A black and white New Zealand flag showing a fern leaf may not be the best option, according to academics and designers, but they agree it's time for a change.

The debate around the flag looks set to become emotional, with the Returned and Services Association (RSA) pointing out New Zealand soldiers serving in wars around the globe have been killed and buried under the flag bearing the image of the Union Jack and Southern Cross.

Graphic Designer Dave Clark, who was responsible for the All Blacks' Silver Fern said a referendum on a new image made sense, but he doubted his design would be appropriate.

While the Silver Fern on black background had become a popular "kiwi image'', using black was a double-edged sword and could cause problems as a national flag, he said.


"In branding and packaging, black gets used to indicate premium positioning, think chocolates or coffee. In Western culture it's also the colour of mourning, sadness and death.''

Massey University branding expert Professor Malcolm Wright also thought a change was called for, but said the design should steer clear of a silver fern on a black background.

"We need a flag that draws attention when people are glancing our way. That requires colour, rather than being black-and-white,'' he said.

"Unfortunately the New Zealand flag is not unique. Compare it to the Stars and Stripes or the Maple Leaf. Our current flag simply says we are one of several ex-British colonies, so I agree with the Prime Minister that is it time for a change.''

He recommended a single symbol such as the Southern Cross, the silver fern or a koru.

Massey University doctoral student and writer Malcolm Mulholland, who had written two chapters in separate books on the subject, believed it was a timely debate and carried on from the petition for a referendum raised by the late businessman, Lloyd Morrison, to change the flag.

"The current design was decided by the Governor of New Zealand at the time, George Fergusson Bowen. He changed the letters `NZ' to what we now have with the Southern Cross, following a design submitted by Sir Albert Hastings Markham.''

New Zealand citizens were never asked for their opinion of the design of the flag, he said.


RSA national president Don McIver said the vast majority of its members were against any change.

Changing the flag during the centenary of the start of World War One would be inappropriate, he told Radio New Zealand.

"I saw those young people who were killed in Afghanistan brought home and buried under that flag.

"I think it's important to most veterans and ex-service personnel because they served under that flag and that has significant meaning to them and it's not surprising that they wouldn't like to see it changed, unless the population is totally behind them.''

Prime Minister John Key's tentative proposal to change the national flag has wide support within Parliament, although he admits debate about an alternative design could distract people from more important issues during election year.

Mr Key planned to discuss a new flag with senior ministers and possibly put it to a referendum as part of this year's election.

The flag could be changed by legislation, but Mr Key said it was a constitutional issue and required consultation.

He favours replacing the current flag with a silver fern.