The flag debate: It's not about choice, it's about having a voice.

An Open Letter to our leaders on the New Zealand flag from ActionStation supporter and Design Specialist, Emily Reyes Hogan. Please note the following guest blog does not represent the views of ActionStation members as a whole and this post is the first in a series where we will feature the voices of the people who support our work and campaigns.

Dear political leaders – left, right, centre and everything in between:

Please give us an authentic opportunity to participate in what should be a conversation about who we are and what we want as a nation. The process used to choose or retain our flag will demonstrate the values with which you aim to lead New Zealand on all other matters that count. The flag matters. Change matters. The voice of the people matters. Don’t let us down.

You’ve acknowledged Red Peak as an option for the people. Nevertheless, the flag process used so far is not working. As the vote fast approaches this month (less than 20 days from now), it is clear that the attempt to carry on as though this is ‘ok’ – even with Red Peak added – will come to be recognised now and through our collective history as a farce and a missed opportunity. Without significant adjustments to the ballot, any result from this first referendum will be intrinsically meaningless – not representing the true preference of the people. For a start we could merge two referenda into one and get the most fair and transparent results, and a voice for all, see the November 20 mock ballot (example below).

As the 20 November ballot stands, many people who have potentially wanted change, like myself, will be skipping the vote, spoiling their ballot or voting to keep our flag in referendum #2. The current ballot design will also prevent the results of the first referendum from showing us the marginalised voice of those who actually do want to keep our flag for very legitimate reasons, or showing the silenced voice of those who are in favour of change, but not like this. We should be talking about and hearing about those voices. We should all have a right to vote in referendum #1 and save the nation money if a second referendum is not required.

Changing the flag would still be an option if the first and second referenda get combined, but only if that is what New Zealand wants to do right now, knowing what we know about the ‘choices’ provided. In terms of the people’s choice, while the design value of Red Peak is clear, I can’t ignore the fact that it – like the others – is the outcome of a flawed process and represents the voice of one particular vein of dissent (online designer-types like me). This shouldn’t just be about ‘people-power’ in that exclusive sense. It should be about fairness, respect, unity and transparency, which is what a socially responsible design process should deliver. These are the same principles that need to be followed in all other matters that are currently facing our nation. If we allow this with our flag, what will we allow going forward?

The money spent so far is not entirely wasted. This attempt has brought forth much debate and has prepared us well for a proper design process to engage the public in a much better, less divisive way. 

What have we learned so far, and what could be done to salvage public trust in the process?

The design brief we started with (if we can call it that) was not useable.

How can the over 10,000 people who submitted a design for the flag know whether they are conveying the right thing, if that hasn’t been determined as a nation? What are they aiming to convey?

So, we had a “conversation” on a website… and got a word cloud that seemed to go under the radar. Then, we opened up the floodgates to wade through this visual onslaught (of which the Panel “saw every one”): 


Instead of opening the competition up to tens of thousands of people with a vague sense of subjectivity to convey in shapes and colours ‘who we are as a nation we shouldn’t have gone anywhere near a visual design until after a very different first referendum …based on words instead of pictures. 

The conversation could have, and should still include: 

  • Why are we thinking of changing our flag?
  • Is now the right time for this, and why/why not?

and (If yes…)

  • What does our current flag convey that you stand behind the most? (e.g. history, freedom, heritage, independence gained by those who sacrificed for us) 
  • If New Zealand were to change its flag, things you would you want it to convey________ (e.g. peace, neutrality, cultural diversity, natural beauty...)


A way of deliberately opting out of the conversation but explaining why – so that we can understand those reasons as well.

But, isn’t that just like the What we stand for website?

Similar. But better. It should have a much higher engagement in an offline reach, be more accessible, more inclusive, and easier to analyse. This way, we’d have a chance to speak our vote in words before we spoke in pictures, whether we were in favour of a change of flag or not. 

If there were to be any arguments or up-swellings at that stage (which is likely), they would be about what we are saying we want to convey… who we think we are as a nation, and whether we change our flag at all. NOT about political parties or what colour we like, shapes being ‘boring’, logos and copyrights and plastic plate packaging, or how strong the beam of the laser is coming from that particular kiwi.

But hasn’t the voice of the people been heard in Red Peak?

Simply and sadly stated: ‘No’.

50,000 out of a 4.5 million population is less than 1%. And the truth is, adding it is a bit of an additional curve ball in a process that was already deeply flawed. If we had known a flag could be added by petition, what might we have done differently? What does our indigenous community as a whole and as individuals think of Red Peak? What about Tino Rangatiratanga? What other opinions are hanging out for the second referendum to emerge?

It’s true, for those of us who want change, Red Peak really is a solid design not only because of how it looks, but because it has risen in popularity by being backed up by a clear description of what it is meant to represent. However, Aaron Dustin although he was kind and sophisticated enough in his approach to supply his own brief, ...did just that. He subjectively decided on a brief to determine what to represent, and then he determined how to represented it… (and he did this very well).  

But like all the other designers, Aaron was swept into a process that has undermined the very thing it’s pretending to provide which is a collective voice for all New Zealanders. The people should have provided the brief (not Aaron) and then amazing designers like him and others would have had the right platform to design, evolve and refine the options with and for the people. This is best practice design (as opposed to art). With the government’s process to submit 10,000 visuals, we were handed a process of art over design.

Instead of asking for a bunch of interpretive ‘artwork’ that represents individual people’s unspecified view of New Zealand and leaving it entirely up to visual and aesthetic interpretation (pouring forth in the form of 10,000 pictures and cartoons and doodles, logos and icons and probably even some submissions of interpretive dance) …we’ve learned that the result of referendum 1 should instead have been a collaboratively prioritised list of the meaning people want to put forth about our country - the core of who we are as a nation.

As much as I admire Red Peak in principle, (and signed the petition myself), I call on all who support it, as well as anyone who wants to keep our flag or is feeling marginalised …to stand up now for due process and proper use of funds. Let Red Peak be your symbol of either dissent or disdain or even the exact New Zealand you want to convey. But be aware that to vote for Red Peak is still to concede to a ‘process’ that:

•       has circumvented those who were opposed to change

•       has seemingly marginalised the opinion of our indigenous population

•       has reduced those of us who were in favour of change to desperately rally behind the very best in a worst-case-scenario

•       is on the verge of wasting money on two referendums when one could yield the same result.

We must demand better than this.

If I was assured it truly represented a collective conversation, I would proudly call Red Peak my flag – but the process used to create it and all the other finalists was utterly and entirely flawed. I refuse to vote for my own reluctant “choice,” when I am painfully aware that the voice of the wider nation has not been heard.

We’ve come this far, ...what now?

And what about the many people from all walks of life who never wanted to change our flag in the first place ...or want change but with integrity?

We all should have more of a voice in referendum #1, and the process should be remedied from here on as follows:

Ballot 2:

  •  If the vote for no change is highest, then we keep the current flag. End of story.

  • If the for “Yes – but only if (x) option is chosen” (select up to 5) is highest then go ahead and count the prioritised votes and find out which one is the new flag.

  • If the (combined) vote is “Yes, but only if…” or ‘Yes but not to any of these’ is highest, then the process continues and the current flag remains until such time as better options are made available.

If anything other than the latter were to occur, the second referendum would NOT be necessary, and we would end this charade before any more of the $26 million is lost. (We can review the appetite for change in the future without a complete blunder and utter disillusionment of a failed and false attempt in our nation’s history.)

If the vote for change comes out ahead, but none of the 5 options is desired (which is a distinct possibility and a perspective that we’re on the verge of ignoring completely), then, we will still have money left over for a second referendum, which can be redesigned similarly (with some ideas borrowed from the 10-step option, below).

The 10-step option - (here’s to wishful thinking).

What if people rally behind the need for a fair and virtuous process?? What if we can get more than 50,000 people to say they want the money to be spent more wisely? What if we can convince our leaders to remedy the process entirely? (If we’ve waited years for this change, can we can wait a few more months?)

Here’s a plan to get what we need for the people to have faith in the process used and the flag chosen:

  1. We postpone the first vote from 20 November to 20 February to discover more about who we are saying we want to be. (to remedy poor engagement to date)

  2. A Working Group of research and analysis experts come together to clarify for the public the exact findings of the research (“What we stand for” website, etc.) in the form of a short summary that includes variations in the Maori collective and individual perspective as determined by the engagement, and the most popular values and concepts that came forth. This partially utilises money and effort that has already been spent rather than starting from scratch.

  3. Gaps in engagement are identified and filled (including offline paper based surveys and in-person research to gain further insight.)

  4. The Working Group then condense the findings into a view of 12 short words or statements that have emerged at the top of the list.

  5. The emerging top 12 (or so) values or “design criteria” as supplied by the people form the basis of (a severely modified) referendum #1. (see here)ballot example

  6. Instead of voting on pictures, voters are asked to rank in priority order the things they most want the flag to convey in words. The resulting top 4-6 values are then set to go into the visual design brief.

  7. Once 4-6 top values have been selected, a proper visual design brief is publically published, including the parameters for the design (e.g. size and shape) and the popularly selected 4-6 ‘design criteria’ including their prioritisation order. Rather than opening up the design competition to the entire nation again (so as to not completely throw away all the work done (money spent) by the first Panel, and also in order to legitimise the work done by the people who were already shortlisted) the design competition is opened up to only the designers who made the original top 40 list. 

  8. Each of these designers can then submit the same, modified or (up to three) new designs, with a 50-100 word description of how they have met EACH of the design criteria with the design elements they have used (e.g. colour, form, etc.) Why ask everyone to describe which part of our identity they are trying to convey with what visual elements? For one – to make it easier for the public to choose a favourite based on something other than their political party or entirely subjective favourite shapes or colour, and two – to give legitimacy to our overall collective decision when the flag is chosen.

  9. Leveraging the work of the first panel, a new panel, nominated by the public, and selected based on design expertise, subject matter expertise, Vexillologyand cultural representation, then systematically scores each submission (on a weighted scale), on how well it meets each criteria. This way, we would have full transparency on how and why the finalists were selected. We would have had a voice in arriving at an authentic set of choices that all aimed to represent the same agreed thing.

  10. Whether new or modified even slightly from the existing 5 options, the highest scoring 4-5 designs, along with the written descriptions of how they meet the criteria, can be placed into the second referendum (see Ballot 2) postponed to late April, around ANZAC day marking a day of national importance.

(This referendum would of course still offer the option to vote to keep the current flag).

If a new flag emerges, it will be better received through this process. Alternatively, engaging in this process would reveal how ready we are (or are not) for this type of conversation as a nation. Either way, we’d be better off than what is about to happen now.

In theory, the above could all be done without spending additional money outside the money already earmarked for the “change”. If we demand this/these ballots, the public will have shown (through the Red Peak movement and through insisting we iterate a flawed process into something workable), that we Kiwis are as clever as those who lead us, and we won’t be out-maneuvered.


Emily Reyes Hogan is a Senior Design Specialist who has been working in the public sector for over a decade, bringing service design solutions and social change to the people of New Zealand. Through facilitating qualitative research, co-design and collaboration with people throughout the country, her focus has been on improving the way that people experience their government. She has been involved in work on KiwiSaver at Inland Revenue, Passports and Citizenship DIA, Service Design Centre for New Zealand Police and Youth Connections for the Auckland City Council among others. She has qualifications from her studies in California in linguistics and Art and Design with a focus on Graphic Design and Communications.

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