01 September 2015

Flagged for deletion

So the final shortlist of four flags has been selected by the Flag Consideration Panel and released for public scrutiny. Unsurprisingly given the stated wishes of the Prime Minister for a silver fern on black, the panel has loyally picked three fern designs, along with one solitary curling koru. Two are slight variations on each other, with either red or black in the top left corner. They represent a useful opportunity for the Government to divert attention towards a trivial matter, or rather away from its own record. Also unsurprisingly, none of the flags represents a compelling alternative to the existing flag.

Chiefly this is due to the lack of skills on the panel. Tellingly, no-one with actual expertise in designing flags was appointed. Only one of the 12 members, Malcolm Mulholland, is listed as being a 'flag historian', presumably for fear of muddying the process by contributing a perspective of someone who knew what they were talking about. Instead a panel of amateurs have tinkered around on the taxpayers' tab and decided on a selection of graphic designs that bear little resemblance to a flag of lasting merit. Even if you don't like the presence of the Union Flag in the canton of the current New Zealand ensign, the four selected alternatives are a poor excuse for a tech drawing class rather than a unifying symbol of nationhood.

The existing flag works as a design because it is grounded in centuries of design tradition. It has the virtue of simplicity, and a legacy of continuous use for over a century. Certainly it sports the Union Flag, which I have no problem with, but I acknowledge others do. The British origins of New Zealand statehood may not be warmly embraced by modern New Zealanders, but that doesn't erase the actual history of the foundation of the nation, which was a partnership between the British crown and Maori. Our language, government, laws, economy, sport, and many of our cultural traditions stem from British origins, whether this is popularly understood or not in an increasingly multicultural country with a short attention span.

The new designs are striking for their lack of understanding of the basic principles of flag design, and in part this is because the designers have all opted for approaches that aren't from the world of flags, but rather from the world of corporate logo design. This selection of logos would be ideal banners on corporate letterhead for a Buy NZ Made brand or alongside a tourism slogan, but do not have the impact, heritage or gravitas of a lasting flag design. (They certainly bear all the hallmarks of, say, a grotty collection of clipart. Or perhaps, as Finlay MacDonald has pointed out, they might suffice on a beach towel).  

A successful design must include meaningful symbology, and for some the All Blacks are the most important part of the New Zealand identity. However, it should not be controversial to point out that a national flag is not the same thing as a sporting banner, and that many people's definition of New Zealand is far broader than just its sports teams. Conventionally, the use of black in significant portions of a flag is also frowned upon due to its low visibility at night, and piratical connotations. (Although that didn't stop the Belgians).

Perhaps the saving grace of these lacklustre designs is that it makes the retention of the existing flag more likely. It may not be perfect but it has far more merit than any of these half-arsed MS Paint botch jobs. We need to start again from scratch to avoid a shoddy mess just around the corner. One way we could do this is to ask an actual expert. One of the oft-cited success stories of modern flag design is the South African unity flag; this was designed by one man, an expert in flag design named Fred Brownell, who was the state herald of South Africa in 1994. Someone should ask him what he makes of these designs; and consider the benefits of taking the radical step of asking someone who actually has a clue about producing a flag that doesn't end up making us a laughing-stock.
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