Opinion: Flag selection process a "flawed, dishonest pantomime"

Michael Smythe enters the flagellation fray with a constructive critique of the populist flag selection process.

Flawed process

The alarm bells rang when the Flag Consideration Panel devoid of design expertise was announced. It was hoped that it might act as a client and engage with designers. Questions for the Flag Consideration Panel were posed through the Designers Institute but no answers were forthcoming.

It now seems clear that marketing and PR, including the public consultation pantomime, were the panel’s preferred tools. Rather than think for themselves, preferably with knowledgeable advice, they commissioned UMR Research to inform their selection. Lowest common denominator, corny, comfortable clichés were the inevitable outcome. They may have the instant appeal of familiarity, but there is nowhere to grow.

‘Democratic design’ might be fashionable in some quarters but it will never lead the way. As leading graphic designer Bret de Thier has pointed out, the Eiffel Tower and the Sydney Opera House would never have been built had popular opinion been a prerequisite to implementation.

Dishonest agenda

The purpose of this exercise was always to foist the fern upon the flag as a 'Key' element of the long-running 'brand New Zealand' strategy. The PM has been open about his preference from the start – he said as much the day after Waitangi Day 2010 and it was designed by Breakfast time. 

A fern-based visual identity system has been evolving since Saatchi & Saatchi attempted to build its NZ Edge ‘blackout’ campaign around the 1999 RWC. It evolved through The New Zealand Way programme and its current iteration is the punchline of the New Zealand Story created to promote New Zealand trade, tourism and cultural experiences. The idea is to build global recognition, visibility, synergy and perceived value through consistent imagery. The cunning plan is honestly articulated here on the Designworks website:

Designing the country's official silver fern was just one part of the job of bringing together all the ingredients needed to accelerate New Zealand's brand on the world stage.  

Developing a coherent New Zealand Story makes sense. The new flag project, and the Prime Minister’s declared preference for the fern, is clearly part of the plot but the lack of transparency has created the whiff of conspiracy. The ‘shock horror’ revelation that panel member Julie Christie sits on the New Zealand Story board had the twittersphere calling ‘mistrial!’ (although she had declared a conflict of interest) and the logic of Alofi Kanter's black and white fern flag (right) was not explained.



Integrating the flag with the New Zealand Story should have been openly proposed as at least one valid approach. We might then have intelligently debated better directions such as the Gordon Walters visual language. Meanwhile more and more marketing and PR will be employed, at the taxpayers’ expense, to manipulate the masses into delivering a foregone fern flag conclusion.

The wisdom of crowds

Into the Slough of Despond Rowan Simpson galloped, flying Aaron Dustin’s ‘Red Peak’ flag (originally submitted as ‘First to the Light’). Henry Oliver’s recent Idealog article did a great job of documenting the pathway. Red Peak is doing what good flags should – it is leading from the front and rallying support. Of course the marketing and PR tools of social media have been employed but it has built a following on its merits. It is simple, abstract, strong and ‘flagish’. And it is capable of evolution as a mark of identity beyond the flagpole.

Having trumpeted the worthiness of ‘trusting the people to choose their flag’, John Key must heed the call to put Red Peak on the ballot for the first referendum. His attempts to make it look like other parties are responsible for not changing the law is fooling only those who believe he can do no wrong. The government does not need cross-party support to introduce a bill in their own name, and under the existing law they can use an Order in Council to replace one of the chosen four.

Design rules

Paradoxically the exclusion of professional designers from the Flag Consideration Panel, and the mediocre outcome of its expensive deliberations, has built respect for the design profession. When designers do their job well their contribution seems effortless and even invisible.

Today’s successful innovators are using Design Thinking to lead the way. The process discovers needs and wants that have yet to be articulated. Engagement and empathy guide the way to intended outcomes clearly stated in the form of a design brief or performance specification. Imagineering and informed creativity generate concepts that evolve through testing and evaluation. Many iterations later a successful outcome will have unique qualities, turn heads and stand out from the crowd long enough for the deeper story to gain traction. It’s leadership by design.

When the current process is over and dissatisfaction reigns supreme it will be time to take stock and consider how it could be done better. Trial and error applies as much to evolving better methods as it does to developing better solutions. A good design-driven process will clarify and articulate the purpose of the project, engage ‘the client’ and distinguish us with an outcome of lasting value.