Sunday, 20 March 2016


By now most people will have voted in the flag referendum; I certainly have. And I voted for the status quo, even though I think it's high time we took the Union Jack off our national ensign. I made my choice because I thought the alternative, the Kyle Lockwood design is such a bad design. I think there  are basically two things wrong with it: the placement of the design elements and the colour. My own approach to design is photographic, so before I say what I think is wrong with the new flag I need to give a bit of background theory. Sorry.

When people look at a photograph they react favourably to some compositions and not so favourably to others even though the subject matter, lighting, focusing and all that stuff may be exactly the same. How things are placed in the frame is one of the most important determiners of peoples' favourable or otherwise reaction to any given shot . One of the most basic compositional concepts is called the Rule of Thirds. Using this schema, the frame is divided into three both horizontally and vertically like so:
This gives a sort of tic tac toe frame which is imposed on the picture. The four places where the lines intersect are, for reasons no one much knows the most powerful parts of the picture. They are the places where our eye seems instinctively to drift. So the most important part of the picture should be placed on one of those four places. When the important element is placed elsewhere the picture will seem - that is it will "feel" - either static or somehow unbalanced.

Apply the RO3 to the old flag and the top left junction hits pretty much the centre of the Union Jack. While the right hand thirds line runs through the centre of the Southern Cross the placement of the Union Jack makes it the strongest, most energetic element of the flag, which I guess is pretty much the reason it was chosen in the first place and pretty much the reason I would like to see it changed.

The intersection points on the new flag fall nowhere, giving a composition which to many of its viewers seems insipid and messy. This is one of the reasons why. But there is another reason.

Lines and angles are very important in a composition We unconsciously scan along lines, following them from their imagined beginnings to their endings. How lines are placed  will lead the viewers' eyes. Lines should lead the eye through the picture or into it.  As an example, think of the Union Jack, which is basically the flags of three kingdoms all stacked one on top of the other. The result is a series of straight vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines which all intersect in the centre. This simple design thus makes a strong statement about the unity of the kingdoms in a design which is powerful and cohesive.  Our new flag design has as its most dominant (because it is so large and because it is white) visual element a fern leaf following a diagonal line from the bottom left corner of the frame to some seemingly arbitrarily chosen point about 60% along the top edge. The most important line in the flag therefor leads the eye across one corner of the flag before disappearing into nothingness.

These flaws in the flag design might conceivably be fixed with a bit of tinkering: changing the shape and placement of the fern and the stars. The problem with the colour can't be fixed and is fatal.The blue of the old flag is very dark and this is for good reason. It's a flag, which means its main purpose is to flap at the top of a pole in all kinds of weather. In order to be distinctive in bright sunlight as well as against a dull gray sky in poor light, the blue is several shades darker than most people imagine it to be. The inky navy blue of the flag just looks blue when seen in most conditions. The Kyle Lockwood design has a black and blue background, and in order for there to be enough distinguishing contrast between the two, the shade of blue has had to be considerably lightened. This effect is not so pronounced in versions of the flag printed on paper, but see an actual flag and it is quite marked. If you see the new flag flying in bright sunlight, or on a dull day, the problem with this is immediately apparent: it looks faded and  insipid and washed out. I can't think of a way this could be fixed. The alternative red and blue background version would have worked, but not this one.

The problems with colour and the placement of elements mean this flag gives a feeling of indecision and tentativeness. It simply feels wrong to many people, and I think the reasons given by most for not liking it - political, cost, loyalty to veteran, whatever - are rationalisations for the jarring impact it has as an inherent constituent of its design.


PT2 said...

Perhaps the graphical design failings explain the strident enthusiam some have for the blue-black Lockwood?. The design's half-heartedness, replacing just the Jack with the fern, subtly tilts attitudes towards flag change. Antipathy towards the Union Jack is forced to the forefront as a motivation for change - i.e., "Us vs Them", and "the Union Jack does not represent this ..." etc. This negativity does not resonate well with all kiwis and undercuts attempts to imbue the fern with positive associations. Hence, a need to beat the "anti-colonial" drum all the harder ...

Fi McCafferty said...

Personally I object that a pre-existing design was offered for consideration as national flag. There is factual evidence that it has appeared already on souvenir items. Not to mention (oh, I just did) that no designers, or FLAG PROFESSIONALS were invited to be members of the deciding committee. That is all.

Kate said...

I really enjoyed your analysis Kelvin. Refreshing to keep it rational and away from political and social considerations.

Dorothy Busfield said...

I recently had a conversation with a Maori person regarding the flag options. The Treaty was between Maori and the Crown. The Union Jack represents the Crown. Therefore some Maori people want to retain the Union Jack as it represents their Treaty partner.

Barbara Harris said...

Thank you, Dorothy. It is all to easy to imagine that only Pakeha New Zealanders have any interest in the NZ Flag. Thank you for reminding us of The Treaty and the rights of the Tangata Whenua.

Brian Kelly said...

Interesting comments from the perspectives of a photographer! I agree the proposed flag is a compositional mess.
I'm glad the flag was retained, for several reasons; but I will add, agreeing with your point on the Rule of Three, that the best flags are simple tricolours, either vertical or horizontal; and if a national flag can't be drawn using a straightedge (and a compass if need be), then it's too complicated. A child ought to be able to draw accurately his or her flag. The fern leaf is just too irregular and complicated to meet that test.

Rob Lepper said...

I thought the "quintessential" layout was as per Leonardo da Vinci, and his Vitruvian Man.
Nonetheless, I still suggest that NZ could strike a blow to be different, and not have a silly flag at all. Pledge allegiance to a tea-towel?