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Seeing Red (Peak): flawed processes, lessons from South Africa and perfect metaphors

What started as a near-weekly story about the latest poorly attended flag consultation meeting has turned into mounting ridicule in certain circles of the final four designs as corporate branding, tea towels, made in NZ logos or $2 Shop Kiwiana.

Now, many of those critical of the final four (most of whom were apathetic during the consultation period) are sharing odd bedfellows like Rodney Hide and Laila Harre, and mobilising around Red Peak, a submitted design by Aaron Dustin, a Melbourne-based product design director at Xero.

An online petition, asking for the flag to be added to the first referendum has gained over 31,000 signatures. A poll on Stuff.co.nz with over 18,000 responses shows support amongst those respondents at 59%, well ahead of ‘Stick with the current flag’ at 17% and the black and blue version of the Fern + Southern Cross flag at 8%. Dustin has sold $15,000 worth of flags priced at $50 and $200.

Where did we go wrong? Did we get too caught up LOLing about laser kiwis and Pepe the frog to take the process seriously, and now that we’re faced with three choices that aren’t really a choice, and one koru design that has so little support as to be a non-starter, we want to take a mulligan?

Was a long list of 40 too long to give each the consideration it required? As data journalist Keith Ng said on Twitter, you don’t go to a client with 40 designs, not pitch any of them and then expect the client to make a good decision.

Or was the process flawed from the start? Should we have allowed room for reflection on the process as well as just consultation on the flags themselves?

We should have learnt from the process South Africa went through to find a new flag that a divided country had not only accepted, but has got behind as a symbol of a new era.

When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and South Africa began the process of ending apartheid, the nation’s flag became part of the negotiations about what post-apartheid South Africa might look like.

In 1993, the National Symbols Commission held a nationwide public competition, which received over 7,000 designs. Six designs were shortlisted and presented to the public and the Negotiating Council. None were popular, so they tried again. The Commission asked several design studios to submit designs, but again, none were popular.

In early 1994, the chief negotiators for the African National Congress and the government were tasked with resolving the flag issue. Getting the public to design a flag didn’t work. Even getting designers to design a flag didn’t work. So they went to Frederick Brownell, a flag designer (or ‘vexillographer’) who had also designed the Namibian flag.

With the elections nearing, Brownell designed the South African flag as an interim measure, but the flag became so popular, it stuck.

So what are the lessons here?

1. Keep the process open, so you can learn from your failures along the way; and

2. You may get better flag designs from designers, but you may get even better flag designs from flag designers. Or, at the very least, have a flag designer on the panel of people who are selecting the flags.

Red Peak (pictured above in case you’ve managed to escape it over the last few days), is a sharp contrast to the final four selected by the committee. It’s geometric and abstract, while the others are largely figurative, employing a symbolism that everyone is already familiar with.

The Silver Fern + Southern Cross flags by Kyle Lockwood (below) have been instantly popular because they take the existing flag and rather than requiring the consideration of new information, simply replace one familiar symbol (the Union Jack) with another (a silver fern).

In a UMR survey of nationally representative sample of 1000 New Zealanders, 18 years of age and over, the two Lockwood flags ranked first and second across all demographics other than Green voters (where they ranked first and third).

Red Peak ranked 35th overall, was the third least preferred among males and fourth least preferred among females.

So, what’s changed? Why is Red Peak the flag du jour for those in favour of change but despondent with the final four?

Rowan Simpson, tech investor and board member of Vend, Timely and Powershop, who describes himself as a “strong advocate for change,” gave voice to many Red Peak supporters in his open letter to John Key, which has been viewed tens-of-thousands of times in the last week.

“From the long list, it was the one which was the strongest in terms of the design of a flag,” he says. “There’s plenty of strong symbols there, there’s plenty of good design thinking there, and I hope none of the designers of flags that have been shortlisted feel I’m being especially critical of their design, I just think, in terms of a flag, that Aaron’s design was the strongest. It has a good story behind it. It’s a very simple, very reductive design. It stands alongside other great flag designs, whereas when you put the shortlisted designs in that context, I don’t think they stand up nearly as well.”

While describing himself as a “strong advocate for change,” he’s so despondent with the final four that he will probably vote to keep the current flag, which he admits is “a pretty disappointing outcome.”

Since his open letter, op-eds in the Herald, Stuff, NBR, have fed the fire that’s been spread over social media.

Inspirations behind Aaron Dustin’s Red Peak flag

Red Peak designer Aaron Dustin thinks that exposing people to the meanings behind his design have changed how people view it and, in turn, the way people have seen it have changed the way he sees it. “Form only gets meaning once seen through the audience’s eyes,” he says. “The reaction from people has entirely changed even my own reaction to the design. There seems to be a genuine connection to Red Peak for many people, and they’ve made it their own. I think this has given this flag life beyond the current process which is encouraging. When Dick Frizzell says ‘This IS New Zealand’s flag‘ I tend to listen.”

Dustin thinks the period between announcing the longlist and whittling it down to the final four wasn’t long enough for New Zealanders to give due consideration to imagery they weren’t already familiar with. “The timeframe between being announced in the longlist and then the final four being chosen was only 3 weeks,” he says. “That’s not long enough for a relatively ‘new’ symbol to connect with the New Zealand public, who are naturally going to gravitate towards the familiar motifs. What happened throughout the last few days before the shortlist announcement is the meaning behind the Red Peak flag started to get shared and connect with a growing group online, and then it really took off. Toby Morris blogged about it and it went crazy.”

“From here its about showing how the flag can be used, how it can be developed visually,” he says. “I’m attempting to introduce a new bold emblem that speaks to New Zealand’s future and past. Strong symbols that connect with people have a way of outliving politics, process and policies. It might be my kids who make it the New Zealand flag one day.”

Regardless of whether his flag ever becomes the national flag, Dustin is wants a new flag, but couldn’t bring himself to support any of the final four. “In my experience, I think we are a country that embraces meaningful design in a lot of the best we do,” he says. “There are so many world-changing things being made and done here by a very innovative and diverse group of peoples. I think a flag should reflect this and be well designed. A great flag can bring us together as many cultures, and be a bold symbol of positivity and achievement.”

So where do we go from here?

I’d love Red Peak to added to the ballot and see if the passion it’s engendered in the social media echo chamber can be spread across the general public. I’ve seen support for the Lockwood Silver Fern + Southern Cross flags, but very little passion or even active engagement.

For those who aren’t signing petitions or voting on websites, the Lockwood flags are the path of least resistance to change. The lowest common visual denominator. I can see why hundreds-of-thousands of New Zealanders see it as the most logical option. It’s the current flag plus the All Blacks. Change, for people that don’t like change.

Red Peak won me over when I started seeing it in different contexts. A flag isn’t a flat PDF on a website. It flies on mountains, it scales down to a tiny scoreboard on a TV screen, it blows in the wind.

Will it be included in the referendum? No. John Key loves jumping on a populist bandwagon, but he’s already given a definite “No” and I can’t see him walking that back. Especially since he’s come out in support of the Silver Fern designs, and will be reading daily polls as to their continued popularity across his supporters.

But while Red Peak will not be our flag, it’s done enough to mobilise opposition to the final four that a change in flag looks as unlikely as ever. And it’s disappointing. I dislike seeing the Union Jack everywhere as much as the next person who doesn’t care about the royals.

But, once it’s all said and done, this whole flag change thing will settle down to the gentlest simmer. We’ll see the Red Peak at sports events every once in a while. And a few Lockwoods too. And in a few governments time, some aspirational Prime Minister in their third term will read their polls and decide it’s time they gave it a shot. For the good of the country (and their legacy).

Red Peak will be a contender, as will the Lockwoods and the plain white-on-black silver fern. (Hopefully ISIS will be long gone and the fear of a black flag will be gone with it).

We’ll remember 2015 and what a shitshow it was. We’ll remember how so many of us all started caring just a little too late. We’ll try and do it right. And maybe we’ll even try and take the Monarchy out of our government while we take the Union Jack out of our flag.

But, humour me for a minute. Let me care about this more than I actually care about this.

What if Red Peak did become our flag? What a story that would make: The scrappy underdog. The outsider. Overlooked and counted out. The miraculous recovery. Against all odds. The last minute try!

It’s what every New Zealander wants New Zealand to be. It’s Ernest Rutherford! It’s Lorde! It’s David Tua! It’s Kate Sheppard! It’s Richie Goddamn McCaw!

It’s not a symbol of us, it is us.

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