By: Steve Miller – Staff Writer
Vexillology: If you know what that is you may stop reading now and commiserate with me later over the horrible insults I’m sure you’ve also fielded as a result of your trivial knowledge. Vexillology is the study of flags and flag design, as described by Roman Mars during his TED Talk in March 2015. Mars hosts the popular design podcast “99% Invisible” and apparently hangs out with fellow flag enthusiasts, making him a veritable scholar of vexillology.
Believe it or not, there’s some news in the world of vexillology right now. New Zealand is holding a referendum from March 3 to 24 to decide whether or not to replace the current national flag with a new design.
The incumbent flag, adopted in 1902, features a navy blue field with the Union Jack occupying the upper left corner and four red stars of the Southern Cross on the right side. The new design combines New Zealand’s silver fern with the stars of the current design, removing the Union Jack completely. The silver fern is a popular symbol of New Zealand and is the prominent logo of the nation’s All Blacks rugby team.
New Zealand’s referendum is great news because it gives me the opportunity to educate my peers on the beauty of flags and analyze New Zealand’s choice in terms of Mars’ principles of flag design.
The first principle? Simplicity. “The flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory,” Mars explains. In fact, the flag design should fit neatly in a one-by-one-and-a-half-inch rectangle because at a distance of 15 inches from your eye, said rectangle appears about the same as a three-foot-by-five-foot flag would from 100 feet away.
Both of New Zealand’s options are fairly simple flags. The fern is actually simpler than the Union Jack; however, the Jack is so recognizable that it doesn’t add too much complexity.
The second principle, according to Mars, is “use meaningful symbolism.” This is where the new flag can really step up the Kiwis’ vexillological game. The Union Jack is incredibly symbolic…of the British Empire. It’s also featured on the flags of Australia, Fiji and Tuvalu, as well as several Canadian provinces and even the state of Hawaii. All, by the way, were once part of the British Empire. If New Zealand really wants to continue to lump themselves in with literally one quarter of the Earth’s land mass, then they should continue with the Union Jack.
On the other hand, the silver fern is a plant endemic to New Zealand, meaning exclusively found in the nation, and is perfect symbolism for the new flag. It’s already featured on the country’s coat of arms, its one dollar coin and many unofficial logos.
Rules three and four are “use two to three basic colors” and “no lettering or seals,” respectively. For the most part, national flags of the world are much better than cities, states and provinces at following these rules. Thankfully, neither of New Zealand’s designs violate these rules. But if you’re not from Chicago, there’s a great chance that your city’s flag does. Remember, flags are meant to be flown at a distance, wave in the wind or be draped on a pole. None of the above conditions are suitable to read lettering or study detailed seals.
Further, if you think lettering or seals are necessary on a flag in order to identify it, you’ve already violated the second principle by using lousy symbolism.
The fifth principle is “be distinctive.” Again, the Union Jack itself violates that rule for every nation that boasts it outside the United Kingdom. New Zealand’s current flag is almost identical to Australia’s. The only exception is that there are six white stars instead of four red ones on the Aussies’.
Distinction among flags is a problem elsewhere in the world, too. Did you know that the nations of Chad and Romania have the exact same flag? It is three vertical stripes of blue, yellow and red. Indonesia and Monaco also share a flag, a red band atop a white one, which is only the inverse design of Poland’s flag. Come on, nations of the world, be distinctive!
While New Zealand and Australia aren’t quite that bad, at least one could use a makeover.
Many Kiwis who are against the flag change are so-minded because of the amount of money it would take to switch everything over to the new design. The referendums themselves have already cost the nation millions, and many citizens agree that tax dollars are better spent elsewhere.
But as long as a flag is in the news, I’m interested. Design is everywhere, and these basic design principles can be applied to much more than flags. So look up from your phone sometime and see what else can use a facelift. And the next time you hear someone talking about flags, keep the word “nerd” from escaping your larynx and join the conversation.