All posts by David

Choosing a flag

A happy family
A happy family

As nation branding, and national identity, becomes of ever growing interest to policy-makers, the emblems and element that constitute the identity of a nation becomes of similar interest. Beyond coats of arms and other institutional symbols, a flag is among the more powerful such elements.

So what does it say about your nation’s identity when 25% of your flag is dedicated to another country’s? That’s what one former British colony, New Zealand, is trying to grapple with.

The British Empire used an especially adept brand endorsement system, effectively reserving the upper hoist canton of any of its colonies and companies’ flags. It was an effective system at creating alignment and authority over far-flung territories, and to signal to any would be attacker this was a ship of the mightiest Empire.

A selection of Blue Ensigns, not all national flags, from Wikimedia commons
A selection of Blue Ensigns, not all national flags, from Wikimedia commons

Nowadays, it has now become, at best, in many Commonwealth nations a burdensome reminder of colonial past, and at worse a source of confusion, especially for neighboring countries with similar flag. Most notably, Australia and New Zealand. The Wall Street Journal offers a humorous and useful quiz on the topic.

Cyathea dealbata, or silver fern
Cyathea dealbata, or silver fern

New Zealand’s Prime Minister, John Key, suggested making it a referendum issue in the upcoming elections, trying to find an alternative to the blue ensign. It has ignited a national conversation about which flag would suit the country best. Some suggest minimal edits, such as the removal of the UK’s Union Jack, while some argue for a bold rethinking of the symbol. The silver fern, a plant endemic to New Zealand and a commonly recognized symbol of the country, is a strong contender.

According to Māori legend, the silver fern once lived in the sea. It was asked to come and live in the forest to play a significant role in guiding the Māori people.

Māori hunters and warriors used the silver underside of the fern leaves to find their way home. When bent over, the fronds would catch the moonlight and illuminate a path through the forest.

The silver fern (Cyathea dealbata) has come to embody the spirit of New Zealand. This distinctly New Zealand symbol is considered a badge of honour by the people, products and services of our country that carry it. (source)

Kiwis are debating what their new flag should be
Kiwis are debating what their new flag should be

A parallel

Canada Red Ensign
Canada’s de facto flag until 1965. Fought under in two World Wars, it was never meant as a national flag
Lester B. Pearson unveils the final design for Canada’s flag

As it turns out, New Zealand is going through a very similar process to the one Canada went through in the sixties, when it decided to rid itself of its ‘Red Ensign’ for the now famous Maple Leaf flag, or ‘unifolié’.  A vigorous, almost yearlong debate, where Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson eventually opted for an elegant solution, after an outpouring of design suggestions, many still including the Union Jack, some incorporating a more historical fleur de lys, some a beaver. The conservative party led a staunch opposition to the change; to them the removal of the British Union Jack was especially vexing.

The CBC Archives highlights the flag being hoisted around the world:

A friend recently gave me a placard that he found in his grandmother’s attic explaining the then new Canadian flag, with a quadrilingual explanation that reads as such:

The maple leaf flag became the National Flag on February 15, 1965, replacing the Canadian Red Ensign which, for a number of years, had been authorized by the Government as the appropriate flag to be flown within and without Canada whenever place or occasion made it desirable to fly a Canadian flag.

The National Flag was proclaimed by the Queen of Canada following the adoption of Resolutions recommending the new flag in both Canadian Houses of Parliament.

Red and white are the official colours of Canada while the maple leaf has long been a Canadian emblem.

This flag was then turned into the basis for the government’s pioneering and comprehensive 1970 Federal Identity Program, and has provided Canadians since then a clear vision of Government’s role in their affairs.

Government of Canada Logo
The Government of Canada has a consistent identity program featuring the maple leaf flag prominently

Already in use

NZ-immigration NZ-educationNew Zealanders already see their government harboring the silver fern. Both the Immigration department and the Education Ministries have taken to using the silver fern in their logos, and it is easy to see a consistent system emerging. The symbol has also been used in other official uses, especially in public facing usages such as immigration visas and the new Passport design, which you’ll see wielded by any Kiwi in airports around the world.

NZ passport
New Zealand’s new passport design could be a blueprint for a new flag, another beacon of kiwi identity abroad.

The symbol is also associated internationally with New Zealand’s athletic teams, most notably the All Blacks national rugby team, but also football’s All Whites, both sporting the silver fern and promoting it as the image of the country abroad.

All Blacks
New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team performing Ka Mate maori dance
New Zealand's Mark Paston in action during the All Whites football team training run.
New Zealand’s Mark Paston in action during the All Whites football team training run.

Its use in sports and commercial uses is actually used by opponent of the silver fern’s use on the flag, as they consider it might cheapens the flag.

The debate promises to go on, with many designers participating in the fray. It seems that if a country has a symbol that is highly recognized, both domestically and internationally, there already is a success at work. Whether the flag comes to endorse it might not matter in the end.

Further reading

Selling a bus to an Angeleno

[This post was originally published in Objective Subject’s Perspectives.]

While visiting Los Angeles for the first time in 2009, I was surprised to find the local transit agency, Metro – the third largest in the country –branded with a clear identity including a beautiful livery system with color-codes for each service (Local, Rapid, Express).

One of LA's Metro Rapid Bus
One of LA’s Metro Rapid Bus

Michael Lejeune, Metro’s Creative Director, in his Union Station office, Los Angeles, 2009

I was struck by a government agency utilizing design to sell public transportation to arguably one of the most car-happy cities in the U.S. I contacted Metro’s Creative Director, Michael Lejeune. He explained the setup of the identity program: Lejeune was recruited by a new CEO to be the new Communications Director. He would only accept the position on the condition that his title be executive position (Chief Communications Officer), with sufficient budget to compete with car companies, that spend millions of dollar selling an alluring lifestyle.

Once Lejeune and another designer were brought on board, they set out to create an own-able mark (the previous Metro symbol was so generic that it could not be trademarked) and an aesthetic that would position Metro as a viable alternative. A comprehensive ad campaign poking fun at car culture, and consistent communication through typical channels resulted in opinion polls exhibiting a 40% increase in user perception of efficiency, frequency and quality of service, even though at that time, there were no significant changes made to these areas.

The improved perception of Metro locally eventually contributed to changing perceptions of mass transit in the city.

LA Metro’s Opposites Campaign
LA Metro’s Opposites Campaign

Effects include the passage of L.A. County’s half-cent sales tax increase, known as ‘Measure R’, which is bringing over $40 billions in new transit funding, and the approval of the Westside Subway Extension, which had traditionally been opposed by the wealthy cities on its path, Beverly Hills chief among them. Of course hundreds of dedicated public servant worked towards its success, but it is interesting to consider the impact coherent communication contributed. The day the line opens it is estimated it will be the busiest transit line in the country. One could argue the main reason it did not get built before was because of perception, first and foremost.

This success story has been reported far and wide, with Lejeune and his colleagues talking to media about the successes of the initiative.

A typeface fit for an entire city

In Chattanooga, Tennessee, a group of designers are introducing an idea that is both grassroots and high-brow. A typeface designed for and meant to embody the city. For use by citizens, public organizations and with restricted use to shops and political use, ensuring its integrity is maintained.

While custom typography is a tool often used by large corporate entities and governments to create a consistent visual language, the idea to use such a tool to brand a city, and for that branding to create a stronger sense of belonging, is quite novel. The idea to encourage the use of such a tool by any

billboard post-cardschatype-specimenchatype-publiclibrary

Government in your pocket

Not long after moving to the United States, I started hearing people speak of a dimly lit, forsaken place — one with curmudgeonly staff and lines with no end in sight.

They called this tragic place the “D. M. V.”

It took me a while to realize what the acronym stood for, since the Canadian equivalent — run by the provincial-level government — does not maintain the equivalent reputation.

This disparity of reputation speaks just as much to the comparative structures of the organization as to how they are run. Many Canadian DMV Services are government-run insurance companies, which have the benefit of covering, in some cases, all bodily injuries. Under this arrangement, there are no insurance-chasers as it’s a no-fault system. This approach reflects a style of management and service focused on values of efficiency and ease, something typically not associated with government (at least in the U.S.).

NYS Driver’s LicensesThis long prologue is a way to talk about the Driver’s license document, itself. New York State recently unveiled a new design for its cards, and the New York Times had a great overview of the evolution of that all-important instrument. It is interesting to look at the design of the document, given the expansive ownership rates, 57% of the population of the State (Source: NYS DMV), and its use as a de facto identification in daily life.

The new license showcases an entirely new array of visual elements, including a word mark with diamonds befitting the word ‘State,’ the new Santiago Calatrava-designed (but as of yet unfinished) Transit Hub at the World Trade Center, and Lady Liberty. Most of the press coverage has focused on the switch to black and white photography for the image.

All of this, beyond the curiosity of using a mass transit building as the key graphic for a car-centered document, begs the question: who designs the Driver’s License? How does the State Government communicate a sense of identity by switching its color scheme, typefaces and graphic elements at each new evolution? As something that’s carried everyday, shouldn’t beauty be a consideration alongside utility?

As the Times’ piece explains, security features were key in guiding the new design. But these so-called ‘security features’ offer a great opportunity for gorgeous renditions of aspects of the State.

UK National ID CardAustrian Driver’s License