Bruce Logan and Michael Smythe: Tea towel flag not way forward

What precisely will the new flag give us to replace the cultural traditions and religious insights they would replace? Photo / Getty Images
What precisely will the new flag give us to replace the cultural traditions and religious insights they would replace? Photo / Getty Images

Artless, commercial-looking proposition a poor substitute for the multi-layered, richly symbolic design it seeks to replace, writes Bruce Logan

So Richie would change our flag. That will carry considerable weight, no doubt. However, the similarity of our flag to Australia's at a sporting event is not sufficient reason for change. The flags have been similar for a very long time.

The option for a new flag is so historically rootless and culturally banal it is embarrassing. It is as superficial as a television bank advertisement.

It says nothing new or coherent about New Zealand. My friends in France wonder if we've had a revolution. What have we discovered about New Zealand that is so profoundly new that we need a new flag?

The symbolism of the best flags is multi-layered. Our present flag is one of those.

It recalls a specific historical and cultural context and it points to a particular geographical location. Few flags do that; perhaps only our flag and the flag of Australia.

The Union Jack in the top left-hand corner recalls our historical and legal origin. It reinforces the meaning of the Treaty of Waitangi.

The Southern Cross tells us where we are. The crosses of St George, St Andrew and St David remind us that whatever some of us might think today, our roots were cultivated by a belief in the revelation of the Biblical God.

It was that revelation that gave us the rule of law and a transcendent understanding of human dignity.

The current flag is one of the most culturally and historically meaningful flags in the world.

What precisely will the new flag give us to replace the cultural traditions and religious insights they would replace? It smells of artless commercialism.

Defence has not risen above the level of waffle: "We need to be more visionary", or, "It's time our flag said something about what we have become - not what we were".

But what, precisely have we become? Well, "we're grown up now", or, "we need a 'strong brand'" or a flag "that reflects our originality". "One with a silver fern perhaps". Who would have thought of that?

These cries reverberate from a variety of disparate and shallow sources. "We are our own independent selves". "We are a South Pacific multi-cultural nation ... making our own way in the world".

The case for a new flag has not risen above a slogan or stereotype. The vision behind the present flag has not been replaced by any kind of coherent social philosophy. To paraphrase another, they would castrate the bull and demand he continues to reproduce.

The recurring comparison with the Canadian flag is not valid. The Canadian flag grew out of a time when Canada as a nation was under threat.

Quebec had threatened to secede and British Columbia was considering a union with the United States. The flag was an attempt to help unify the country. A new flag in New Zealand at this time will only divide us.

When I was a young man it was clear that the flag was more to New Zealanders than just a brand or trademark. Without complete understanding, I was proud of its historical, cultural and geographic symbolism.

Without ever having it clearly stated, the flag stood for permanent truths that underpinned our conception of freedom. It was a belief in those truths that gave me confidence and pride in New Zealand. A fern, silver or black, will not do the trick.

I can still recall the sweet sadness I felt at primary school on hearing Barbara Fritchie read by a favourite teacher. An old woman prepared to risk death from a rebel's bullet to protect her flag was an inspiration to a 10-year-old boy.

One can't help wondering if the desire for a new flag is not based on a loss of pride in our roots exchanged for little more than a superficial hubris for the future and waffle about "coming of age". It has the depth of an adolescent imagination.

The alternative flag endorses a confused cultural shift that images a cliched commercial and sporting symbol. It speaks neither to flesh nor spirit.

- Bruce Logan is a writer who spends half the year in France, the rest in New Zealand.

If we must replace the flag, let it be with something that actually wows the world - not a marketing ploy, writes Michael Smythe

The fundamental error was the Flag Consideration Panel adopting a marketing mind-set rather that a professional design-driven approach. Photo / Doug Sherring
The fundamental error was the Flag Consideration Panel adopting a marketing mind-set rather that a professional design-driven approach. Photo / Doug Sherring

We need a new flag that updates our global positioning. Are we there yet? No, we are not.

The "Aoteatowel" option falls far short of representing the country we are working to become. Adopting it will seriously depress the creative spirit that is essential to our evolution as a smart, innovative country. It would be better to maintain the status quo until we can come up with a flag that will inspire us and wow the world.

Prime Minister John Key has said, "Those who say we'll come back and revisit this are dreaming."

Kiwis keen to show we are a young country with a fresh approach that does things better can only respond: Absolutely - we must live our dreams!

If a job's worth doing it's worth doing well. Near enough is not good enough. She will not be right, mate. Trial and error is the time-honoured method of making progress.

The fundamental error was the Flag Consideration Panel adopting a marketing mind-set rather that a professional design-driven approach.

Rather than tap into their cross-sectional expertise as the "client" representative they polled the populace. A visit to the NZ flag - Your Chance to Decide website is informative:

"We want to know what you feel is special about New Zealand," explained reality TV entrepreneur Julie Christie. But the resulting list of values had no bearing on the selection of designs for the first referendum.

"They [the panel members] need to know what Kiwis want represented on their flag," said ex-All Black Sir Brian Lochore. This favoured comfortably familiar symbols rather than the abstract simplicity that characterises great flags.

"We come from all walks of life, with a broad range of skills and experience - but it's true, none of us are designers," said Saatchi & Saatchi NZ CEO Nicky Bell, while claiming that expert advice would be sought.

My understanding is that the professional design advice was offered rather than requested and then ignored.

There is much to suggest that a foregone fern conclusion had already been reached at the highest level and the rest has been a costly charade. Consider the evidence:

Mr Key first publicly raised the flag issue on February 7, 2010 and it was designed by breakfast time - he sketched a fern flag live on television.

In 1993, a fern logo was adopted as the symbol for the New Zealand Way programme designed to increase visibility through more consistent imagery.

In 1999, Saatchi & Saatchi attempted to expand their Tourism New Zealand assignment into a comprehensive "NZ Edge" identity programme to be launched on Air New Zealand jumbo jets as the Rugby World Cup got under way.

Fern logos appeared on Team New Zealand yacht hulls from 1995.

The Official New Zealand Fern Mark was introduced through Government trade and tourism operations. From 2013 it began to adorn Air NZ fuselages.

In 2014, the Duchess of Cambridge stepped on to New Zealand soil wearing the diamond brooch we gifted to her grandmother-in-law during the 1953 Royal visit. Soon after she wore a black dress emblazoned with a silver fern across the shoulder as she and Prince William unveiled a new portrait of the Queen - wearing the same diamond fern brooch.

Three of the four designs on the Flag Consideration Panel's shortlist featured ferns.

If the agenda was always to place New Zealand's evolving corporate logo on the flag it should have been stated upfront. An explicit requirement to the make the flag an integrated element of a "Brand New Zealand" programme would have made a competition unnecessary.

There is an argument for creating consistency and enhancing our visibility in a cluttered global landscape but the clumsy option on the ballot does not do it well.

Most professional designers took the view that the fern is a useful emblem - like the English rose and the American eagle - while the best flags are simple, abstract, unique designs that build meaning and recognition through association over time.

Some made submissions accordingly. Many saw the process as deeply flawed and chose not to waste their time.

It's time to go back to the drawing board and develop a well-managed professional design process - beginning with an open discussion about the purpose of the flag and its role alongside other ways we identify our nation.

It's a worthwhile project that should take all the time it needs to deliver long-lasting cultural, social and economic benefits.

The justification for investing in a new flag is to set the standard and lead from the front. Adopting something that is not up to the job will take the wind out of our creative sails.

- Michael Smythe is a professional designer and writer with a Master of Design Management. He is the author of the award-winning book New Zealand by Design: A History of New Zealand product Design.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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