From The Archives: A rest will be better than a change

4 weeks ago by

Remember that whole flag debate? Here’s Michael Symthe’s contribution to the conversation from 2016.


Written by Michael Smythe

Another damn flag article? Give it a rest — we are over it!

That is not the way design-driven leaders think. Success is the reward of the tenacious, not the timid. It is time to take stock and work out where we are at. We are operating within the context of the best development process known to mankind — trial and error. Understanding the errors and identifying a better process is the path to progress.

We are on the brink of an expensive bureaucrat-orchestrated, John Key-driven, taxpayer-funded anti-climax. If the polls are to be believed our poles will not be officially festooned with the new flag option that emerged from the democratic design process. After all the palaver, and in spite of the PR101 celeb endorsements, the status-quo will prevail.

The fear of failure is causing the Prime Minister to scaremonger about being lumbered with the old Empire ensign until such time as we become a republic which, he says, won’t happen in his lifetime. Labour Leader Andrew Little has countered with the observation that a change vote would leave us with an unsatisfactory flag for a century while a vote for the status quo would allow the topic to be revisited at a more suitable time.

Impending disappointment is generating pre-emptive recriminations. According to the Listener editorial writer and New Zealand Herald political columnists it is all the Labour Party’s fault for not falling into line, standing to attention and saluting instead of disagreeing with the process at the outset. (Labour’s position was that the first public discussion, and referendum, should have focussed on the pros and cons of having a new flag.)

The problem, apparently, is that the flag thing has become politicised. Given that politics is the process of developing policy in our collective interests that is surely as it should be.

By launching the campaign on 7 February 2010 with his all-done-and-dusted fern sketch on TV One’s Breakfast John Key made the process, and its intended outcome, 100% politically aligned with him — as was using Royal celebs to promote the fern in the 2014 election year and flaunting his own preference on his lapel.

If the agenda was always to place New Zealand’s evolving corporate logo on the flag, that should have been stated upfront. If the actual task was to make the flag an integrated element of the ‘Brand New Zealand’ programme a competition was unnecessary. They could have simply commissioned Designworks to continue the process explained on their website :

Designing the country’s official silver fern was just one part of the job of bringing together all the ingredients needed to accelerate New Zealand’s brand on the world stage. designworks was involved in a process of clarifying and articulating the strategic idea of New Zealand’s past, present and future purpose – engaging the country in a programme of initiatives aimed at moving the whole population onto the same song sheet and collaborating with artists, designers and the wider community on a national attitude and vocabulary that is unique.

The logical outcome would have been along these lines:

A clumsier version of the design on the left was on the first ballot was similar. I submitted the design on the right as the logical populist transitional compromise. But the fundamental problem with this Official Fern is that it is botanically incorrect — its leaves are pointed like the laurel. But back to the situation confronting us today …

We are stuck with the outcome of a deeply flawed market-driven process that was critiqued towards the end my earlier article The Fit of Peak. [Please create link.] All the designers I know, and many non-designers, want change but are not willing to settle for the mediocrity on offer. Finlay Macdonald wrote on the Radio New Zealand News website ‘…you can say a lot of bad things about the alternative flag, but probably the worst is that it makes the current flag look good.’

I wrote in a recent New Zealand Herald opinion piece: ‘Adopting [the Aoteatowel] will seriously depress the creative spirit that is essential to our evolution as a smart, innovative country. It would be better to maintain the status quo until we can come up with a flag that will inspire us and wow the world. … It’s a worthwhile project that should take all the time it needs to deliver long-lasting cultural, social and economic benefits.’

As we flag away the opportunity to risk a dodgy flutter we should tidy up the mess, learn from the sobering experience and lay the foundation for an improved process. I offer this draft outline as a conversation starter.

PHASE 1 — BACKGROUND: Publicly discuss the purpose of a flag and the potential benefits of a new design. Accept the possibility of more than one approach, eg: a stand-alone flag; a flag aligning with existing icons of identity; a flag leading the way for a fresh integrated identity system. Discuss timing and context.

PHASE 2 — NARRATIVES: Draft stories that tell the New Zealand story to date and project them into the future. Work out what characterises and distinguishes us in the global context.

PHASE 3 — INTENTION: Create a preliminary design brief for a new flag distilled into a checklist of performance criteria — both functional and emotional.

PHASE 4 — VALIDATION: Use the design briefs to evaluate the existing flag. Collectively agree that the status-quo is fine or that a new flag is needed. If the former, stop the process. If the latter, move to the next stage.

PHASE 5 — FACILITATION: Appoint a Commission with real expertise to take responsibility for developing and managing the best process possible. Charge them with developing a more comprehensive design brief. Open the brief to public consultation and constructive feedback.

PHASE 6 — CONCEPTION: The Commission invites designers to submit credentials and selects some to be professionally engaged. The selected designers respond to the brief with initial concepts and present to the commission for evaluation and feedback.

PHASE 7 — DEVELOPMENT: The designers rethink and/or refine their concepts and present to the Commission. Repeat until all parties are happy with the outcome.

PHASE 8 — RECOMMENDATION: The Commission selects its preferred flag design(s) and presents its findings to parliament and the public. Open discussion follows and the government of the day, preferably with cross-party support, decides how to proceed.

A process along these lines is far more likely to succeed because the first attempt has made us aware of what is missing when a good design management process is not employed.

I will be among the many voting for the status quo in the Flag Consideration Project postal ballot which runs from 3–24 March. No change now will provide the fastest path — after a revitalising rest — to a future change we can actually live with and even fly with pride.



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