National flags are about identity and distinctiveness, but also simplicity. They stir emotion and encapsulate how people think and feel about themselves.

Some believe a flag must express dignity and unity. Others say it must be able to be discerned from a distance, instantly recognisable as the flag of a particular nation and not mistaken for any other country's flag.

Colours are important, imbued with meaning. Where red can represent sacrifice, or blood spilled, blue can be peace or freedom. Green might be the colour of fertility or, in the case of Libya's flag, religion - green is the colour of Islam.

Stars and stripes may tell a story about the nation's past and present, such as an America united after revolution. Another country's flag might be born of the need for a new way of governance and new unity, such as South Africa after apartheid.

The cross of St George - the dragonslayer - represents both Christianity and the might of colonial superpower England. It is part of the United Kingdom's Union Jack, and thus part of our flag, tucked in the corner. This symbol must go, the New Zealand Herald argues, as it no longer represents New Zealand as we are today.

But what to change to?

Perhaps a bold new concept is required, like that of Canada, which threw out the Union Jack in 1965 in favour of a big red maple leaf, though remained part of the Commonwealth. Whether you like the design or not, the flag cries out "Canada".

They changed their flag, says John Moody of the New Zealand Flag Institute, partly because they got sick of their American cousins sneering at the colonial ensign.

The Canadians set up a parliamentary committee and called for design entries, honed them down and consulted prominent people who had an interest in flags and symbols.

They chose pretty well, he thinks. The flag could easily be drawn by a 5-year-old - and that's a good thing in flag design, given the requirement for simplicity.

The maple leaf does not defer to any other nation, he says, not the French nor the British parts of Canada.: "It's distinctly Canadian and proud of it."

We could go down the same path, perhaps with the silver fern or the koru. Or we could have something that represents us now but still harks back to our colonial past.

One of the ways to do that, perhaps, is to remove the Union Jack and retain the colours in a completely new design. Clark Titman, who Moody calls the father of flag change in New Zealand, did just that back in 1967. His design has red stripes on each side (the hoist and the fly), one representing Maori mana and the other representing the British.

A navy blue patch in between has four stars, representing the Southern Cross. Though his was rejected, in the intervening 40-odd years repeated calls have been made for a new flag.

Because there are no hard and fast rules or world committees on what must constitute a national flag, the range of designs can vary enormously. Mozambique has an AK47 included on its flag; Swaziland a shield and spears.

What should ours say to us and about us? What story should it tell? These are questions we must take care to answer before we even look at design, say brand experts we consulted about how you might go about changing the flag.

Brian Richards
Auckland brand strategist

Richards agrees the time for change is here. We don't want to have a symbol of imperialism on our flag, he says.

In his view, a new flag should reflect both unity and kinship with nature, but first we must have a serious discussion and reach some sort of agreement on the philosophy underlying the change.

"I think it would be a shame for people to get in the trenches over design. In a normal [branding] process you would try firstly to nail what you believe is the sentiment of what we're trying to do."

Most flags around the world depict a sense of unity, he says. Take the American flag, where every star represents the unity of North America after the civil war. "Most flags, I think, if you go round and look at their design systems, do celebrate the coming together of people, or the unity."

In New Zealand, imperial Britain made a deal with the locals in the form of a treaty, "so I think we need a new kind of national dignity which expresses unity.

"This is a unity with our tangata whenua, our Maori people, it is a unity with nature and it's a unity of our people in the sense that the Treaty document, for me at least, is the cornerstone of the beginnings of national tolerance and the understanding of many cultures that came after.

"So our image in the world, to me expressing a new kind of unity, is bound up in those elements and I think our kinship with nature is a very important part of that."

If he was to think about a new flag from a design point of view, there would be a benign element in terms of our connection to nature.

" Symbolising unity would be probably done through natural forms, and unity is often illustrated in many other cultures as yin and yang.

"The Anglo-Saxon way of doing it is with stars and stripes but unity can be communicated through natural forms as well."

The koru is a beautiful symbol and, if treated in the right way, in a contemporary way, it would be just as powerful as Canada's maple leaf, he says.

He would create a new flag through the medium of nature because the world already sees us that way. New Zealand and Madagascar were the last two islands on Earth settled by human beings, so our biodiversity is less broken down than many other places in the world.

"There's no point asking [people] if they like the design, that's not the point. The point is, are people prepared to live in this kind of way under this new sort of manifesto of national dignity and, if that is so, there should be a design that accompanies an expression of that."

Grenville Main
Brand and design company DNA

He thinks people get stuck by going straight into "well, here's what it should be" when there is any talk of changing the flag.

There are so many people with so many stakes and perspectives, the hard part is getting everyone to the same page.

A nation's identity is a little bit of the past, present and future combined, but people tend to pick just one or other element, or turn to icons which are either cultural or commercial.

Somewhere in all of that is the answer, he says.

"It could symbolise who we are or where we are, but in a sense it's about both of those things, so it's kind of why we are."

While Main won't suggest what he thinks a new flag should be, he is pretty sure what it is not - and that includes the fern, koru, and crosses or stripes. The fern, for one, is too commercialised, he says.

It's a big, successful brand associated with the All Blacks, on sports fields and in tourism and business which is fine.

"But I don't think anyone's stopped to think that to people who don't know the back-story, what does a fern in and of itself actually say to anyone?"

We are too close to our iconography, he says.

"We know the logic and the story and what it's actually projecting but when you get to something like a flag, it's design in its most simple form so therefore it's got to be pretty clear what you're trying to tell me."

It's important we get the flag right, Main says. "It's really powerful iconry that links us to actually so much about what makes us what we are and what we're trying to achieve as a nation."

Mark Di Somma
Audacity Group, Wellington

Di Somma begins by acknowledging the current flag, which we have flown for more than 100 years, since the time of the Boer War.

"We should respect the journey we've taken with it and the many people who have believed in it and in some cases fought and died for what it represents to them," he says.

But history alone may not be a good enough reason to keep a flag. Challenging its relevance, however, must be undertaken with humility, respect and a genuine sense of enquiry.

"Our current flag, for example, references an historical relationship with England, and perhaps a view of that relationship, that many would agree is no longer what it was.

"To me a flag should be a symbol of who we are going forward, and therefore how we see ourselves into the future. In that sense, it should be more about inspiration and momentum than conformity, obedience or nostalgia."

Getting a committee of four million people to agree on what they think represents them is the hard part, but it's healthy to keep having the debate, he says.

"It shows we are continuing to appraise how we are seen and how we see ourselves."

As for what the flag should be, he says there is still so much discussion to be had.

"But I do think the way we have approached it possibly needs to change.

"In my line of work if you want someone to start thinking about something in different ways, you have to start asking different kinds of questions and I think the questions need to change from which flags do you like to what sort of flag best represents us going forward, and I think when you change the question you make room for a different discussion and different answers."

John Knight
Associate Professor, Otago University's marketing department

Knight is unequivocal: It is certainly time to ditch the current flag, he says.

"The whole point of a brand is that it's main function is to be distinctive and our flag clearly is not distinctive.

"I've lived in the UK and I've lived in the US for periods and people cannot make an obvious distinction, we get blurred and we're part of Australia. It's just silly. I must say I never liked the really stylised fern that was being promoted but I think the more realistic silver fern is pretty good. I can't think of another country with a black background.

"The flag should convey identity and separating out your brand - whether the brand of the country, its products or sports teams - is about trying to distinguish yourself from everyone else who is out there. To me that should be the main consideration."

He thinks Canada's maple leaf has been one of the most successful flags in its simplicity and identity.

Some countries have flags which are very complicated and have all sorts of symbolic meaning that only the people that live there know about but that doesn't seem useful to him.

As for old soldiers who don't want to change the flag in respect of fallen comrades, he thinks that is fine. It need not disappear off the face of the Earth and could still be used for specific purposes.

But the Union Jack is a confused brand and a confused brand is pointless, he says.

He bursts out laughing and says, "a piece of Britain - what the heck are we thinking?" The sentiment is at least 50 years out of date and is just not meaningful any more.

Dr Andrea Insch
Senior Lecturer, Otago University's marketing department

Dr Insch is a a colleague of Knight, a lecturer in marketing - and an Australian. Her country is also questioning the relevance of its flag, at the same time as we are questioning ours. Insch has different take on the topic to Professor Knight, though.

While she sees the value of the silver fern in brand terms, in that it is already iconic and something New Zealand identifies with, she is not as keen because of the commercialism associated with it.

"I think the All Blacks have pretty much taken out not an exclusive use, but a certain version of the fern. They have used that and have heavily promoted it.

"I was quite shocked to see it on a cot. There was a children's cot in The Warehouse, you could tell it was the All Blacks and it was a bit strange, but obviously there's a commercial value in it."

The silver fern flag could still be used to promote the different sporting and industry and export opportunities New Zealand is involved in, she says.

What is already in place means a lot from an historical perspective.

"This is how we present ourselves from an official point of view, so this is our marker in terms of identity in international relations and political relationships and if we were to remove that and substitute a more in some ways commercial icon then obviously that's going to sit uncomfortably with certain segments in society and you can understand some of the reasons why."

We need to question the way we use the flag as part of a brand strategy, she says.

"Is it to appeal and have a sense of cohesion among the population citizens of New Zealand, or is it a way of representing ourselves to the rest of the world?

"Obviously they do overlap, so should we stay with the status quo or should we then embrace the fern as part of a more commercial way that we present ourselves?"

SYMBOLISM

A flag should be simple, readily made, and capable of being made up in bunting; it should be different from the flag of any other country, place or people; it should be significant; it should be readily distinguishable at a distance; the colors should be well contrasted and durable; and lastly, and not the least important point, it should be effective and handsome.
- National Flag Committee of the Confederate States of America, 1861
Five basic principles of flag design
1. Keep it simple

The flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory.

2. Use meaningful symbolism

The flag's images, colours, or patterns should relate to what it symbolises.

3. Use 2-3 basic colours

Limit the number of colours on the flag to three, which contrast well and come from the standard colour set.

4. No lettering or seals

Never use writing of any kind or an organisation's seal.

5. Be distinctive or be related

Avoid duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections.

WHAT IS A FLAG?
* A flag's purpose is to represent a place, organisation or person; It is generally a rectangular piece of cloth to be seen at a distance, often moving and reproduced in quantity and in many sizes.

* Flags began thousands of years ago, first used for military purposes on land and then as identifying signals at sea. They evolved to represent royal houses, then countries and other levels of government, businesses, military ranks and units, sport teams, and political parties.

* Flags grew out of heraldry - the practice of designing coats of arms - and follow many of the same design principles.

Source: The North American Vexillological Association is dedicated to vexillology, the study of flag history and symbolism. www.nava.org