Kiwis, Sheep and Ferns: A Pastiche of National Clichés Battle to Become New Zealand’s Flag 2.0

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There’s an emerging trend to replace Procrustean national symbols with more sparkly versions of the same by means of a popular vote. Switzerland recently sent its national anthem packing, perhaps with similar motivations to a recent petition to change the US National Anthem to Uptown Funk. In the realm visual symbols, put a design to popular vote and you’ll usually end up with the lowest common denominator, if not an outright cliché. While crowdsourcing and democratic voting systems can generate more ideas than are otherwise possible the most hackneyed, play-to-the-masses designs usually rise to the top: vaguely inoffensive but more mavericky than maverick.

New Zealand recently put their national flag up for popular referenda, after years of worrying it looked too much like Australia’s and wasn’t quite Kiwi enough. If there is anything New Zealanders do not want to be confused with, it’s Australians. So the generic, British colonial looking flag had to go.

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The committee in change began the process by soliciting possible candidates, then winnowing the contenders to be put to a public vote. The committee received the largest collection of New Zealand stereotypes ever amassed. When the essence of a nation is crowd sourced, most of the responses are not going to be all that sophisticated. Among the thousands of kiwis were rainbow kiwis, kiwis with lasers coming out of their eyes, and sad kiwis. And then there are the sheep—killer sheep, flying sheep, and stick figure sheep hanging out in front of pyramids for some odd reason. Although the idea of a xerophilous kiwi is intriguing, it is also remarkably incongruous with the county’s climate. The paucity of viable—or even comprehensible—submissions underscores the reality that not everyone can or should attempt to design.

Ultimately, the committee most fervently embraced the New Zealand stereotype as a  land of ferns, as three of the four finalists use a fern as their primary element. No sheep or kiwis are anywhere to be found (the fourth is an abstract wave).

Sorting through an array of designs rife with platitudes will certainly accomplish the objective of making the New Zealand flag look less like the Australian flag albeit at a likely cost of NZ$26 million. This exercise also highlights the limitations of using such a process for corporate design. Ask a crowd to design your logo and you may just end up with a few winners, but the vast majority will be nothing more than simplistic takes on what your business is about. The design process, conducted by trained, talented designers, believe it or not, really does exist for a reason.

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