Awards night set to showcase NZ industry’s finest work.

From smoko rooms to social media, the potential redesign of New Zealand's flag has dominated debate in recent weeks.

For Cathy Veninga, chief executive of the Designers Institute of New Zealand, it's positive to see design become such a conversation starter.

But her response to questioning over the flag is measured.

It's clear there is some disappointment about the way the process has excluded, for the most part, input from the design community.


"It's fantastic to have that conversation and it's great to see the conversation being had among the designers and it's great that the public have, even though some percentage might not want to change the current flag, it's still creating conversation not just around design but who we are as a nation and that's very healthy," she says.

"So in that sense it has been great.

"That's why it's really important we have the right outcomes, because it will be a long time before we get this opportunity again."

Veninga says the flag needs to represent who New Zealand is at its heart; who we are internationally.

"I believe the flag has to have a vision of who we are going to be."

Veninga, who has headed the institute for 10 years, says she got in touch with flag minister Bill English when she heard there was going to be a consideration panel running the selection process.

That approach went unanswered, so when details of the 10-member panel were released, she offered design expertise to help the group - an invitation that was accepted.

Several of the flag committee panel also used the services of an advisory board, which included a designer who was able to talk about the design principles to look for in a flag, but not to pick any that would or wouldn't work.


"It was a very controlled space," says Veninga. "We did our best to be heard on our point of view.

"I know that our representative did clearly talk about flags that weren't in that 40 [long-list] that probably maintained the disciplines of good design."

Veninga is hesitant to comment further. "From our perspective, going out critically is not going to win hearts," she says.

"There were influential people around [the consideration panel] table that sit on other government boards and we believe we needed to behave professionally if we wanted to be invited on any other aspect."

But it's not a one-off incident for Veninga and the institute.

She says often when the Government puts together a board to consider an issue with design at its heart, there is "a completely huge chasm" of non-engagement with the institute.

The flag consideration project may not have thrown up the best in design, but the institute's Best Design Awards next week will.

Whittled down from 1000 entries, the finalists represent the finest in graphic, interactive, moving images, spatial and product design.

Among the awards is the Nga Aho, an indigenous award which recognises co-design projects with iwi; Best Effect, for designs that contributed most to their clients' bottom lines; and Public Good, a new category for designs that worked for the benefit of the community.

Under Veninga's eye, the awards have gone from strength to strength, culminating in the institute taking back management in 2011.

"In that time the growth of the awards, the entries, the attendees, has been phenomenal," she says.

With 1010 people attending, last year's awards night was second only to the Property Council awards for size, and the biggest design awards in Australasia, she says.

"I used to ring them up in the dark old days, people who were finalists, and they were 'oh, we think we're only winning bronze so we don't think we'll come'.

"They didn't value that that was a significant award."

Veninga herself was awarded a Black Pin, for a member of the Designers Institute who has made a lasting and valuable contribution to the New Zealand design profession and towards design in general, in 2013.

Restructuring the event has increased the cachet of the awards and boosted interest from abroad.

Veninga says when the finalists go up on the website, 49 per cent of the traffic comes from overseas.

This builds on connections Veninga has established with similar organisations in Australia and around the world.

Local engagement with the Designers Institute has grown, too. Membership has increased from 200 when she took over to around 900 paid-up members today.

Benefits include help with the professional side of running a design business - contract, legal and business advice - as well as dozens of networking opportunities that sell out in hours.

Covering such a wide span of disciplines - the institute was formed out of the 1991 merger of the New Zealand Society of Industrial Designers and the New Zealand Association of Interior Designers - can sometimes be problematic, admits Veninga, but also provides for a rich and dynamic community.

Being a designer herself has helped her in dealing with designers, whose forthright, no pretence approach can be scary for bureaucrats, she says.

"But they are the forward thinkers; they are the solution thinkers; they are the people that take companies and countries forward."

For more information in this year's Design Awards: