened the envelope I knew I was stuck for the next five years with an ugly passport.  It turns out that the new passport stock had turned up at the High Commission, and I had been issued with one of them.  And man, does it look naff.  Here’s the comparison with the old one, and some of the many things just plain wrong with it:


The silver fern: Oh, did you notice it there?  Subtle, isn’t it.  Just like tea-towels with pictures of sheep and snowy mountains on them, the silver fern is a cliché slapped on anything as a shorthand for New Zealandness.  In the real world it actually signifies the All Blacks rugby team, which is an entirely different thing.  Hint: One is an over-exposed game with a silly-shaped ball and the other is a sovereign nation.  Plus they’ve abandoned the usual oblique slant of stylised silver ferns on most banners in favour of a glaring perpendicular blazon up the long side of the passport, front and back.  It looks like some feral eleven-fingered beast has slashed its talons through the passport, or perhaps it’s the remains of someone’s slug collection arranged in order of length.

You can have any colour you like: As long as it's black.  Another rugby cliché.  The old passport was a dignified deep blue – distinguished, restrained, classy.  Perhaps they thought the new one needed slimming after the busy cover design.

Are you dyslexic? New Zealand is a bilingual nation, so our official documents now feature English and Maori.  But it’s yet to be explained why this new passport needs a confusing mishmash of weirdly formatted text adorning its cover.  The old one was straight to the point: New Zealand Passport it said.  The new one has gotten itself into a huge muddle with its font size, in effect spelling out NEW ZEALAND Passport, PASSPORT New Zealand.  Sure, the sentence structure is no doubt reversed in Maori (can someone enlighten me?) but if that’s the case why make the country name the larger font above and the smaller font below?  Is it because we want people to think we’re daft?

Got a magnifying glass?  The New Zealand coat of arms adorning the front cover has been shrunk by a quarter or a third to make room for everything else, so the three ships are now a mess of silver, hard to make out.  People!  It’s quite a good coat of arms.  Had you not noticed?

Get right back:  The reverse of the passport is dominated by the mirror image of the front’s fern logo, plus an embossed outline of New Zealand, plus the embossed letters ‘NZL’ to remind people with New Zealand passports who might have forgotten what the outline of their coastline looks like what the three key letters of their country’s name are.  The overall effect is one of those cheap passport covers made in China that you might find for $1.99 in a tacky tourist dive or perhaps at the second-best Four Square in Dargaville.

Turn that volume down: Inside the passport the pages, which were once simple and unadorned, are now a riot of banknote-like over-design, presumably to deter counterfeiters.  Don’t open your passport if you have a hangover, is all I’m saying.  The page margins are huge, so frequent travellers will find their pages used up more quickly than they’re used to, and for extra added symbolism the page numbers appear in numerical form and written out in Maori, in full.  Precisely what use Syrian border guard colonels will make of the fact that the Maori for 27 is ‘rua tekau ma whitu’ is lost on me.


I’m not disputing the improved security features on offer in the new passport.  It has a solid plastic sheet inside the front cover, no doubt with plenty of whizzy techno bits and a tracking device so the space alien overlords who orchestrate the actions of our quisling human leaders can spot when we buy the ingredients to make our protective tinfoil hats and send out the hit-squads in black helicopters to take us out before we can complete the hats and attain invulnerability to their alien mind-wipe rays.  The plastic sheet even has a banknote-style transparent oval with your own photo embossed within, so now I know what I’ll look like when I come back from the afterlife to haunt my mortal enemies. 

Where was I?  Right.  There’s the irritation factor that they’ve halved the validity of the passport from 10 years to five, which in practical terms means they’ve reduced its usable life from 9.5 years to a mere 4.5 years.  But my main problem with this new design is the fact that most New Zealanders are solidly not in agreement with me when I say that the silver fern is not suitable to represent the entire country.  It’s a rubbish logo because it buys into the stereotype that the only important thing about New Zealand is its rugby team, when actually the All Blacks are one of the least interesting things about New Zealand.

Why is the silver fern logo so popular, even extending to it being supported by an alarming number of people as a substitute for our existing flag?  Because it’s apolitical and ethnically neutral.  Pakeha can see it as a flag without the connotations of colonial heritage, with all that tricky business about the Treaty omitted.  Both Maori and Pakeha (foolishly, I would argue) enjoy the absence of the Union Flag, which adorns the top left corner of the New Zealand flag: Pakeha because it reminds them of their collective origins as the inhabitants of the Britannia of the South Pacific; Maori for lingering bitterness at British colonialism and because it rallies support behind a rugby team which is often far more Maori than Pakeha. 

The silver fern proved a popular flag substitute in the NZ Herald’s recent pointless distraction campaign in favour of a new national flag for New Zealand, which garnered minimal public interest simply because most people couldn’t care less about it, and generally only talked to people who agreed with the premise that the flag needs to be changed.  I, on the other hand, do care about the issue because the current New Zealand flag is a well-designed work of heraldry that’s done a good job since it was first flown last century.  I fail to see why the fact that Australia’s flag is superficially similar is a good reason to change New Zealand’s.  Surely the opinions of people who can’t tell the difference aren’t worth worrying about?

(There’s also a basic problem that stems from public ignorance about flags and their design.  Black is simply a bad colour for flag design.  It symbolises death and piracy, which are not particularly handy on a flag unless you’re perhaps designing a disarmingly frank new national flag for Somalia).

Oh well.  Now that I’m stuck with my new ugly passport I suppose I’ll just have to make more use of the passport cover I was given for Xmas a few years ago.  If I leave it in the cover and only take it out when going through border control, hopefully the guards will take pity on me for the cruddy design of my passport and wave me through just that little bit more quickly?  

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