THE NEW ZEALAND FLAG
21 February 2004
This article was first published in the New Zealand Listener magazine dated 21 February 2004.
For this web site it is split into three parts and expanded a little.
1: RETURN OF THE FLUTTER BUG
MICHAEL SMYTHE suggests that this 21st century revival of the flag debate could pick up where previous rounds left off and improve our economic, cultural, social and spiritual health by actually delivering a result.
It was 'a rainy day at the bach' on the National Programme's Summer Report when New Zealanders first felt Lloyd Morrison's fresh breath on their quivering identity as he ripped the flagging silk ... A spontaneous poll broke out suggesting that eighty-something percent were saluting his idea of a new flag. The silent majority probably saved their breath for a united a sigh of "Oh no, not again!".
Is it a recurrent virus? Is it an obsession? Maybe it's just growing pains.
The movers and shakers who advocate change will be accused of disloyalty, especially to those who fought and died under the New Zealand ensign. But the call for change is driven by pride and passion for nailing our colours to the mast and showing the world, and ourselves, what New Zealand is really made of. It is an emotive and complex issue.
As a designer I see a new flag as an overdue opportunity to accelerate cultural, social and economic growth by expressing maturity, letting go of Mother's apron and standing on our unique two feet.
When faced with a confusion of emotive concerns and infinite possibilities I reach for the toolkit of design process Ð write a brief, research the market, come up with concepts, evaluate them against the brief, develop the chosen concept, sell it to the client and facilitate its implementation.
Actually, design process is not as simple and linear as that. Some designers would say the client must participate fully so as to own the outcome. Ausflag appears to have stagnated along that track and is probably hanging out for change of government. Others prefer the 'brand fascist' approach Ð forget democracy, create a great idea and impose it. It worked for Lester Pearson, the Canadian Prime Minister who replaced their imperial ensign with the maple leaf flag in 1965. There is therefore a debate to be had about the process itself.
In the meantime creative juices will flow, ideas will surface and critiques will rage. Intuitive grappling with solutions can help to define the problem. It can be legitimate to write the brief after the concept has emerged but there is danger of self-justification narrowing the vision. The "I don't know what I want but I'll know what it is when I see it" methodology only works when the designer achieves real empathy with the client (in this case the government?) and their constituency (the voters?).
Let's establish a firm foundation for this debate so we don't all waste our time. An increasing majority seem to agree that the current flag is obsolete. This will not translate into agreement about the best replacement. Design process offers a way forward.
First, we need to identify the stakeholders. I challenge Parliament to form a cross-party steering committee to provide positive leadership. I challenge the media to avoid the temptation to stir up a stoush and instead provide forums for informed debate. I challenge professional groups to offer sound advice within a shared commitment to the best possible outcome. I challenge the public at large to recognise their crucial role as the most powerful participants in this process and engage constructively. And finally, I recommend that we all enjoy the process Ð for the profound reason that having fun beats getting stressed out.
An inclusive, integrative design process might start by addressing the following issues:
1 - Are we willing to stay with the existing flag all through this century?
2 - If not, when would be a good time to adopt a new flag?
3 - Who should represent the stakeholders on a client committee?
4 - What are the requirements for a new flag? - The stakeholder group could write a design brief, obtain agreement from those they represent and summarise the outcome in a checklist of criteria (practical, narrative and emotive?) that will inform the creative process and provide a basis for the evaluation of concepts.
5 - Who should be invited to offer initial design concepts for a new flag?
6 - Which professional groups should provide informed feedback to the designers and the client committee?
7 - Who should re-visit the brief and checklist in view of the possibilities that have emerged during the creative process? - All received wisdom should be challenged. Modern technology may have rendered many traditional constraints redundant. What is a flag anyway? What is its function in our modern age? (Bloody designers! No wonder the answer to "How many designers does it take to change a light bulb" is "Does it have to be a light bulb?") Change the brief by all means, but do it consciously and with stakeholder agreement.
8 - Who should select the shortlist of real contenders?
9 - How should a final choice be made? Popular vote? Expert selection? Market survey? Referendum? All of the above, average them out and take away the number you first thought of?
10 - How transparent should this process be at each stage?
11 - Who should be paid for their valued contribution to this process?
On the other hand, the answer may already be under our noses. Something that could unite us, lead us forward and wow the world.
2: WALTERS - FLAG DESIGNER No. 1?
Yes it's art - but is it flag material?
I believe that it articulates our heritage with distinction.
When I first saw Gordon Walters' Painting No. 1 my spirits were lifted to the depths of my being (paradox intended). At some point a narrative emerged - I read the painting as an astute metaphor for the bi-cultural basis of our nation. The black is distinguished by the presence of the white. The white is distinguished by the presence of the black. It could have been even bands creating a grey half-tone (assimilation, blending, the melting pot, "coffee coloured children by the score" - a khaki Kiwi kulture). The painting is pushed beyond bland when one colour comes to the foreground and flourishes. But it becomes infinitely enriched when that dominant colour backs off and allows space for the other to flourish alongside. It eloquently articulates the emergence of our nation.
This interpretation is not what Gordon Walters had in mind when he conceived Painting No. 1. He told me that his work was purely abstract but that he was very happy for anyone to find meaningful stories. He was happy with the narrative I applied to Painting No. 1 and his widow, Dr Margaret Orbell, is delighted with the notion that it could inform a new New Zealand flag.
To the few who spluttered indignantly about multi-culturalism two paragraphs back and are still reading, allow me to explain. We are a bi-cultural nation with a multi-cultural society. Two cultures signed the Treaty of Waitangi - one the tangata whenua represented by many iwi chiefs, the other the tangata tiriti represented by the British Crown. These diverse, evolving cultures are called Maori and Pakeha. Any other culture we can name has a home-base somewhere else in the world. New Zealand is the only home for the Maori and Pakeha cultures. Upon this platform of cultural heritage an increasingly multi-cultural society is flourishing. If we deny this reality we might as well hoist the United Nations flag.
And to those who are stuck with the old notion that Gordon Walters was an inappropriate appropriator, let me offer the view that he paid homage to Maori art when most Pakeha painters were ignoring it. He engaged in international art movements by honouring the unique visual heritage of own country. Walters in turn had no problem with other artists or designers being inspired by his work. In a 1993 letter he wrote: "... art depends on artists reinterpreting and extending the work of earlier artists. ... It seems that my approach is useful to graphic designers. ... I can also see its influence in at least one Maori artist's work. That's fine, that's just another example of the natural process by which artist's influence each other."
Considering Painting No. 1 as a flag raises questions. Can we alter the work to fit the flag format? - Yes, but it is perfect as it is. Must a flag have a 2:1 ratio? During the America's Cup flags were hoisted on the harbour bridge. Even in the lightest breeze the square Swiss flag flew proudly while ours hung limply. Which reminds me, around that time I recall approaching the bridge and wondering why the skull-and-cross-bones had been hoisted. I had to get very close before recognising the Loyal fern flag.
By adopting black and white as our national colours we align with the emergent strategy of our sports branding. As with the Stars and Stripes, the Union Jack and the Tricouleurs, infinite variations on the Gordon Walters theme are possible. In fact it is so distinctive that colour can be applied without losing the connection. But it must be done with care, understanding and mastery of the visual language. Could this art stand upright here?
Following the filing of the article for the Listener, Michael Smythe did what designers do - he reflected on what a simplified version of Gordon Walters' Painting No. 1 might look like. He writes:
Today, Waitangi Day, something happened. I was working through some ideas while the National Programme broadcast Rope Works -He Taura Whiri, the second Waitangi Rua Rau Tau Lecture by Dame Joan Metge. When she explained that William Hobson's statement "He iwi tahi tatou", which he translated as "we are one people" could be more accurately interpreted as "We two people together make a nation" it all came together.
As well as depicting the foundation of our nation this design can suggest the Southern Cross and the letters NZ. I have done something that Gordon Walters never did - I have turned the white koru downward to achieve a more interactive image. The Walters' koru always turned upward, but he was happy for designers to extend his visual language.
The design can work on a grey, white or black background, and can form a continuous pattern evoking a kowhaiwhai or braiding on a Naval sleeve.
This is one of those times when I feel more like a midwife than a designer!
3: LEARNING FROM OTHERS
A discussion on some things we can learn from other flag designs and attempts at change.
Great flags become powerful emblems of identity and culture. The fact that the Third Reich flag creates a strong emotional response is evidence that Hitler's design was effective. The swastika had positive associations before Hitler appropriated it. Our response to all national flag designs is influenced by our opinion of the country it represents.
A flag adds spice to a mini, and a Spice adds a flag to a mini - the Union Jack has blossomed as a branding device because designers have been able to play with it.
Flags can be embedded in the personification of a nation's character.
This billboard features Lazer's "Badass Uncle Sam". (www.lazer103.com/ downloads.asp)
One of the few countries to change their flag without regime change is Canada. Like New Zealand, Canada had used the British Union Jack as its official national flag. The Canadian Red Ensign as a popularly recognized specifically Canadian variant. The idea of a new design for the national flag had been discussed for decades, but it was in the 1960s that the debate intensified and became a subject of considerable controversy. The principal political opponent of the change was former prime minister and then leader of the opposition, John Diefenbaker, who made it his personal crusade not only for sentimental reasons but also for political advantage. Eventually, a multi-party parliamentary committee was established to select a new design. Through a period of study with some political manoeuvring the committee came up with the current design, which was created by George Stanley, inspired by the flag of The Royal Military College of Canada. The committee made its final selection on October 22, 1964.
Under the supervision of Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, the new flag was adopted by the House of Commons on December 15, 1964. It was officially proclaimed into law by Queen Elizabeth II on February 15, 1965. Since 1995, February 15 has been commemorated as National Flag of Canada Day.
Despite the preceding acrimony, the new flag was quickly embraced by the Canadian public, and internationally the flag quickly became a welcome marker of Canadians around the world.
(Main reference source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canada)
The Ausflag Campaign
The Ausflag campaign to create a new Australian flag aimed to achieve change by the new millennium. After much productive activity the project seems to have stagnated - for lack of political will and leadership? Ausflag 1997 Professional Design Competition winners:
First Prize, Judges' Choice - Franck Gentil.
Second Prize, Judges' Choice - George Margaritis.
Third Prize, Judges' Choice - Peter Lambert.
First Prize, People's Choice - George Margaritis.
Second Prize, People's Choice - Neville Cowland and Judith North.
Third Prize, People's Choice - Harold Scruby.
(The above images were sourced from www.ausflag.com.au )