Copyright John T. Reed 2014

Today’s Wall Street Journal says New Zealander’s are considering a new national flag design. I am neither a kiwi nor a future kiwi, but I have become fond of New Zealand recently as a result of figuring out they were one of the most honest, trustworthy, and nicest people on earth as a group. My wife and I went there for the first time eleven months ago.

I also have similar feelings about Canada and Australia, two more of the countries whose currencies I have been recommending in the last several years as hedges against inflation.

Canadian flag may be the best designed

I noticed last summer in Canada that the Canadians seem particularly proud of their flag. They should be. It is arguably the best looking national flag on earth.

The Canadian flag used to look like the current Australian and New Zealand flags. And the basic design of the Australian and New Zealand flags is almost identical. Both are blue with a British Union Jack in the upper left corner and both have the Southern Cross star constellation only with the Australian flag having two extra stars and the Australian stars being white compared to the New Zealand flag having red stars with white trim.

Branding and confusion

Apparently the reasons to change are international branding and confusion avoidance. The Journal article relates a number of comical instances of the Australian flag being used when NZ was intended and vice versa. That really is a serious problem that ought to be fixed and a radial new design would fix it.

And the reasons not to change would be inertia including past kiwis having fought under the current flag in wars.

Kiwi bird

Possible design elements for the new NZ flag would be the silver fern leaf which is used by NZ’s All Black rugby team and other sports teams. And obviously the kiwi bird. Since the New Zealanders refer to themselves and their currency as kiwis, that seems like a no brainer.

On the other hand, while the kiwi bird may be unique to New Zealand, it ain’t no bald eagle.

Colonial heritage

Another argument for keeping the current flag is to reflect their British colonial heritage. Take it from a citizen of a country who also had British colonial heritage and got rid of any reference to it in our flag, you won’t miss it. I think the Canadians would second that motion. Also, we Americans actually do still have a hint of our British colonial history in our flag. Its colors—red, white, and blue—are the same as the British Union Jack. Perhaps the kiwis could retain those three colors but radically change the design.

Designing a national flag to reflect a rugby team?

The kiwis apparently like the silver fern because they are proud of their sports teams. Well, you might want to make that only a part of the design. If international branding is one the important considerations, kiwis should test various designs on us non-kiwis. If you showed 100 randomly chosen Americans the silver fern logo, about 99 of them would neither recognize what it was other than some plant or what country it might be associated with.

To kiwis, it represents strength and grit because of its association with rugby and other sports. Trust me, kiwis, a fern leaf does not come within a mile—kilometer?— of representing any such thing outside of New Zealand. If anything, it suggests wimpy, vegan, environmentalist tree huggers. Also, what happens if you design your new national flag after the rugby team and the rugby team starts to lose a lot of games and becomes an embarrassment? It happens.

Most flag designs suck

The national flags of the world are generally embarrassing in their design—as if they were created by a group of kindergartners messing around with construction paper. Here’s a page of them all:

Canada, Israel, South Korea, Nazis

The only ones that strike me as attractively designed and excellent branding logos are Canada, Israel, South Korea. The Nazi flag was also excellent in terms of branding design. (I have zero interest in criticism about what any of these flags represent. I am only talking about design here.) I note those were all designed in the 20th century when design sense was more highly developed than in the earlier centuries. Among the old style of design, I think the British Union Jack and the American stars and stripes are the best.

Too simple, too busy, too similar, too intricate

Clearly some are too simple like the Japanese flag and even France, Germany, and Italy which are little more than an assertion of their three favorite colors. Some are too busy like Zimbabwe. Many try to incorporate seals and crests the details of which are too small to be seen from the distances at which flags are usually seen. Many are confusingly similar to the flags of other countries like the various British Commonwealth flags and a number that appear to be imitating the U.S. like Cuba, Liberia (Liberia was created by freed American slaves who were sent back to Africa after the Civil War), Maylasia, Puerto Rico, Uruguay. Many, maybe most are cryptic, meaning something to citizens of the nation in question but a mystery to others. Some don’t even look like national flags like Bhutan, Cyprus (which has fern leaves), Grenada (which looks more like a place mat), Hong Kong (so modern it looks like a corporate logo), Micronesia, Palau (looks like a nautical signal flag).

No black, please

Some kiwis are talking about a black background flag, apparently reflecting the All Blacks rugby flag.

Uh, no. The only black background flags are for anarchists, pirates, al Qaeda, and the Oakland Raiders football team (which uses a pirate logo). There is no national flag anywhere that uses a black background; only a few with a black stripe, and those seem to be predominantly Muslim or African to the point where the color used in a flag seems to suggest that part of the world.

One reason for the absences of black background flags is probably that flags often fly at night, like in the War of 1812 Battle of Fort McHenry that inspired the lyrics of the U.S. national anthem. Had the U.S. flag been black, it would not have been visible even in “the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air.”

So some design criteria based on this thinking about national flags.

• The best designs seem to have just two colors or maybe two colors plus white.

• It must look like a flag to randomly selected people around the world.

• If it incorporates a symbol, the symbol ought to be recognizable and at least minimally related to the country in question in the minds of people around the world not just the country in question.

• No black

• Simple but not too simple—the maple leaf, star of David, and swastika were fairly simple but unique and immediately recognizable; the Japanese red ball on a white background may be conducive to contemplating your navel in a garden made of raked sand and a boulder, but the national flag is sort of the country’s logo to the rest of the world, not a meditation aid. Japan’s flag puts people to sleep. Kiwis should have no such goal.

• Do not design your national flag solely to please the people of the nation. That makes it sort of an inside joke. A national flag has its main meaning when it is flown outside of the nation in question. Branding means to create a flag that helps sell New Zealand. You don’t sell anything by being cryptic. Pleasing the people of the nation designing the flag should get a weight of about half.

My guess is the best for New Zealand would be some sort of stylized kiwi that look a little feistier and more erect than an authentic, biologically-correct drawing of the bird. Here’s a “not quite feisty and erect enough” example:

Rugby is big in New Zealand, and in a few other countries. But the kiwis are mistaken if they think the fern or black color have any positive or New Zealand meaning whatsoever outside the rugby countries.

John T. Reed