Design that positions New Zealand as an innovative, interactive nation has been 10 years in the making

This year we commemorate 175 years of nationhood enabled by the Treaty of Waitangi. It is also the year we confront the extremely rare opportunity to come up with a new flag that empowers us and positions us effectively in the global landscape.

The Treaty is a foundation to be built upon, not undermined. In my book New Zealand by Design I wrote: "The Treaty of Waitangi can be seen as an act of purposeful design which was well-intentioned and created positive expectations for all who signed it ... In the binary world of win/lose legal interpretation, this 'contract document' can be endlessly contested. In the conciliatory world of win/win design process, the mutually beneficial intention of this artefact can be refreshed and its fulfilment continuously improved."

A month ago on these pages Gareth Morgan wrote that "the Treaty is a timeless arrangement, to be continually reinterpreted as the relationship between Maori and other New Zealanders evolves". A good flag might help.

In January last year our Governor-General, Lieutenant General Sir Jerry Mateparae, said "we are much more comfortable with our place in the world today as being in the Pacific". But he had not yet come across a flag design that reflected how he saw our national identity. Then, in March, Prime Minister John Key said: "When we go out into the world, we do so with a strong sense of where we come from. Our flag should reflect that."

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Examples of how the new flag could look in use.
Examples of how the new flag could look in use.

A good flag will speak for itself with clarity and confidence. Abstract simplicity inviting positive interpretations should be our aim. The ideal flag will value diversity, inspire unity, attract constructive engagement and stand out in the crowd. We must dare to be different rather than settle for the comfort of "me too" familiarity. The Canadian Maple Leaf made an impact by being unlike others when it was adopted 50 years ago. We should be equally innovative.

We are a small, young, isolated, evolving, multicultural country with a unique bicultural heritage that engages constructively with the world on our own terms.

Mother England's apron strings were cut many years ago, then we stepped out from under Uncle Sam's coat-tails.

We are valued as an independent, clear-thinking honest broker. We work at conciliation rather than conflict.

The flag design I will submit to the Flag Consideration Panel when it invites proposals in May has had an 11-year gestation.

It began on Waitangi Day 2004 when I heard Dame Joan Metge explain that William Hobson's statement "He iwi tahi tatou", which he translated as "We are one people", could be more accurately interpreted as, "We two people together make a nation".

Gordon Walters' Painting No.1 - now on permanent display at the Auckland Art Gallery - came to mind and the design process began.

I first met Walters in 1963 when I was a junior artist at the National Publicity Studios and he was in charge of the design studio at the Government Printing Office. I dealt with him when delivering type specs and picking up galley proofs.

Thirty years later I designed a logo that drew on his well-known abstracted koru imagery and wrote to him to ask if it was okay. His reply was generous and collegial.

He wrote: "It seems that my approach is useful to graphic designers ... That's fine, that's just another example of the natural process by which artists influence each other."

A revised flag design, included in last February's Listener article "A Symbol Solution", generated useful feedback. For the Depot Artspace Flag It! exhibition last September I improved the design once more. More response and reflection led to the tweaked version I am presenting today. It depicts two worlds - each distinguished by the presence of the other - stronger together than apart.

It positions New Zealand as an innovative, interactive nation. Black and white (not white on black) will stand out in the cacophony of colour at international events.

I hope my Walters Koru flag proposal reflects the way most Kiwis, including our Governor-General, see our national identity. I believe it achieves the Prime Minister's requirement by expressing "a strong sense of where we come from".

Michael Smythe is a designer and the author of New Zealand By Design: A History of New Zealand Product Design.
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