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By Claire Robinson
New Zealanders are being asked to make a preferential vote in a postal referendum to select the flag design that will be pitted against the current flag in a referendum next March.
To the intense frustration of the design community the flag consideration process has been anything but an exercise in good design. If the Government’s objective was to get a well-designed progressive flag it could have given this task to designers to develop, test with the public, iterate and refine. We have a world-class design community in New Zealand. Many of them submitted to the Flag Consideration Panel insightful designs that deserved to have been more widely discussed and considered.
Let’s not kid ourselves, however. This wasn’t a design exercise. The Government deliberately selected a populist process to unite a nation behind its desire to change the flag. The Government is driving the notion that for this to be a legitimate exercise it needs to have popular power and direct democracy at its heart.
With anyone able to submit a design to the panel, shortlisting by a committee of respected New Zealanders and majority decision by public referendum, no one will be able to claim anything other than that the new flag is “by the people, for the people” – the somewhat revivalist mantra of populist movements worldwide, a vindication of the concept of representative government popularised by Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg address on November 19, 1863.
Even the last minute inclusion of First to the Light (aka Red Peak) following a social media campaign, was a populist move to directly appease those threatening not to cast a vote rather than a concession that the design selection process was flawed.
First to the Light/Red Peak has entered the race from way behind. It has not had the benefit of the extraordinary endorsement by the Prime Minister that the silver fern designs have. Nor has it had the exposure of the silver fern by virtue of it being the Government’s brand mark for NZ Inc, and imprinted on our passports, our war graves and on the uniforms of our sporting ambassadors.
But there are very good reasons to consider voting for Red Peak.
For a start, it meets international principles for good flag design: it is distinctive compared to our neighbour’s flag, it’s timeless and it’s a design that’s simple to reproduce, which is more than can be said for the fern designs. In its open letter on the release of the top 40 flag designs the Flag Consideration Panel said “a great flag should be distinctive and so simple it can be drawn by a child from memory.”
By the time they came to release the shortlisted four with the complex fern motif on three flags, this requirement had been dropped from public communication. What child is going to remember, let alone draw, the 33 individual fern leaves on the Lockwood flag, or the 29 on the Kanter? And just what do those numbers represent anyway?
In agreeing to the silver fern on three potential flag designs (and a variation of it, the koru, on the fourth) Cabinet conflated New Zealand as a brand offering with what should be a much broader symbol of nationhood. If anything it is a sign of our immaturity as a nation that many believe we need a literal motif like a fern to “scream” New Zealand (to use the Prime Minister’s words).
A more mature visual response is to find a composition that exists independently of figurative visual references, enabling it to accrue its own meaning over time while we, the citizens of 21st century New Zealand, grow a shared understanding of who we are as a nation.
This we have in First to the Light/Red Peak. While the primary design story communicates the uniqueness of our land, light and position – dawn breaking in the east over alpine ranges which are first to hold the light of the new day – its abstraction means it allows for a wide variety of personal and shared interpretations. Over time, and with widespread use, it will become more iconic than the silver fern.
And anyone who can fold a piece of paper can draw it. Try it. It’s simple, you might just grow to like it.
Claire Robinson is a professor of communication design and Pro Vice-Chancellor of Massey’s College of Creative Arts
Created: 29/11/2015 | Last updated: 02/12/2015
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