Design in a bind: How marginalising professionals has failed the flag

Michael Smythe risks making another contribution from the “design elite”.

The negation of professional design is embedded in the legislation enacting the referendum — it is ‘binding’ and the winner ‘will be the official flag of New Zealand’. The profession was also flagellated with insulting Tweets from the Minister who should be championing design-driven innovation.

Throughout the great New Zealand flag debate much has been made of the Canadian example. What has been missed is the crucial factor that made all the difference — the involvement of a skilled designer to develop the chosen concept. Here is a very short summary of the Canadian process:

May 1964 — Liberal Prime Minister Lester Pearson introduced a bill to the Canadian parliament proposing the introduction of his preferred flag — designed by artist and heraldic advisor Alan Beddoe. Known as ‘Pearson’s Pennant’ it met resistance from the opposition because it was so closely associated with Pearson who was heading a minority government.

September 1964 — An all-party Flag Committee was formed to invite submissions and consider options. From the thousands of concepts fifteen were selected to be painted by Alan Beddoe. One concept, submitted as a sketch appended to a detailed letter from George Stanley, Dean of Arts at Royal Military College, won the vote in a final contest against the Pearson Pennant.

November 1964 — Ontario MP John Matheson met with the head of the government Exhibition Commission Patrick Reid and its best graphic designer Jacques St.-Cyr. When Matheson argued for a realistic rendering of the sugar maple leaf Reid and St-Cyr argued that a simplified image would show up better at a distance. St-Cyr got to work doing what good designers do.

February 1965 — The new maple leaf flag was officially inaugurated.

It was only during the 50th anniversary last year that the story of Jacques St.-Cyr’s involvement surfaced. It seems he was introverted and resistant to taking credit — he was just doing his job. But if his crucial contribution had been known the New Zealand government may have established a better process. Of course any competent design advisor would have explained the need for a concept development phase to follow the choice of direction. Clearly no such advice was provided.

According to our election.org website we are now in the process of voting in “the final binding referendum on the future of the New Zealand flag,” and “The flag that gets the most votes in this referendum will be the official flag of New Zealand." Our law excludes the possibility of improving the silver fern/Southern Cross concept should it win the vote.

Is there a design champion in the House? We do have a Minister for Economic Development in charge of the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment which oversees New Zealand Trade and Enterprise which runs the Better by Design programme. But this is what the Hon. Steven Joyce told the world via Twitter on 3 March, the day the second flag referendum officially got underway:

Seems to me there is a lot of intellectual snobbery around the flag debate from the "progressive" left and the "design elite"

Fending off responses Joyce nailed his colours to the mast with this blinding insight:

But that's the point. A "good design" doesn't necessarily win the day with the public (whose flag it is)

So here we are at the end of an expensive exercise in ‘democratic design’ that began with the Canadian flag being held aloft as an exemplar of pride-inducing, profile-enhancing national branding. The best we can hope for is that the status-quo will prevail so we can continue this process of trial and error with the wisdom of hindsight.

References:

http://www.elections.org.nz/events/referendums-new-zealand-flag-0/voting-second-referendum

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flag_of_Canada

http://www.flagforcanada.ca/Flag-Facts-Fictions.aspx

http://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/the-quebec-nationalist-who-designed-canadas-flag/

https://stevenjoyce.national.org.nz/