Can Design Learn from the New Zealand Flag Debate?

If you care at all about visual communication — and if you aren't blind from birth, then you do — you should be following the remarkable debate about the New Zealand flag.  National flags are so enduring that it is hard to imagine a graphic design task with higher stakes.  Revising one triggers a profound argument about national identity, which ultimately comes down to a couple of questions:

  1.  One or many ideas?  Can the nation come together around one image or idea, or must there me a mash-up of several to satisfy different groups or points of view?
  2.  Fashionable or enduring?  Graphic design is so much about fashion and fun that identifying an image that will make sense for decades is harder than it sounds.  Yet that's what a flag must be – and the greatest company logos have mastered this challenge as well.

To review, the current New Zealand flag looks like this:


The Union Jack and the Southern Cross, the latter a distinctive constellation that is also on Australia's flag.   (With all due respect to defenders of this flag, both images are about New Zealand's tie to other countries, countries that the nation's identity has lately been separating from. I also understand the view that flags should never change on principle; that is a different debate.)

The New Zealand flag seems disconnected from the evolving palette of national identity.  National  imagery rarely uses the flag's colors.  Sometimes it uses blue-green colors that echo the textures of the landscape; you will find these in the customs hall at Auckland Airport for example.  Increasingly, though, the government uses black.  The association of black with New Zealand comes from another image that is so universal that some visitors probably think it's the flag already:


This image is most common in sports, as it's the logo of most national teams including the famous All Blacks of rugby, but it long ago spilled over into the general consciousness as an unofficial symbol of the country.  

If I may reveal botanical interests more suited to my other blog, this is not just any random leaf or frond.  It's based on the underside of the spectacular Silver Fern, Cyathea dealbata, one of the  tree ferns that define so many New Zealand rainforests (top on left, underside on right).


Sports and tree-hugging in one image!  This would seem to make the silver fern a winner across the cultural spectrum.  It might also remind you of another former British colony that tired of its Union Jack, and forged a new identity out of botany:


The Canadian flag was adopted in February 1965, so it just turned 50.  Like the Silver Fern in New Zealand, the maple leaf had been hanging around in Canadian imagery for a while.  So it's not surprising to see the fern so prominent in New Zealand flag ideas.

So how has the debate gone?  Well, the government's earnest committee canvassed the country and came up with these semi-finalists:


It's remarkable how much consensus there was on which images matter: the Southern Cross, a gesture toward the old flag, plus two main expressions of the fern: the frond and the spiral form called the koru.  (The latter, common in Maori imagery, is based on the shape of a frond as it just unfurls.)  

When you look at that field of contenders, does your eye go to the busier ones or the simpler ones?  Mine went to the simplest, the ones with a single idea, not a collision of several, and the ones that looked enduring by virtue of not trying to be sexy.  For that reason, the original silver-fern-on-black still looked right to me.  

But the people who chose the four finalists felt differently:


… at which point, all hell broke loose.  There are many complaints, including that three of the four are too similar to represent a choice, and that #2 is already selling plastic plates:

But the real problems are these:

  • #2 and #4 are both mash-ups, obviously collisions of multiple unresolved ideas.  A mash-up suggests that the country is too divided to revere any single image.  If Canada — a far more diverse country in terms of landscapes and identities — could avoid this mistake, New Zealand certainly can.  (British Columbia is another matter …)
  • Except for #3, they are all over-designed, with an attention to today's graphical fashions instead of any thought about what might stand the test of time.  This is equivalent to saying that they call attention to the designer.

What do you gain, designer of finalist #1, by flipping half of the silver fern image into negative, and making the frond leaflets more rounded so that they no longer resemble the plant?  How is this better than the simple silver fern on black?  Only that a graphic designer obviously designed it, in a way that is supposed to look cool.

But a flag is supposed to outlast its designer, and the design fashions of the moment.  Remember, the Canadian flag was designed in the 1960s.  If their design competition had been seeking something as "contemporary" and "designed" as New Zealand's final four, they might have found inspiration in one of these:




Fortunately, they didn't.  You can't tell, looking at the Canadian flag, that it's an artefact of the 1960s, and that's the whole point.  A flag has to have a sense of timelessness and simplicity, which is why you must reject  any design that calls attention to the cleverness of the designer or relies on design fashions of the moment.   The creativity it requires begins with the willingness to disappear as the creator.  None of the finalists displays this.  

How is this debate relevant to this blog's concerns in public transit?  If you really want to sell public transit, teach people to count on it.  Make it seem solid and enduring, not just sexy and ephemeral. Go for the simple, solid idea that will still make sense — practically and aesthetically — decades from now.  


And this principle extends even beyond graphic design, to debates about whether transit technologies should be chosen for "fun" or reliability.  

Do you notice how insecure companies change their logos and liveries more often than confident ones do?  Do you notice how they use flashy look-at-me images instead of clean and enduring ones?  

Flashiness, fun, and novelty may attract customers, but only simplicity and reliability retains them. Which message do you want to put forth about your transit system, or your country?

21 Responses to Can Design Learn from the New Zealand Flag Debate?

  1. Dominic Brown September 6, 2015 at 3:55 pm #

    ‘Flipping half of the silver fern image into negative’ is not necessarily a trendy aspect of that design. The technique has been used for centuries in heraldry, where it’s known as counterchanging. It’s mostly used in arms, but it does show up in the flag of Greenland and a couple of others. I agree that rounding off the leaves makes no sense, and quite possibly the silver frond on black would have been better still.

  2. P September 6, 2015 at 4:04 pm #

    And yet, isn’t the Union Jack itself a mashup of different flags also?
    “In 1606, James VI gave orders for a British flag to be created which bore the combined crosses of St. George and of St. Andrew. The result was the Union Jack, Jack being a shortening of Jacobus, the Latin version of James”.”

  3. Daniel September 6, 2015 at 10:49 pm #

    Is it worth pointing out that the whole flag-changing exercise is going over like a sack of turds in New Zealand?
    And despite “unofficial national symbol” status, there is a very substantial proportion of New Zealanders who really don’t want a fern as our flag, because:
    1) our national identity comes from more than our sports team (and the silver fern, first and foremost, is a sporting symbol)
    2) there is no reference or representation of Māori on the flag (the fern is a native plant, but it is not a symbol or design that was used by Māori)
    I know Jarrett has spent some time in NZ, so I don’t want to discount his experience – there is definitely real support for the white-on-black fern, or another fern-based flag – but I feel like this post gives the impression that if the plain fern flag was an option, it would be a shoo-in.
    To the contrary, since the shortlist was announced, there has been real movement in support of another flag, with an abstract design – you link to a story about this under the photo of the final four contenders, but don’t discuss it in the text (link: )
    Finally, I though it was odd you drew the parallels between flag design and logo design, because most people I know have a problem with the flag-changing process, because it feels more like they’re picking a new logo for NZ Inc., rather than a symbol of NZ the country.
    PS: I do agree with the broad point of the post – the silver fern looks better than any of the shortlisted flags, and that is a general design point that can be applied to the logo of a business, or a transit system. I just don’t think any of them are up to the task of being a national symbol.

  4. Mike Archer September 7, 2015 at 3:49 am #

    Interesting article.
    Please see ‘Land Of The Long Cloud – Traditional Blue.’ A respectful evolution explained > #vexillology #design #history #heritage

  5. James September 7, 2015 at 10:03 am #

    I don’t like any of the four either. Having a flag that’s black and white seems odd to me but it would be okay.
    The rounded fern leaves could get changed after. If you look at the finalists that Canada had, the winner had a goofy looking maple leaf that got changed to be better looking after the choice was made.

  6. Peter Laws September 7, 2015 at 1:03 pm #

    Ah, transit logos. Montreal, IMO, screwed up in their recent image makeover. The T-Arrow at the link below dates back closer to the 1951 municipal takeover than the 1959 date listed. When the Montreal Transportation Commission grew an “Urban Community” in 1970, as the result of municipal reorganization, the simplification of the logo made it even better. It remained unchanged for another *three decades* until being replaced by the new color logo. Yes, they kept an echo of the old arrow but, IMHO, the color detracts and the “striving” of the old logo is gone. Yes, it sucks getting old, and while I understand the desire to refresh everything, this logo wasn’t broken and didn’t need fixing.été_de_transport_de_Montréal

  7. Robert Wightman September 7, 2015 at 3:05 pm #

    When the Canadian flag was chosen 50 years ago a lot of people, including me, hated it. It looked like a sack of wheat! But over the years we have all grown to love it. It is simple; it has a distinctively Canadian motif, the Maple Leaf, and it is simple. The various forms of the red or blue British Ensign, which New Zealand and Australia have along with many British Colonies and some Canadian provinces have all start to blur together. I remember that the Australian flag has more stars that the new Zealand one. I think that I remember that they added one in case New Zealand decided to join Australia.
    Whatever is finally chosen in New Zealand please make it simple and not a bunch of horizontal or vertical bars. I will not tell you how I remember how to distinguish between the flags of Germany and Belgium or those of France and the Netherlands as it is not polite to their recent history. The other thing to remember is that while many people will hate it at first most will learn to love it. We did with the Maple Leaf.

  8. Willem September 7, 2015 at 3:33 pm #

    I submit one major recent logo change that is almost impossible to miss: Google. They don’t change often, and even this change has kept thinks simple and similar.

  9. Jarrett September 7, 2015 at 8:05 pm #

    Interesting botanical detail: If you look closely at my photo of a real silver fern, you’ll see that even the standard silver fern logo is not very accurate. The logo puts the leaflets opposite each other, while in the real fern the leaflets of the frond are alternate: the midvein of each leaflet is directly opposite from a gap between leaflets on the other side. Also, in the logo, leaflets get narrower approaching the frond stalk; in the real fern, they get wider. (To their credit, finalists #2 and #4 seem to be groping toward this detail …) Would a more accurate fern have been less inspiring? Discuss for extra credit.

  10. Robert Wightman September 8, 2015 at 8:34 am #

    Jarrett says;
    “Interesting botanical detail: If you look closely at my photo of a real silver fern, you’ll see that even the standard silver fern logo is not very accurate.”
    The Canadian Maple leaf is not exactly correct botanically but everyone knows what it is. The key point, I believe, is that it is simple to produce and instantly recognizable. It is more important to be recognized that to be botanically correct. I like the simplicity of the fifth design but it has to be something with which New Zealanders are comfortable.
    I wonder how many Canadians remember the one flag that was designed to show off our cultural and linguistic heritage; nine beavers urinating on a frog. Fortunately it died an early death.

  11. David Arthur September 8, 2015 at 2:35 pm #

    Another rhetorical trope of the New Zealand flag debate that I find interesting is the assumption that it’s obviously desirable for flags to be highly distinctive, even from closely related nations. But the Nordic countries don’t seem at all ashamed that their flags differ only in colour.
    In public transport terms, perhaps this could be related to the way that Germany uses standard U-Bahn and S-Bahn logos that are recognisable across the country, instead of developing distinctive local brands. Or maybe even the eastern bloc’s Platonic ideal of metro design which they tried to apply as much as possible to every city.

  12. Robert Wightman September 9, 2015 at 12:33 pm #

    David Arthur says;
    “Another rhetorical trope of the New Zealand flag debate that I find interesting is the assumption that it’s obviously desirable for flags to be highly distinctive, even from closely related nations. But the Nordic countries don’t seem at all ashamed that their flags differ only in colour.”
    True but there is some common history between the five countries, Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden share a similar linguistic heritage, Finland is stretch but it is in the same area and while they all have the same cross they are instantly identifiable as to region and country. I find it useful if I can identify a country by its flag quickly without having to look it up. There are also other flags that are similar because of a connection to the area: the Faroe islands, the Shetland Islands, the Orkney Islands, The West Riding of Yorkshire, the flag of Estonia and some cities in Estonia and Latvia. These are all associated with a similar geographical area and the Vikings. Even the flag of Wilmington DE reflects its history as part of the colony of New Sweden.
    A lot of former colonies of Britain use a red or blue British Ensign, Ontario and Manitoba in Canada still use the red one. Even the state of Hawaii has the union Jack in its upper corner. This identifies their common heritage which I have no problem with if their residents want it.
    While not related to transit a countries choice for a flag, especially a new one, is going to cause much angst amongst its residents. I just hope that they choose one they will be happy with.

  13. EJ September 10, 2015 at 9:50 am #

    I feel like they didn’t want to end up with the Koru, but they knew they’d be criticized if they didn’t include at least one of them in the finalists, so they went with the ugliest of all the designs that included it.
    For my two cents, second row, second from the left is the best by a considerable margin, or if you really must include the Southern Cross, fifth row center.
    I do think it’s a bit strange that the “Modern Hundertwasser” had to be removed because the Hundertwasser Foundation filed a copyright claim. I realize it wasn’t Hundertwasser’s exact flag, but you’d think they’d want his entry from 30 years ago in the competition.

  14. Dexter Wong September 16, 2015 at 11:38 pm #

    @Robert Wrightman, Hawaii has a Union Jack on its flag because King Kamehameha (who designed the flag) wanted to show that Hawaii was close friends with Britain, as well as using eight red, white and blue stripes show that Hawaii had eight main islands and was also friendly with both USA and France.

  15. Jim D September 22, 2015 at 6:15 am #

    Boston’s circle ‘T’ logo is probably the best U.S. transit example of a simple and solid identity. The MBTA may be the agency that everyone in Greater Boston loves to hate but there’s no denying that everyone knows instantly what it stands for. My only criticism is that the authority has taken to downplaying its placement on vehicles in recent years. When the MBTA introduced its color-coded vehicle paint schemes in the early 1970’s a large (T) logo was a key feature and was always visible, but the logos have gotten much smaller in recent years and is now often covered up by advertising. Big mistake, IMO – the logo should always be a prominent part of the vehicle’s identity.

  16. Allan Thomas September 25, 2015 at 4:07 am #

    The silver fern is more than a corporate & sporting logo, don’ t people realise its on the front of our passports, on our currency, on our coat of arms, on our award & bravery medals & finally, visit any RSA cemetery & note that the silver fern adorns every headstone. It’s totally understandable that the silver fern is the most common symbol of the 10000 flags submitted, pity the final selection doesn’t include the plain silver fern on a black background flag.

  17. Mikko September 28, 2015 at 5:33 am #

    @Robert Wightman
    “True but there is some common history between the five countries, Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden share a similar linguistic heritage, Finland is stretch”
    Feel free to stretch, but Finland was a part of the Kingdom of Sweden for 600+ years until 1809. The word ‘Finland’ itself is Swedish (the Finnish word being ‘Suomi’). Finland kept the Swedish systems of law and administration throughout the period of Russian rule (1809-1917), and to a large extent, Swedish as the language of administration as well. Finland is still officially bilingual, with a 5 % Swedish-speaking minority.

  18. Gavin S October 1, 2015 at 2:05 am #

    The flag of Calgary is probably the worst example of a flag that has dated badly and looks like a product of its time

  19. Marc October 8, 2015 at 7:45 pm #

    For a really good discussion of vexillology, the study of flags, watch this TED talk:
    The Worst-Designed Thing You’ve Never Noticed
    by Roman Mars
    In a funny and informative presentation, he lays out great rules for the design of flags, or of anything else. After watching this, see which proposed flag above is best.

  20. Annabella Lynnwood February 25, 2016 at 1:31 am #

    god bles u