A Buyers Guide to Flag Design
It’s almost time for New Zealanders to vote for their favourite flag design. Everyone has theirs. Which flag will go on through to the final round? (starting to feel a little Idol/Survivor vibe here).
Soon, media outlets will once again be flowing with flag related articles, and no doubt there will be attempts of persuasion, celebrity endorsements and political debate.
Before the submission deadline, the flag consideration panel posted a video, in collaboration with The Designers Institute of New Zealand, to their Youtube channel with guidelines on good flag design. Since these were the criteria that the panel made clear to everybody before hand, and therefore should be the criteria by which they judge the flags themselves, it seems only fair that these are the criteria which we use to evaluate the 5 short-listed designs too.
This article will attempt to offer an unbiased evaluation of each of the 5 flag designs against each of these principles.
Each flag will earn points out of 5 for how closely they match the criteria. 5 points being ‘it matches the criteria very well’, 0 points being ‘it does not match the criteria at all’.
N.B. I am a designer, but I’ll be trying to keep the terminology as simple as possible and in line with that used in the video, instead of rambling on about shoddy béziers and geeky stuff like that. I’ll try to link to glossary terms where necessary.
Principles of Flag Design
According to the above video, when designing a flag for submission, we should keep the following principles in mind:
The flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory . . .
Limit the number of colours on the flag to three, which contrast well and come from a standard colour set . . .
3. The Rule of Thirds
The flag is divided into thirds creating aesthetic positions for primary elements…
One of the most basic elements of beauty in organic and created forms…
Flags are seen in many different places, will it send the same message in all of them?
So those are the principles, let’s get started in comparing each of those with our five finalists!
First up, simplicity. Our guidelines state that flag design should be reductive. It’s as much about what’s not included as what is. With that in mind, how do our options fare…
Silver Fern (Black, White and Blue) is our iconic fern as a more rounded version than its straighter, sharper All Blacks cousin. The southern cross sits on the right hand side. The fern itself hasn’t been reduced to a symbolic representation, and remains a complex icon. The combination of so many fronds and the points of the stars gives us a design with a lot of visual intensity, and no real focal point. The silver fern is endemic to New Zealand, the southern cross however, is not.
I’m giving this design 1 out of 5 for simplicity, because they’ve actually made it even more complex than the original, but at least it doesn’t have any words.
Red Peak has three triangular shapes with a white chevron. Each shape is large and each section is distinct. It is not the most simple a flag design can be, but a good example of designing without icons and symbols, and utilising a triangular shape that isn’t very common in national flags.
I’m giving this design 4 out of 5 for simplicity.
Koru has a large white/black spiral on the left-hand side. The curve of the spiral itself goes through more or less a 360° rotation (if that makes sense?), the end of the white curl gets a little thin, and the end of the black curl gets this little knobbly bit, which rightly alludes to an unfurling fern frond, and stops the design from being a total whirlpool, but is a detail that I feel could’ve been further reduced.
I’m giving this design 4 out of 5 for simplicity.
Silver Fern (Black & White) is the one flag to use less conventional dimensions, and fills almost the entire space with a variation of the fern icon. While this fern seems to have less fronds that the other two fern designs, each side of the fern is significantly different; each of the smaller leaves are inconsistently spaced out and all shaped differently, creating unnecessary visual complication.
It has however, reduced the design to one piece of iconography, so I’m going to give this 2 out of 5 for simplicity.
Silver Fern (Red, White and Blue) in terms of content, is the same flag as the Silver Fern (Black, White and Blue), therefore, same critique, same score.
This design gets 1 out of 5 for simplicity.
Our guidelines tell us colours should separate light and dark areas with good contrast, work in greyscale and be limited to 2 or 3 colours — 4 can become difficult to distinguish.
N.B. In my opinion we all could’ve been a little more experimental when choosing the colours for our designs; all of our palettes combined, generally speaking, equate to only 4 different colours: Black, White, Red and Blue, which is a direct relation to our current flag. But I’m going to put that aside for now, and evaluate these selections based on how they’ve combined their choices, the claimed reason for their choice, and how they’re balanced.
Silver Fern (Black, White and Blue) has, duh, black, white, and blue and also red. 4 colours. The blue is a little lighter than the blue of our current flag, and the descriptions states
The bright blue represents our clear atmosphere and the Pacific Ocean, over which all New Zealanders, or their ancestors, crossed to get here.
The blue, white and black are quite good together, albeit a rather moody palette for a flag. The amount of red is minimal in comparison to the rest of the palette, with the four red stars bordered with white to increase their contrast and visibility on the blue background. These have been the most commonly used colours, but in this case the explanation for their use is quite weak — the atmosphere, the ocean, really?
I’m giving this design 3 out of 5 for colour because the choice seems somewhat arbitrary and the balance of their mass doesn’t feel right.
Red Peak has a very similar palette to the one above, except the blue and red are a little darker and they are used in equal amounts across the design. That extra balance in mass significantly changes how the colours are seen in a positive way. The description states
the colours suggest a landscape of red earth and black sky and reference the story of Rangi and Papa, a creation myth in Māori mythology
which in my opinion is a significantly better argument than the colour of water.
I’m giving this design 4 out of 5 for colour, because although it uses many colours, the justification and execution are convincing.
Koru uses black as the dominant base colour and swirls around to form the main Koru shape backed by white. Since this design is made up of only two contrasting elements the only way to have made this bad would’ve been to put a green koru on black or something similarly horrible.
Good job on not stuffing this up, I’m giving this design 5 out of 5 for colour.
Silver Fern (Black & White), as the Koru design, utilises a simple black and white colour contrast. Black and white flags are not commonly seen amongst national flags, and while in this case it may be referencing preexisting sports flags pretty strongly, it’s an unapologetically bold palette.
I’m giving this design 5 out of 5 for colour.
Silver Fern (Red, White and Blue) actually works much better than its Black, White and Blue equivalent. Even if you’re not a fan of the Red/Blue combo, matching the stars colour with the left hand section creates a stronger sense of unison across the design. The description though
The red represents our heritage and sacrifices made.
is inexcusable. I mean really? That’s not fooling anyone.
I’m giving this design 4 out of 5 for colour.
3. Rule of Thirds
9 equal sections of the flag create intersections for core elements to sit on, which helps the design create tension and energy. How have our flags been designed with this in mind?
Silver Fern (Black, White and Blue) has clearly placed the silver fern in the left most two thirds of the design. The stars however, feel loosely placed. I tend to think that this design simply removed the union jack, and replaced it with an alternative icon, without too much further compositional consideration. See original.
I’m giving this design 3 out of 5 for rule of thirds, because some of the elements are aligned, and it does has some sense of balance, but feels skewed and awkward too.
Red Peak is more of a centered design, using the top centre point and the lower two corners as anchor points for the forms. It is constructed using a simple rule of 1/2s and 1/4s as laid out here, and as stated in our guidelines video, if a strong primary element works better centered, go with it.
I’m giving this design 5 out of 5 for rule of thirds, because although it doesn’t really adhere to the rule of thirds exactly, it justifiably follows another grid system which compliments and defines the design.
Koru has clearly balanced its primary element with the rule of thirds in mind. The curves intersect the grid at appropriate points and the focal point of the Koru rests comfortably in the centre of the left most two thirds. It follows the rule and is a well-balanced composition, even if the precise positioning could be tightened up a little.
I’m giving this design, perhaps a generous, 5 out of 5 for rule of thirds.
Silver Fern (Black & White) doesn’t use the same dimensions as the rest of our options, and I’ve highlighted the difference in their grids in red. Edit: The other 4 designs have a 1:2 ratio. This one is closer to a 2:3. I can’t see any correlation between the fern element and grid, except that it kind of goes through the middle, maybe. The fern has been slapped in there to fill up the space. I could try and justify it in saying that the design would look worse if it was stretched all the way across the dimensions of the others, but we all know centred ferns in flags can look awesome anyway.
Edit: This too, is the only one which seems to be a self-confessed sourced design.
I’m giving this design 0 out of 5 for rule of thirds.
Silver Fern (Red, White and Blue), once again, in terms of content, is the same flag as the Silver Fern (Black, White and Blue), therefore, same critique, same score.
I’m giving this design 3 out of 5 for rule of thirds.
Simple symmetrical forms create recognition and recall, utilising reflective symmetry vertically, horizontally or both. Asymmetry creates tension and prevents objects from appearing static. Do any of our flags follow this advice? The superimposed green lines show us a simple vertically and horizontally centred mirror line.
Silver Fern (Black, White and Blue) has shown us its consideration for the Rule of Thirds in the previous section, yet it doesn’t seem to have any sort of obvious symmetry happening here. It’s a complicated design to reflect or mirror, which highlights again why this design, and the amount of complex elements it has within it, falls short as a flag. It’s like a bloated Canton that got out of hand.
Aside from the points about tension and balance that our guideline video showed us, we’ll see more examples in the following section, Context, about why symmetry and asymmetry are so important.
I’m giving this design 1 out of 5 for Symmetry/Asymmetry, because while it is true that these are rules of thumb and designers may feel free to reject them, not considering them should be reasonably justified, and in this case, I don’t think it is.
Red Peak utilises reflective symmetry vertically and asymmetry horizontally. This design has a strong, wide base which moves up to a positive, outreaching tip. It’s a stable form, which could be flipped around and still maintains recognition. The design description convincingly states:
The chevron is inspired by traditional Maori weaving tāniko patterns and refers to the collision of two tectonic plates which form the Southern Alps.
I’m giving this design 5 out of 5 for Symmetry/Asymmetry.
The Koru design employs vertical and horizontal asymmetry, although it does feel balanced due to the negative space on the right, and the organic, complementary shape of the Koru. If you’re going to employ symmetry in this way, at least do it using a good amount of negative space.
I’m giving this design 3 out of 5 for Symmetry/Asymmetry, because although it has no symmetrical elements which means it won’t reflect or rotate as well as it should, it does play with positive/negative space in a composed way.
One could argue that Silver Fern (Black & White) is perfectly asymmetrical, give it 5 out of 5, but I would go as far to say that in most cases, asymmetry is most effective when coupled with symmetry. Like the Pall, Chevron and Bends formats, the Scandinavian crosses sit vertically asymmetrical yet are visually balanced with horizontal symmetry. This design uses little negative space, and the fern uses up the entire width of the flag. The Silver Fern has employed asymmetry in both directions, but it does not seem intentional.
I’m giving this design 0 out of 5 for Symmetry/Asymmetry.
Silver Fern (Red, White and Blue) follows the same symmetry patterns as its Black and Blue brother, therefore the same critique applies. Although the design appears better balanced than the Silver Fern (Black & White) design, and the guidelines are not concrete rules that must be applied in every case, its application of the Rule of Thirds just doesn’t seem enough to justify a total lack of symmetrical consideration.
I’m giving this design 1 out of 5 for Symmetry/Asymmetry.
Flags are constantly redrawn and reinterpreted. They must be easily read when small or at a distance, and they’re often seen together, so should look like a flag, not a pictogram. This is where our designs get really interesting. How do they look when they’re out being used in the world? Do the previous 4 guidelines in theory, make the design better in context?
Silver Fern (Black, White and Blue)
It we start with the top row centre image, we see our flag flying as if we were looking at it from the other side, it’s spun around the flag pole and has been reflected. This means that our design has been reversed, and in this case the asymmetry of all the elements has meant that the fern reads awkwardly. It doesn’t really read as it should. In the next image across we see the flag limp against the flag pole, on a windless day. Of course it’s difficult to read a flag when it’s like this, but it is a very common situation for it to be in, and that’s just another reason why pictogram styles don’t work very well in flag designs. All of the fern is lost here, and because that is the largest recognisable motif in the design, that works negatively for it in this situation.
On the bottom row far left we can see our flag flying amongst other national flags at the UN building. In between the flag of Argentina and The Netherlands is looks horribly cluttered. The design is busy and the colour palette is moody. Next across we see a small version on a travellers backpack. Flags should always be scalable, for moments like this, and for when viewing them at a distance. This design shows how the loss of detail at small sizes takes away from the impact of a flag; we can’t see the stars and it’s difficult to make out the detail of the fern. Lastly we see someone flying the flag at an event. The flag retains integrity here, but remember, when the person waves the flag back and forth, it’s going to be flipping over and over and be seen constantly reflected, which we’ve already discovered, for this design, is bad.
I’m giving this design 0 out of 5 for Context.
Here we really start to see why the previous guidelines are so important. The simplicity and symmetry of this flag means when it’s reflected on the flag pole it retains its readability perfectly. When it’s limp against the flag pole the colour legibility is in tact and there are no icon to be lost. Amongst other national flags it looks like a national flag, and compared to the others has a strikingly bold and confident motif. The small patch on the backpack shows us how well it reduces, maintaining full legibility even at that size. And the flying flag at the event is clear and will remain that way while being flown. This is a perfect example of why these guidelines are the way they are. It’s not about icons, pictures, national symbols — it’s simplicity and clarity that forms the basis for national identity, of which flags are only one part. “Flags are constantly redrawn and reinterpreted” — and we’ve already seen Red Peak inspire people to do just that — here.
I’m giving this design 5 out of 5 for Context.
Despite some earlier discrepancies, at first glance this design seems to hold up well in context. Reflected, the Koru swirl holds true. The beautifully simple colour palette means that when the flag is limp, and the swirl is lost, it could remain readable. In amongst the other flags the palette is striking, although the swirl does look pretty weird. The scalability of the swirl is, surprisingly, actually pretty good, we can still see the distinct shape of the swirl in that patch. And flying at the event it looks great too.
I’m giving this design 4 out of 5 for Context, because everything works well, but at the end of the day, sorry, but that Koru swirl is just too whacky for a flag design. Mind control anyone?
Silver Fern (Black & White) .
When we reflect this design, it actually holds up reasonably well, despite its complex nature. Limp against the pole the colour palette holds true, but bits of that fern make it a little more complicated, and makes it look like a bit of a mistake. Amongst other flags, again, the palette is striking, yet the pictogram looks out of place. Perhaps the bold black and white palette was the answer here, but the reduction still manages to maintain some readability despite the complexity of the fern. The flag flying at the event also holds true, and the reflection won’t be too drastic.
I’m giving this design 3 out of 5 for Context, because while the simplified colour palette does do this design a lot of favours, the complexity of the fern is inescapable.
Silver Fern (Red, White and Blue)
Context shows why this design is better than its Black, White and Blue equivalent. No, it doesn’t reflect well, hang well, nor does it sit well with others, and the details are all but lost when it’s small, but the colour palette does slightly improve how it works in each of these cases, and we get the sense that a stronger identity could evolve from this.
I’m giving this design 1 out of 5 for Context, because although it is the same design, the colour palette sets it above its Black and Blue brother.
And the winner is…
First place goes to…
…Red Peak with 23 out of 25 points.
With its outstanding clarity, composition, palette and adaptability, it’s the clear winner.
Second place goes to……Koru with 21 out of 25 points.
Third place is shared by Silver Fern (Black & White) and Silver Fern (Red, White and Blue) both with 10 out of 25 points.
Last place goes to Silver Fern (Black, White and Blue) with just 8 out of 25 points.
What do you think about these results? Fair? What would you change?
If everyone chose this way, we’d end up with a situation like this:
Then again, there are going to be a large number of people who are still sitting on the fact that yes, money could have been better spent elsewhere, yes, the process was a mess, and yes, we’re still part of the commonwealth…so why not stick with this guy?
Personally I agree with the first two points. It’s been expensive, and the process has been kind of crazy, but we are here now, we cannot reverse that, and we should finish what we’ve started. It would be a dam shame to see us sticking with what we know now, not because there was not one that suited, but because we were all too frustrated, uninspired and tired of hearing about it that we let a great identity pass us by.
Edit: But there is a huge struggle ahead of us. We have 5 flags to choose from in the first round, and if one flag is particularly successful it may at a guess get a generous 25% of the votes. How can we expect change, when the final round is going to put the winning design against the current flag, in a situation where more than 25% of people would likely have to vote for a design that they weren’t supporting in the first place?
What do you think? Which flag will be getting your vote, and why?
Tweet me at @CraigJohnsonIS
New Zealand has its first binding referendum to choose one of the five options between 20 November 2015 and 11 December 2015. The flag with the most votes in this stage will go on to be polled against the current flag, in a second binding referendum between 3rd March 2016 and 24th march 2016.
If you’re not enrolled to vote yet you’d better get a move on.