Better luck next time: Why the flag debate process gets a C-

I flew back from somewhere else late yesterday afternoon and as we taxied to the gate , I gazed out the window admiring a row of plane tails, each anointed with the powerful, beautifully designed marks of the brand – and country – they represented.

And I thought about the extensive design process that each airline would have gone through, with the finest talent money could buy, to achieve so much strength and confidence with such simplicity of image.

In a million years, I couldn’t imagine the process of design went like this:

  • announce a competition for all staff to come up with a design for the plane, and in particular the symbol on the tail
  • get the board to choose a bunch they liked the most (personal preference rather than brief based)
  • get the staff to then pick the one they liked the most from the board’s selection (personal preference all good here too bro)
  • let everyone vote on whether they like this new one better than the old one
  • Boom. New plane design.

When Rob Fyfe ran Air New Zealand, he ferociously protected the quality of his brand and surrounded himself with the best independent talent money could buy to ensure it’s strength and global success. And even though he spoke in evangelical terms about his ‘Air New Zealanders’ and how much a part of the brand his staff were, I couldn’t imagine he’d have ever invited any of them to redesign his logo or plane livery. Because they would have stuffed it up. Because they weren’t qualified to do so.

Now, as one of the country’s carefully selected ‘prefects’, (sorry, but the Vote For Change video smacks of our head boy's line up of toadies telling us how to think or we’ll be sorry) he is urging us all to vote for change no matter how ugly it is.

"It’s a fern, what’s not to like people! It’s who we are. Ask Dan! I already slapped it on the planes! It’s already on all our sportsmen! Stirling Sports has already done a neat sports bag with it on, for 19.95! It’s even been seen on old graves! How’s that for validation? Even you old soldiers have nothing to bleat about! It’s the right thing to do! It’s the future!"

Yes, Canada has the maple leaf it’s true: the beautifully designed, perfectly weighted, courageously simple, one-colour maple leaf. It’s a king hit. And it even looks like a flag.

I’m all for a change. But not for the sake of it. And not when the only option is down right embarrassing, and confirms us as a nation bereft of design sophistication, or even understanding.

Here's how it happened - three brilliant designers at the Federal Government’s Exhibition Committee were asked to come up with their country’s new flag, one was selected and it was passed by law as the country’s new flag. No votes. No court of public opinion. End of.

Possibly, we could have had something amazing too, with our passionately adored silver fern. But we forgot to involve design, or the discipline of design process.

New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (the folk who have – and who doesn’t? – a silver fern in their logo) run an elaborate programme for business called Better by Design. Through a series of workshops business folk learn the transformative powers of involving design thinking into their worlds; it teaches them to value intelligent considered process, and outcomes that are deliberately designed.

Why aren’t we protecting our country's brand as ferociously as we teach our corporates to? Why are large numbers of successful business people shouting ‘Vote For Change!’, even after they admit it’s a bit ugly but ‘never mind, lets get rid of the union jack… and who wants to be like Australia’?

Have we discovered our own blind spot?

I’m all for a change. But not for the sake of it. And not when the only option is down right embarrassing, and confirms us as a nation bereft of design sophistication, or even understanding.

C- New Zealand. We can do better.

Jill Brinsdon is creative and brand strategist at brand agency Radiation

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