How often do you see a clever idea that is so simple that you think, ‘I could’ve done that!’? Yet, the point is that you didn’t do that, and nor did anyone else, until the person who finally did come up with that deceptively simple idea.
And so it is with the latest contender to become New Zealand’s new national flag.
In my last blog post, I reported about First to the Light, or Red Peak as it has become commonly known. Since my post, Red Peak has followed the example of the new Canadian and South African flags in becoming a last-minute contender. It has now been included as a fifth addition to the contenders in the forthcoming national referendum to pick the alternative flag to go up against the current ensign in a second referendum next year.
The original process began with an invitation to the public to submit designs for a new flag. Over 10,000 submissions were made – including half a dozen from me. Which leads me to the point about ideas so simple that you think “I could’ve done that!”.
So let’s start with what I actually did do.
New Zealand actually has two official flags. There is of course the current New Zealand ensign that is our national flag. But there is also an official Māori flag, called the Tino Rangatiratanga flag. One of my ideas was to merge these two flags.
So I came up with the design below, which at the time I was quite proud of. Looking back, however, whilst my idea certainly combined elements of the two flags, it was a rather cluttered design. This was not helped because at this time I was also wedded to the idea that the flag had to carry a symbol of some sort.
I also submitted another design that picked up the colours of the two flags, though as you can see, I was still attached to including a symbol!
My design reinterpreted the red/white/blue of the current ensign, and the red/white/black of the Tino Rangatiratanga flag into a traditional Māori tāniko weaving pattern, as seen on the headbands in the picture below.
The funny thing is, with my second design I was nearly onto something, if only I had realised it at the time! Turn my flag on its side, and look at just one end – a truly simple idea begins to emerge. Whilst it is only red/white/blue at this stage, the next step in the the thought process could’ve been to turn one of the corners black to complete the Maori colours.
But, of course, I didn’t do that. However, designer Aaron Dustin did. Though his flag was not based on my original design of course – he came to First to the Light / Red Peak via another route, which you can see evolving in the 18 flag designs he submitted.
Aaron’s design is really simple. ‘Just a bunch of triangles,’ say some critics. ‘Anyone could have done this,’ they say, ‘even a five-year old.’ But the simplicity is deceptive, and disguises a very clever juxtaposition of the two flags.
If any of us were going to try to combine the current flag with the traditional Māori colours, we would’ve probably come up with a complex and cluttered design like I did.
Even had I come up with the idea of simplifying it down to the two different colour palettes lying alongside each other, I probably would’ve come up with something bland like this.
The touch of genius on Aaron’s part was to turn the middle stripe into a chevron. The result is still just the two palettes sitting alongside each other, but at an angle instead of straight.
So, yes, this is fantastically simple. Anyone could have thought of this idea … but we didn’t!
It took Aaron to come up with the idea, but such a simple idea can come up in other ways too. For example, a somewhat similar flag entitled Wa Kainga/Home was also submitted totally independently of Aaron. But in Wa Kainga/Home, although it includes all the colours, they don’t line up as the two flags.
Even a logo from a small business in the USA came up with a somewhat similar design. Though of course this would have derived from an entirely different process.
But such similarities don’t matter, even if they had been exactly the same, rather than just similar. Simple designs are just that – simple. Therefore it is quite likely they’ll reappear amongst the billions of pieces of design around the world. Therefore it is the context behind them that is important.
Of course, saying that Red Peak is simple feeds straight into another common criticism of Red Peak. ‘We don’t want a flag that you have to constantly explain to people,’ they say.
The world is filled with simple flags. But when do you ever hear complaints from the Danish people, for example, that they’re constantly being asked, ‘I don’t understand your flag, what does it mean?’
A flag becomes a symbol in itself, and doesn’t need to be explained (unless you’re merely curious about its meaning or history behind it – and the Dannebrog certainly does have history behind it!). Locals learn the meaning of their own flags at school or through their families. But most of us would have no idea of the meaning behind other countries’ flags, and it makes no difference.
‘But our flag has got to scream New Zealand!’ say the critics. Whilst some flags do indeed use pictorial symbols, you first have to actually recognise that symbol. You have to know what Angkor Wat looks like, to recognise that this is what is portrayed on the Cambodian flag.
Many of the most well-known flags have nothing about them that ‘screams’ where they come from, even though those countries often have well-known symbols too. Their flags speak for themselves. And it doesn’t take long, either – the South African flag is quite new, but it already ‘screams’ South Africa much more than its symbol ever did.
Image by Rachael Macklin
Maybe Red Peak could’ve been designed by a five-year old. But they wouldn’t have known they were designing a flag that does what flags are supposed to do. It stands out, but by being simple and bold, not by being cluttered or artsy.
Red Peak represents our history, not just from colonial times, but from way back in medieval times when the country was first settled. It will become a great symbol in itself, and will fly well with our existing symbols.
I already fly First to the Light / Red Peak with pride at my place.