Flagging Design

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.