Proposed flags of New Zealand

Flags

SUMMARY

Here are all the New Zealand flag designs made by myself and James Fitzmaurice over the years (it got messy storing them separately). None were chosen for the official 2016 flag referendum but we think our designs are superior to the official selection in aesthetics, symbolism and justification – a product of raging narcissism or qualified judgement? You decide!

Proposed flags of New Zealand by Brian Cham and James Fitzmaurice.

Proposed flags of New Zealand by Brian Cham and James Fitzmaurice.

INTRODUCTION

As with all design, the how and the why is more important than the what. This article begins by describing our extensive design process. Firstly, it describes our overall methodology and guiding principle. Secondly, it lists all of the common flag design traps that we tried to avoid. Thirdly, it explores New Zealand’s national symbolism and how to effectively express it in a flag design. Afterwards, this article covers each flag design with commentary, larger graphics and construction sheets.

CONTENTS

1. Design Process

1.1 Overall Methodology

1.2 Common Traps

1.3 The Four Symbolic Themes

2. Main Design Proposals

2.1 Blue Sky, White Mist and a Wholly Red Earth

2.2 Solidarity

2.3 Silver Fern with Red Stripe

2.4 Silver Fern Diagonal

3. Other Design Proposals

3.1 Flourishing Together

3.2 Land of the Long White Cloud (red)

3.3 Land of the Long White Cloud (green)

3.4 Southern Cross with Red Stripe

3.5 Modern Fern Landscape

3.6 Silver Fern Horizontal

4. Acknowledgements
References

1. DESIGN PROCESS

1.1 Overall Methodology

What we didn’t do: Just sit down and design a good New Zealand flag.

Why we didn’t do this: Even with my and James’ previous vexillological expertise, a naive process would just result in reinventing the wheel, repeating the mistakes of the past and confusing our intuitive preferences with those of the general population. This is what almost every other designer did and why they failed.

What we did instead:

We adopted the ultimate guiding principle of maximum feasibility. Our single focus and criterion of success was that the flag design must have the highest probability of winning a vote against the current flag. We shed the popular mindset where we were making a personal artistic expression and replaced it with the mindset where we were analysing and capturing the symbolism of the nation’s collective unconscious that would result in the most public resonance. Flags are supposed to express a group’s identity, rather than prescribe it, otherwise the designs cannot achieve the wide appeal that we need. Instead of activating the aesthetic part of our brain and asked what symbolism resonates with us, we activated the sympathy part of our brain and asked what resonates with others.

Anyone can design a flag and feel that it would be a popular and feasible choice but we put in the hard work to make our decisions grounded. Here are some techniques we used:

  • Evaluate all (yes, all) existing proposals. What are the best and worst features? What are common symbols, colours and themes? How were they received by commenters? Why were some more popular than others? From this we constructed a rudimentary regression analysis to capture and predict which design elements and features were associated with higher public appeal.
  • Study New Zealand themed insignia, logos and graphics. What are common symbols, colours and themes? Why?
  • Research surveys and campaigns. What are the preferences among the public, and in what proportions?
  • Survey a real spread of people throughout the design process, not just the people around us. Consulting only the people we knew personally would be short-sighted and misleading. We also conducted some memory testing on these people to see which designs were most memorable. While this process was not as scientific as we would have liked, some clear patterns emerged.

The more artistically inclined may feel this approach is too calculated and soulless, almost like a market research exercise. However, it was deemed necessary for reasons pragmatic (because that’s how referendum voting works and presenting a design with no actual chances would just be a waste of everyone’s time*), creative (because it focuses our thoughts and research into a specific direction) and democratic (because the design would appeal to most of the national population; isn’t that the point?).

Designs in the running to become the actual national flag deserve this level of certainty and effort – we are trying to design the New Zealand flag, not a New Zealand flag.

* i.e. what actually happened in the referendum, but that’s a story for another day.

1.2 Common Traps

We were aware that no previous proposal was loved enough to be a worthy contender to the current flag, so we consciously analysed the commentary behind them all and identified the common pitfalls. This way, we could learn from everyone else’s mistakes and completely transcend them. Listed below are the deal-breakers that afflict so many proposals. Even the official referendum selection falls into these!

Generally bad flag design The classic sins. Too complicated, too many colours, too many elements, irrelevant symbolism, too similar to other flags, the inclusion of writing, maps or gradients, and so on.

Looks like a logo, not a flag Most proposals (we would say over ninety percent of them) look like modern art pieces, corporate logos or political statements stuck into a rectangle. Any appeal of these designs disappear if we imagine them actually fluttering on a flagpole alongside other national flags. The design should have a classic, timeless quality rather than an ephemeral, flashy quality. We posed a thought experiment—If you claimed that your design was from fifty years ago and that you had actually rediscovered rather than created it, would anyone believe you?

Cheesy souvenir A subset of “looks like a logo, not a flag”. Designs can evoke a feeling of cringe and contempt if they look too offbeat, informal or “un-flag-like”. This is subjective – for some, the silver fern is cheesy; for others, the silver fern is conventional.

Mystery symbolism Roger Ebert made a relevant observation about visual communication when he declared, “If you have to ask what it symbolizes, it didn’t.” Flag design is not like conceptual art with its invented imagery and lofty explanations, it’s more like advertising which uses a culture’s shared visual language to intuitively resonate with the audience at first glance. We posed a thought experiment—If your design were transported back in time by fifty years without any accompanying context, would the average person on the street immediately be able to reckon that it’s a New Zealand flag proposal and what everything represents? A similar thought experiment—If your design is submitted to Reverse Google Image Search, is it successfully labelled as “New Zealand”? (this is something we actually tried during our design process)

Designing for yourself – These designers made the mistake of designing for themselves, not for the general public. These designs focus on only one symbolic theme (see the explanation in the next section) at the utter exclusion of other preferences, which is essentially self-sabotage and negates the possibility of general public appeal. Different themes of national identity appeal to different people. They’re not wrong. They’re just not you.

Too radical These designers wipe the slate clean and aim for a revolutionary design with no established symbolism. This is also self-sabotage. The vote would be held by everyone, and a substantial amount of the population is intimately attached to established symbolism. Flags are supposed to express a group’s identity, rather than prescribe it, otherwise the designs cannot achieve the wide appeal that we need.

It’s boring, but it works  Either James or I once critiqued a particularly minimalist flag proposal as “a bland vanilla design that just appeals weakly to everybody without really rousing anyone”. There is such a thing as a flag being too simple. There is such a thing as trying to satisfy everybody and ending up satisfying nobody. A design which is dull, uninspiring and typical will backfire, not grab attention, not stick in the memory and not have support.

1.3 The Four Symbolic Themes

We were aware that any single individual’s idea of New Zealand identity is subjective and short-sighted, so we researched how the nation as a whole perceives itself. We comprehensively analysed all the existing symbolism, flag proposals, responses and preferences out there. As as a result, we identified four themes of national symbolism, named as below:

  • “Established” – Symbols and colours associated with the current flag.
  • “Colloquial” – Symbols and colours associated with informal, colloquial, local culture.
  • “Māori” – Symbols and colours associated with the indigenous culture.
  • “Environmental” – Symbols and colours associated with the environment.

The symbols and colours associated with each symbolic theme are summarised in the Euler diagram below.

The four symbolic themes of New Zealand graphical identity.

The four symbolic themes of New Zealand graphical identity.

At the same time, social scientists have determined the core components of New Zealand’s national identity using extensive, empirical, nationwide studies. Sibley, Hoverd, & Liu’s (2011) study uncovered four facets, named as below:

  • “Anglo-NZ (Post-Colonial) Ancestry” – Ideas about the British cultural and historical legacy as part of the country’s foundation.
  • “Rugby/Sporting Culture” – Ideas about national sports teams as universally popular expressions of national unity and ambition.
  • “Bicultural Awareness” – Ideas about Māori cultural and history as part of the country’s foundation.
  • “Liberal Democratic Values” – Ideas about egalitarianism and mutual respect for cultures, religions and the environment as fundamental values of modern society.

Interestingly, these four facets corresponded roughly with the four themes from our own analysis, suggesting that it is well grounded. Our inquiry also revealed that each symbolic theme has particular advantages and disadvantages which we needed to keep in mind throughout the design process.

We strove to harmoniously appeal to multiple themes and facets of national identity, harness the advantages of each one and avoid the disadvantages of each one. This would ensure that our designs truly represent the nation and resonate with the most people. At the same time, the designs must still remain simple and elegant. Most importantly, we treated the “established” symbolic theme as the fundamental basis of all designs to ensure the most overall resonance.

Details of each symbolic theme are explained below.

1.3.1 Established symbolism

The “established” symbolic category includes symbols and colours associated with the current flag. This corresponds to the “Anglo-NZ (Post-Colonial) Ancestry” facet from Sibley, Hoverd, & Liu’s (2011) study.

Specific design elements include:

  • The red-white-blue colour scheme
  • The southern cross
  • Layouts that recall the flag of the United Kingdom, i.e. blue fields with red bars and white fimbriation.

Advantages:

  • A lot of people are intimately attached to current symbolism and find it pleasingly familiar (refer to the mere exposure effect).
  • Establishes continuity and carries over current symbolism.
  • Formal feel.
  • Historical and cultural significance.
  • British representation.
  • Appeals to the many “swing voters” who are attached to the symbolism in the current flag.
  • Numerically speaking, our regression analysis shows that designs with more of this established symbolism get more support.
  • Sibley, Hoverd, & Duckitt’s (2011) psychological study of subconscious graphical influences show that this symbolic theme is more emotionally salient than the others.

Disadvantages:

  • Can feel too boring, uninspired, safe and soulless.
  • Not as distinct as the purely local symbols like the silver fern.
  • Aesthetically, the southern cross does not make a good focal point as it is too “empty” and spread out to be a bold or iconic symbol.
  • Osborne, Lees-Marshment, & van der Linden’s (2016) study of New Zealand attitudes showed that a majority of respondents had a lukewarm or low support for the Commonwealth of Nations in relation to core national identity.

1.3.2 Colloquial symbolism

The “colloquial” symbolic theme includes symbols and colours associated with informal, colloquial, local culture. This corresponds to the “Rugby/Sporting Culture” facet from Sibley, Hoverd, & Liu’s (2011) study.

Specific design elements include:

Advantages:

  • Unique to New Zealand.
  • The silver fern is the best polling design element (Cheng, 2014).
  • De facto national colours/emblems that arose from local circumstances. These are very common in New Zealand themed logos and graphics.
  • Symbolism is neutral and applies to all people (like Canada’s maple leaf).
  • Osborne, et al.’s (2016) study of New Zealand attitudes showed that a majority of respondents (89.2%) had a high support for sports in relation to core national identity.

Disadvantages:

  • Can feel too informal, too trendy, too cheesy, too associated with sporting teams (especially the All Blacks) and souvenirs and thus not appropriate for a formal national symbol.
  • These were the most contentious design elements in existing flag proposals. The very presence of black or the silver fern put off some respondents; the presence of both black and the silver fern was an absolute deal-breaker for some.
  • The black-white colour scheme by itself is dour or reminds some of pirates or ISIS.
  • The silver fern is visually very complex and fiddly for a flag.
  • Sibley, Hoverd & Duckitt’s (2011) psychological study of subconscious graphical influences show that silver ferns are less emotionally salient than the established symbolism.

1.3.3 Māori symbolism

The “Maori” symbolic theme includes symbols and colours associated with the indigenous culture. This corresponds to the “Bicultural Awareness” facet from Sibley, Hoverd, & Liu’s (2011) study.

Specific design elements include:

Advantages:

  • Unique to New Zealand
  • Historical and cultural significance
  • Indigenous representation
  • Māori culture is already incorporated and accepted into mainstream, e.g. the coat of arms, haka, national anthem, symbols on coinage and banknotes, Air New Zealand logo and so on.
  • Indigenous rights is a key factor that distinguishes New Zealand and its identity from other Western post-colonial nations (i.e. Australia, Canada, USA).

Disadvantages:

  • If this theme is too dominant, especially elements of the Tino Rangatiratanga flag itself, it can feel sectarian, ignoring British history or ignoring a multicultural reality.
  • Numerically speaking, our regression analysis shows that designs with the koru get far less support than the established symbols.
  • Osborne, et al.’s (2016) study of New Zealand attitudes showed that Māori rights, in relation to core national identity, was one of the most polarising socio-cultural attitudes. Overall, a slight majority of respondents (59.2%) expressed a low support for this topic. However, 75.3% agreed with the statement “Māori culture is something that all New Zealanders can take pride in, no matter their background”.

1.3.4 Environmental symbolism

The “environmental” symbolic theme includes symbols and colours associated with the environment. This corresponds to the “Liberal Democratic Values” facet from Sibley, Hoverd, & Liu’s (2011) study, since this facet includes environmental values as well.

Specific design elements include:

Advantages:

  • Expresses New Zealand’s “clean green” image
  • Some of these elements are unique to New Zealand
  • Positive and fresh feel
  • The silver fern is the best polling design element (Cheng, 2014).
  • Future-proof
  • Symbolism is neutral and applies to all people (like Canada’s maple leaf).

Disadvantages:

  • Can feel too “hippie”, trendy or informal and thus not appropriate for a formal national symbol.
  • Some feel that “clean green” image is just artificial marketing hype writ large.
  • Silver fern is visually very complex and fiddly for a flag. Sibley, Hoverd & Duckitt’s (2011) study of subconscious graphical influences show that silver ferns are less emotionally salient than the established symbolism.
  • Numerically speaking, our regression analysis shows that designs with green and koru get far less support than the established symbols.

2. MAIN DESIGN PROPOSALS

The proposals that arose from our design process are displayed below, each with commentary, mock-ups and a construction sheet.

Our designs are in estimated order of most to least feasibility (i.e. probability of winning against the current flag in a national vote). The four most feasible designs are in a separate category labelled our “main designs” to focus more attention on them. However, don’t take this as an indication of quality – you can decide for yourself which of our designs are the best!

The best symbolism is that which does not need to be explained, so we are confident in letting all of our flag designs speak for themselves. Although we will not explain the symbolism behind our flags, we will explain their advantages:

  • Elegant enough to soar alongside other flags of the world. These designs actually look like flags, not the shoehorning of trendy logos, abstract art or intricate patterns into rectangles.
  • Exceptional enough to be instantly distinguished, even at a distance, at a small size or in black and white.
  • Balanced enough to resonate with many New Zealanders and their preferences. Reflects what New Zealanders feel about New Zealand, rather than expressing what we personally feel about New Zealand.
  • Simple enough to be be remembered by a child. Embodies the effective use of few elements and colours.
  • Anchored on existent symbolism to establish continuity and aid recognition.
  • Meaningful enough to tell many stories.

2.1 Blue Sky, White Mist and a Wholly Red Earth

If the name sounds familiar to you, that’s deliberate 😉.

This design is the epitome of my personal style – geometric layout, precise mathematical specifications, short aspect ratio and clever resemblance to a landscape.

This one is in first place because it has the most mass appeal and feasibility. However, we actually never submitted this to the referendum competition because James deemed it to be within “it’s boring, but it works” territory. Earlier, I stated that either he or I once critiqued a particularly minimalist flag proposal as “a bland vanilla design that just appeals weakly to everybody without really rousing anyone. I can’t find the exact source of this quote, but I have the feeling that it was James commenting on this very design of ours!

However, “boring” is subjective. I was personally proud of this design. Afterwards, this design did in fact “rouse” many people who saw it. They were impressed by the elegant simplicity, mass appeal and intuitive symbolism. They also noted that the chevron layout made it distinctive. As such, we have reinstated this design for public viewing.

Blue Sky, White Mist and a Wholly Red Earth

Blue Sky, White Mist and a Wholly Red Earth

Mock-ups for Blue Sky, White Mist and a Wholly Red Earth

Mock-ups for Blue Sky, White Mist and a Wholly Red Earth

Construction sheet for Blue Sky, White Mist and a Wholly Red Earth

Construction sheet for Blue Sky, White Mist and a Wholly Red Earth

2.2 Solidarity

This was the best polling out of all our designs, but personally, it’s one of my least favourites. Incidentally, it’s the first design we ever made.

Solidarity

Solidarity

Mock-ups for Solidarity

Mock-ups for Solidarity

Construction sheet for Solidarity

Construction sheet for Solidarity

2.3 Silver Fern with Red Stripe

This one was also quite popular. This was James’ personal favourite out of our designs – he felt it was “simple but not boring or an overdone layout”. This used to be the only design published on this website, and someone e-mailed me out of the blue just to tell me that he loved it and supplied a link to the government’s submission form because he wanted me to submit it so badly.

Silver Fern with Red Stripe

Silver Fern with Red Stripe

Mock-ups for Silver Fern with Red Stripe

Mock-ups for Silver Fern with Red Stripe

Construction sheet for Silver Fern with Red Stripe

Construction sheet for Silver Fern with Red Stripe

2.4 Silver Fern Diagonal

This design blew away the others in our memory testing. While the process was not as formal or scientific as we would have liked, the unique dominance of this design was very striking and surprising.

Why was this design remembered so well? We suspect that it is the diagonal layout.

In the psychology of perception, we know of a relevant effect called “orientation selectivity” (Hubel & Wiesel, 2004). Viewing purely horizontal and vertical stimuli trigger few neural impulses in the cerebral cortex. These are treated as “background” elements and ignored. However, if the stimulus is more tilted, a stronger neural response occurs. Diagonal elements are treated as “foreground” and evoke attention.

Also, in the psychology of memory, we know that concepts are more memorable if they are based on something familiar but are combined with something counter-intuitive (Barett & Nyhof, 2001). In this case, the silver fern on black is familiar but the diagonal layout is unexpected because it is uncommon in flag designs.

Thus, we suspect that this design was most memorable because it was most diagonal. It is telling that the next most remembered designs also have high diagonality. We were vaguely aware of these psychological effects and considered them in our designs (hence why there are so many diagonal elements in them) but we did not expect it to actually pay off so strongly.

Silver Fern Diagonal

Silver Fern Diagonal

Mock-ups for Silver Fern Diagonal

Mock-ups for Silver Fern Diagonal

Construction sheet for Silver Fern Diagonal

Construction sheet for Silver Fern Diagonal

3. OTHER DESIGN PROPOSALS

These ones didn’t make the cut for various reasons. Not all of these are serious proposals; some were just ideas in our design process that we rejected but are displayed here for the sake of interest.

These designs are ordered from the best first.

3.1 Flourishing Together

This design was the result of James’ conscious attempt to strongly counterbalance my personal style with his own style (long aspect ratio with complex and free-form patterns). This design doesn’t have a construction sheet because it can’t be specified mathematically – that’s the whole point!

(still, the ratio is 1:2, the blue is Pantone 280 C and the red is Pantone 186 C)

By usual standards of success, this flag is actually the best of our designs – it is aesthetically charming, got enthusiastic responses, satisfies many aspects of national symbolism and scored highly in memory testing. However, by our guiding principle of maximum feasibility, we could not treat this as one of our “main” design proposals; it was clear that for a lot of the population, this design would veer a little too much into the “cheesy souvenir” trap.

Flourishing Together

Flourishing Together

Mock-ups for Flourishing Together

Mock-ups for Flourishing Together

3.2 Land of the Long White Cloud (red)

To our surprise, few people recognised that the pattern was supposed to be a koru representing the “land of the long white cloud” and that the overall layout was supposed to represent a landscape.

Land of the Long White Cloud (red)

Land of the Long White Cloud (red)

Mock-ups for Land of the Long White Cloud (red)

Mock-ups for Land of the Long White Cloud (red)

Construction sheet for Land of the Long White Cloud (red)

Construction sheet for Land of the Long White Cloud (red)

3.3 Land of the Long White Cloud (green)

To our surprise, few people recognised that the pattern was supposed to be a koru representing the “land of the long white cloud” and that the overall layout was supposed to represent a landscape.

This was one of the worst polling out of all our designs but this is one of my personal favourites.

Land of the Long White Cloud (green)

Land of the Long White Cloud (green)

Mock-ups for Land of the Long White Cloud (green)

Mock-ups for Land of the Long White Cloud (green)

Construction sheet for Land of the Long White Cloud (green)

Construction sheet for Land of the Long White Cloud (green)

3.4 Southern Cross with Red Stripe

This is deliberately the most conservative of our designs. It came from an exercise to aim for cautiousness and tradition above all else.

However, it easily fell into the “it’s boring but it works” trap, which many people picked up on. Aesthetically, it doesn’t really have a good focal point either.

Southern Cross with Red Stripe

Southern Cross with Red Stripe

Mock-ups for Southern Cross with Red Stripe

Mock-ups for Southern Cross with Red Stripe

Construction sheet for Southern Cross with Red Stripe

Construction sheet for Southern Cross with Red Stripe

3.5 Modern Fern Landscape

This is deliberately the most eccentric of our designs. It came from an exercise to ignore our research and aim for creativity and peculiarity above all else.

However, it easily fell into the “looks like a logo, not a flag” trap, which many people picked up on. James said it best when he noted that it looks good on a screen but not on a flagpole. He also didn’t like how this stylised fern looks like a feather, though I supposed it could double as representing the quill used to sign the Treaty of Waitangi as well.

This design demonstrates the need to focus on maximum feasibility as a guiding principle – it’s aesthetically stunning, but this blinds from the fact that it only appeals to a very narrow subset of symbolism and is not feasible as a proposal. Thus, while this is possibly the best looking of our flags, it would probably be the least resonating, which is why it ended up near the bottom of the list.

This design is too free-form to have a construction sheet, but the ratio is 2:3 and the green is Pantone 355 C.

Modern Fern Landscape

Modern Fern Landscape

Mock-ups for Modern Fern Landscape

Mock-ups for Modern Fern Landscape

3.6 Silver Fern Horizontal

This design polled highly, but it resembled the flag of Libya too much, so we ditched it very quickly and replaced it with the diagonal variant seen in 2.4 Silver Fern Diagonal.

Silver Fern Horizontal

Silver Fern Horizontal

Mock-ups for Silver Fern Horizontal

Mock-ups for Silver Fern Horizontal

Construction sheet for Silver Fern Horizontal

Construction sheet for Silver Fern Horizontal

4. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Thanks to James Fitzmaurice for all his expertise and contributions to our designs.

Thanks to everyone who participated in our surveys. Thanks to everyone who conducted the research that helped us in our design process.

Waving flag mock-ups made with loderunner’s Flag Waver software. Driver licence mock-ups contain licence design by New Zealand Transport Agency and painting of Lisa del Giocondo by Leonardo da Vinci. Digital icon mock-ups contain user interface elements from WhatsApp, Android Keyboard and Google’s flag emoji. Stylised silver ferns adapted from designs by James Fitzmaurice, Kyle Lockwood and Cameron Sanders. We do not claim affiliation with nor ownership of the intellectual properties acknowledged in this section.

REFERENCES

Barrett, J. L., & Nyhof, M. A. (2001). Spreading nonnatural concepts: The role of intuitive conceptual structures in memory and transmission of cultural materials. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 1, 69–100.

Cheng, D. (2014). Flag debate: NZers favour new design – survey. Retrieved from http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10625679

Davison, I. (2014). Kiwis back Union Jack flag. Retrieved from http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11222086

Hubel, D. H., & Wiesel, T. N. (2004). Brain and Visual Perception. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Osborne, D., Lees-Marshment, J., & van der Linden, C. (2016). “National identity and the flag change referendum: Examining the latent profiles underlying New Zealanders’ flag change support.” New Zealand Sociology, 31(7), 19-47.

Sibley, C., Hoverd, W., & Duckitt, J. (2011). “What’s in a Flag? Subliminal Exposure to New Zealand National Symbols and the Automatic Activation of Egalitarian Versus Dominance Values.” The Journal of Social Psychology, 151(4), 494-516. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00224545.2010.503717

Sibley, C., Hoverd, W., & Liu, J. (2011). “Pluralistic and Monocultural Facets of New Zealand National Character and Identity.” New Zealand Journal of Psychology, 40(3), 19-29.

Trevett, C. (2015). Flag poll message clear: Leave it alone. Retrieved from http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11441353

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