The flag debate tells us something about the quality of design in New Zealand

I am not going to tell you about the right choice for New Zealand’s flag. That would invalidate the point of the column. Certainly I shall vote for one; much of my response will be an instinctive opinion. What I shall probably miss – what we are currently missing – is expert guidance on the characteristics of a good flag.

 It is so typical of us to tackle the issue this way. A panel of celebrities, each successful in a narrow part of the world, are endowed by government fiat with the task of making decisions outside their limited expertise. I am not objecting to public opinion making the final decision – I shall be voting – but it is so typical that we do not begin with expert advice, instead jumping directly to uninformed opinion.

It reeks of the story that some firms approach a professional designer for preliminary guidance and then announce they will do the job themselves – it will be cheaper and be just as good. The do-it-yourself result frequently looks a botch job.

I am continually faced with poor quality design, notably in packaging and websites; so many are unfriendly and aesthetically horrible. The botchers (you can hardly call them ‘designers’) seem to have little idea of who their users are and appear to design for themselves – geeks who don’t actually use what they are designing and with the taste of louts on a high.

 My grumbles are numerous but, to take an obvious one, the font size is frequently unreadable to an older person. Those who engaged the botchers would be unnerved as to how often I turn away from their product because its website, say, is busy, incomprehensible, unreadable – screaming that it is not interested in me. I do not know how common is my response, but if there are enough others like me, money is being spent to turn off customers.

Generally New Zealanders have a poor sense of aesthetics or do not value it. Bill Sutch said it was because many of our ancestors came from nineteenth-century Britain where design was not valued. That is not true elsewhere in Europe. I was struck on a recent trip to Warsaw of the Polish aesthetic sense in industrial design; this was rural Hicksville 150 years ago when Britain was leading the industrial world.

There are some areas where, as best I can judge, New Zealanders have good sense of design – or half of us in the case of women’s clothing. How do I know? The country has fashion designers who export throughout the world. They could not, if their domestic market was not always challenging them to do better. (Interestingly almost every example of good New Zealand design cited to me involved an export industry.)

So it is not simply a matter of design schools; some of ours are world class. But their graduates exist in a world which is not particularly sympathetic to their achievements. As the businessman said ‘I don’t need a graduate experienced designer; my son got NZCEA’ – he could have added ‘and my customers couldn’t care less’.

How to raise the design standards of the population? No, it is not to introduce design courses in schools, isolating design from everyday life. Teachers need to be drawing attention to good and bad design as it occurs in the course of the day; it is an integral part of life. So do commentators if they have the judgement. And we as customers need to as well. But that requires those providing the service to listen; yeah right.

What worries me is that we are not choosing a flag for ourselves but for future generations. Celebrity panels and the general population tend to be backward looking. Will it be a flag for the future? Is it just a logo, to be abandoned as business so often does, after a few years? One cannot tell, but one hopes that a less aesthetically challenged future generation will not look at our choice and say ‘Yuk’ – as too often one does to the designs around us.

Comments (9)

by Rich on August 25, 2015

<q>nineteenth-century Britain where design was not valued</q>

You might not like Gothick (and those buildings look better now then in their coal-smoke blackened original state) but they certainly made the effort. Also ships, railway engines, etc.

by Fentex on August 25, 2015

Another way of looking at it is that New Zealanders prefer inclusion to elitist, even if skilled, dominance. There may be something gained for what you see as lost.

Personally I think the lack of rigour in design around New Zealand is born of the expense - it costs a lot of time and energy to design well and New Zealand is not a wealthy country and what wealth we have was more dispersed among us than the European nations where the wealthy could indulge to patronise artists.

What we built we moistly built ourselves and pragmatically. I am often annoyed things are not done better (living in Christchurch I am constantly fearful of what horrors may be built to replace what we've lost - but so far have often been pleasantly surprised) but I don't mistake that for reason to belittle my forbears who had perfectly good reasons to settle for the pragmatic rather than expensive.

by Murray Grimwood on August 26, 2015
Murray Grimwood

The question to ask is why?

And why now?

by Megan Pledger on August 26, 2015
Megan Pledger

FYI - If you click in the browser window then hold down the control key and rotate the scroll button on your mouse than the font size will get bigger or smaller depending on direction.

I bet all the designers got POed at having to give away their expertise for free if they wished to participate or that amateurs would be judging their work that they boycotted the design competition.  




by Lee Churchman on August 26, 2015
Lee Churchman

You would think that the panel would have looked at the world's national flags first. Almost all the 40 violate basic principles of flag design. For example, the Lockwood flags allow an emblem to touch the sides of the field it is placed in (compare the flag of Bhutan to see it done properly). Most of the others have eschewed basic geometry. 

by Viv Kerr on August 26, 2015
Viv Kerr

Why exactly were we all sent copies of the longlist of 40 designs when none of us have any say in the next step of process of selecting the shortlist of 4?

by Brian Easton on August 31, 2015
Brian Easton

You are touching on a central New Zealand tension, Fentex. Personally I am happy to defer to expertise providing that I have a say at where their competence ends (usually earlier than they think). This means, in your terms, I am an ‘inclusionist’. But many New Zealand inclusionists deny the experts have anything to contribute..I think they are wrong, and we suffer as a result.

Rich, this Christchurch boy is immensely fond of neo-Gothic. It was very much an elite movement – here and in Britain. As the previous paragraph I have no problems with that. My concern is that whatever the taste of the elite – Britain was a very divided society in the nineteenth century – the British populace (and hence most of our ancestors) had little design taste. Today the populace has much more influence on design – or lack of it.

Thanks Megan. I use control-plus. Some websites are not designed for such magnification.

by Katharine Moody on September 02, 2015
Katharine Moody

Some may recall that Lloyd Morrison worked with a designer previously and came up with this;

For me a far better design than anything we've been offered.

by Brian Easton on October 20, 2015
Brian Easton

The New Zealand Herald  (16 October) has a story headlined 'Shoddy Work'. It includes a developer saying 'I have had two reputable engineering companies come and provide independent advice and both of them said the workmanship was not good but if I plaster it, it is not structurally going to cause any issues.' In other words it is a botch job, but it does not matter if we can hide it. 

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