Should we have a new flag? The trick is to keep it simple

Flags, like other emblems of group identity whether religious such as the crucifix or familial, for example heraldic crests, are forms of art and more or less good, bad or indifferent.

We are embarked on a process to decide whether New Zealand should keep or change its present national flag and if there is to be a change, to design and choose an alternative.

What are the chances of getting a great new national flag?

The project has been criticised chiefly for its expense and because at present there isn't any widespread call for a change. The timing does seem odd but such a process should be democratic and there's a price for that which shouldn't be ducked.

There are to be two referendums, the first asking people to choose a preferred design from a short list of new options, the second to choose between the present flag and the most favoured new offering.

It has been said the first should simply ask people if they want a change. Officials have said this would skew the result against change as voters couldn't see what they might have instead. That seems reasonable to me.

The Government has asked people to submit designs and an online gallery shows numerous offerings. Many are poor examples of graphic design and the symbolism of many ranges from thumpingly heavy handed to obscure to the point of invisibility.

The art and practice of designing flags is called vexillography. There is an organisation called the North American Vexillogical Association (Nava) which has put forward advice about how to design a great flag. It offers five principal rules which I think are a good summary:

1 Keep it simple. The flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory.
2 Use meaningful symbolism. The flag's images, colours or patterns should relate to what it symbolises.
3 Use 2-3 basic colours. Limit the number of colours on the flag to three, which contrast well and come from the standard colour set.
4 No lettering or seals. Never use writing of any kind or an organisation's seal.
5 Be distinctive or be related. Avoid duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections.

The Nava website has many examples which it doesn't hesitate to judge good or bad. It's reference to seals in 4 above may seem puzzling but many US states use the state seal on their flags.

This doesn't work well because seals are small and intricate, designed to figure on documents where they seem like fine embellishments, the opposite of what's needed in a flag.

As an example of flags being related, using similarities to show connections, it mentions the Australian and New Zealand flags, although in the present discussion concern has been expressed that they are too similar, are hard to tell apart, a reason we should have something more distinctive. I'm inclined to agree.

Purely in terms of graphic design I think the present flag is mediocre.

It's not as messy as the Dunedin city flag, which a former director of the public art gallery described as resembling the back page of the Star Weekender, not intending a compliment. Some of the best flags, the Japanese Rising Sun, the French Tricolore, are admirably simple.

The silver fern flag also has this merit and was initially favoured by the Prime Minister. But there are other considerations such as symbolism where things can get complicated.

The rise of Islamic State with its white and black banners has made some doubt the aptness of the silver fern's colour scheme. I wonder if it's not too closely associated with sport, which is not a wholly embracing national preoccupation.

Some feel the Union Jack on our present flag suggests New Zealand is not independent. I doubt that and have no objection to the Union Jack as a design.

But it makes the present flag's design over complicated. One which simply eliminates it has been put forward and I think it's a good result.

There are also people who favour New Zealand becoming a republic and think the Union Jack should go because it represents the monarchy.

I'm a republican but the Union Jack is Britain's national flag, not the royal standard, so I'm not concerned on that score.

And people have objected that New Zealanders fought ''for'' this flag in several wars and to abandon it would be to neglect their effort and sacrifice. Whatever they fought ''for'', it wasn't the flag.

But they did serve under it and survivors who did are mostly unhappy about a change. Perhaps they could be accommodated by having two national flags as we have two national anthems.

I suspect we won't get any new flag because the vote will be against change.

Peter Entwisle is a Dunedin curator, historian and writer.

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