Taking the design of an alternative New Zealand flag to the public was an innovative idea, but the result is far from innovative.

The Flag Consideration Panel has published its long-list of 40 designs and it is already clear which four options the public will be presented with. There will be a silver fern option, a Southern Cross option, a koru option and a triangle.

These aren't new ideas for national symbols: the silver fern symbol was in circulation in the 19th century at a time when New Zealand was widely referred to as Fernland. The koru and the triangle are even older - symbols used in Maori carving and meeting house design.

The most contemporary is the Southern Cross on the current flag. But even this was a symbol introduced in 1902, well over 100 years ago.

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Back in February 2014, I wrote in the Herald, "The general public doesn't have a role in deciding what the new design could be because it will, by its very nature, avoid extreme preferences, regress to the mean, default to the already known, and end up with the mediocre. And mediocre is the last thing we need at a time when New Zealand needs to have a strong international presence in an ever-changing global environment."

As I feared, the panel has been influenced by the majority of the flag design submissions, which have been influenced by what is already known: the cliched symbols that have been in circulation for as long as we've been alive. These are symbols we implicitly read and recognised as New Zealand only because our lazy brains have been psychologically primed to recognise them as such.

The four options could include a Southern Cross, a koru, a silver fern and a triangle.
The four options could include a Southern Cross, a koru, a silver fern and a triangle.

In an open letter issued with its top 40, the panel wrote: "The message was clear, and the panel agreed: a potential new flag should unmistakably be from New Zealand and celebrate us as a progressive, inclusive nation that is connected to its environment, and has a sense of its past and a vision for its future."

I can't figure how the panel can rationalise drawing on old symbols as a way of celebrating us as progressive.

It was only at the end of the public design process that graphic designers started to engage with it. Of course we are our own worst enemy for leaving things to the last minute and not standing up earlier (graphic designers thrive on deadlines).

There were some interesting questions being asked by some designers about alternative colours, shapes, forms and composition. These deserve to have been discussed, and I'm sure they were considered by panel members as they reviewed each design. However, by the time the panel had determined the answer would be guided by public preference, there was no space for a national discussion about truly progressive ideas.

We will look back on this flag consideration process as an example of national group-think. Group-think occurs when otherwise intelligent people fail to consider all relevant information and end up making a sub-optimal or irrational decision out of a desire for conformity or inclusivity. The flag consideration process could have been so much more than a mass pattern-recognition exercise. Unfortunately that's what we are left with.

Professor Claire Robinson is pro vice-chancellor of Massey University's college of creative arts.

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