On the meaning and design of a flag

2015-06-30 01.15.44 (800x450)

Someone will need to send me a new one if the referendum passes

By Chuan-Zheng Lee

There’s something about being away from home that makes you cling on to anything about it. My keyring has a kiwi on it, photos of One Tree Hill fill my desktop background, and a flag hangs boldly on my bedroom wall. Clearly, the flag means something to me.

Yet, I’ve struggled to be moved by either side of the flag debate. Don’t get me wrong—I’ve tried to care, really, I really have. But the more I think about it, the harder it gets to escape from this conviction: Symbols have exactly and only the meaning that we give to the symbol. We can adopt whatever symbol we want, and it’ll stand for us if we want it to.* The New Zealand flag means something to me because I grew up believing that it was “the New Zealand flag”. If we want to adopt a new one, I can just make that mean something to me too.


That’s pretty much my position on the flag. At this point, I suppose people will start throwing arguments at me to try to persuade me I should care. I’ll address a few.

“It looks like Australia’s flag.” Our flag first came into use in 1869. Australia’s had no such form until a flag competition after they federated in 1901. They didn’t copy us, but we still have first claim, and I refuse to cave just because Australia came up with a similar flag after us. They don’t get the flag as a consolation prize for losing pavlova.

More to the point, I don’t care if our flags have similarities. We’re quite similar countries, and I don’t mind enlightening people about the difference. The Commonwealth Star and different-coloured stars are obvious enough if you know what the flags are. Frankly, I spend more time educating people I meet in America that my accent isn’t Australian.

“It has the Union Jack on it.” I don’t have a problem with this association either. It’s empirically true that our culture largely derives from Britain’s. I don’t see why this needs to signify anything more than some aspect of our history that’s still visible today.

Now, this doesn’t mean we have to have it on our flag—its removal wouldn’t bother me at all, either. We might choose to emphasise other aspects of our history or identity—our Māori heritage, for example—and that’s fine too.

“Our soldiers fought under it.” Our soldiers fought for New Zealand; the flag is just an identifier. You don’t fight for a flag, you fight for a country. It’s not clear to me why we can’t change this identifier, and treat it as a continuation of the previous flag.

“It’s a waste of money.” As far as the government budget goes, $26 million isn’t exactly life-threatening, so this is a waste of money if, and only if, the exercise isn’t worthwhile in the first place. If we think it’s worth getting right, it’s a cost worth bearing.

Okay, okay, I know what you’re thinking. How can I say I don’t care about the question, and then defend the cost of asking it? My point is that “it’s a waste of money” doesn’t show we shouldn’t hold the referendum, because it relies on the premise that we shouldn’t hold the referendum. If my compatriots really want to settle this, that’s fine by me. I’ll go along for the ride. But if people have reasons for believing it’s a waste, they should make those arguments instead.


Flag of Milwaukee, Wisconsin (Wikimedia Commons)

Now, if we are going to redesign the flag, then there are a few things probably worth keeping straight. It’s not as if there’s no such thing as a bad flag: for a vexillological disaster, see the flag of Milwaukee, a city in Wisconsin.

Firstly, although I said that the meaning of symbols is arbitrary, we should still give some thought to the meanings themselves. Specifically, meanings of elements should be factually, not just aspirationally, connected to New Zealand. Virtually every design in the flag gallery does this, so I’m picking it’s uncontroversial.

Secondly, it’s worth keeping some basic principles in mind, like the ones that Ted Kaye of the North American Vexillological Association compiled in Good Flag, Bad Flag. The flag should be kept simple, “so simple that a child can draw it from memory.” With respect to their creators, this should rule out elaborate patterns like the one on the left below, or any of these. For the same reason, if there must be a silver fern on the flag, it should be stylised like the one in the middle, not the one on the right.

Too complicated

Good stylised fern

Not-so-good stylised fern

Please don’t

It should also contain no lettering. Specifically, it should avoid the letters “NZ”—the flag shouldn’t embed a reminder about who it belongs to! This means the 1974 Commonwealth Games logo should be left out. And this attempt (right) to combine “NZ” into a complicated rendition of the fern is, in the nicest way possible to its creator, a definite no-no.

Here’s a TED talk about these and other basic principles, interleaved with some hilarious commentary on some American cities’ flags. You really should watch it. Before I saw it, I really didn’t care about flags. Now, I have at least some minimal appreciation for good flag design.

* Obviously there are some limits to this. There are some symbols already “taken” by others whose meaning you just can’t escape, for example, the flag of the Confederate States of America. ^
† We formally adopted our flag in 1902, but that formality doesn’t change the fact that it was widely used before then. ^
‡ The fifth principle in Good Flag, Bad Flag is “be distinctive or be related”, and while Kaye recognises that the Union Jack symbolises connection to the Commonwealth, he criticises the flag of Manitoba, a province in Canada, for giving too much emphasis to it. I think relegating it to one quarter makes it distinctive enough—at least as distinctive as, say, Malaysia’s and Liberia’s are from the United States’. Then again, I’m not a vexillologist. ^


  1. SDM · July 7, 2015

    Reblogged this on Portland Flag Association.


  2. Pingback: Where did Red Peak come from? | THE CO-OP

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