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Flags and Public Transport

The flag debate has dominated a lot of discussion over the last week since the four insipid designs were released by the government’s flag panel.

Jarrett Walker who is a public transport expert and author of the book Human Transit – and who has helped AT develop the New Network – has published an interesting post on his blog about what can be learnt from our flag design process. Most interestingly he has also linked the issues with the flag design process with that of public transport. It’s definitely worth reading the whole post.

If you care at all about visual communication — and if you aren’t blind from birth, then you do — you should be following the remarkable debate about the New Zealand flag. National flags are so enduring that it is hard to imagine a graphic design task with higher stakes. Revising one triggers a profound argument about national identity, which ultimately comes down to a couple of questions:

  1. One or many ideas? Can the nation come together around one image or idea, or must there me a mash-up of several to satisfy different groups or points of view?
  2. Fashionable or enduring? Graphic design is so much about fashion and fun that identifying an image that will make sense for decades is harder than it sounds. Yet that’s what a flag must be – and the greatest company logos have mastered this challenge as well.

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Final Four Flags

But the real problems are these:

  • #2 and #4 are both mash-ups, obviously collisions of multiple unresolved ideas. A mash-up suggests that the country is too divided to revere any single image. If Canada — a far more diverse country in terms of landscapes and identities — could avoid this mistake, New Zealand certainly can. (British Columbia is another matter …)
  • Except for #3, they are all over-designed, with an attention to today’s graphical fashions instead of any thought about what might stand the test of time. This is equivalent to saying that they call attention to the designer.

What do you gain, designer of finalist #1, by flipping half of the silver fern image into negative, and making the frond leaflets more rounded so that they no longer resemble the plant? How is this better than the simple silver fern on black? Only that a graphic designer obviously designed it, in a way that is supposed to look cool.

But a flag is supposed to outlast its designer, and the design fashions of the moment.  Remember, the Canadian flag was designed in the 1960s.

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You can’t tell, looking at the Canadian flag, that it’s an artefact of the 1960s, and that’s the whole point. A flag has to have a sense of timelessness and simplicity, which is why you must reject any design that calls attention to the cleverness of the designer or relies on design fashions of the moment. The creativity it requires begins with the willingness to disappear as the creator. None of the finalists displays this.

So how does this all relate to public transport? As Jarrett explains below, how we design our PT system including even what modes we use have impacts on how people experience it.

How is this debate relevant to this blog’s concerns in public transit?  If you really want to sell public transit, teach people to count on it.  Make it seem solid and enduring, not just sexy and ephemeral. Go for the simple, solid idea that will still make sense — practically and aesthetically — decades from now.

London Roundel

And this principle extends even beyond graphic design, to debates about whether transit technologies should be chosen for “fun” or reliability.

Do you notice how insecure companies change their logos and liveries more often than confident ones do?  Do you notice how they use flashy look-at-me images instead of clean and enduring ones?

Flashiness, fun, and novelty may attract customers, but only simplicity and reliability retains them. Which message do you want to put forth about your transit system, or your country?

I think Jarrett is spot on with this. Auckland’s current PT network is much like those Kyle Lockwood designs, we have a bunch of different elements such as buses, ferries and trains that have just been thrown together with little thought. Many of Auckland Transport’s current projects are exactly about pulling the various elements together into a single coherent network. This includes big things such as integrated fares or the design of the New Network down to smaller things such as a common livery, or some of the new requirements in the bus tender documents.

Of course all this also flows through to the logo’s we’ve assigned for public transport. Within the last decade we’ve had three logos, MAXX, AT and now AT Metro. The first two are below and the AT logo is certainly better than the awful MAXX days

Maxx logo
AT Logo

Are AT doing enough to make our PT system solid and enduring, will the current AT logo and designs stand the test of time? I guess we’ll have to wait and find out.

Interestingly Roman Mars in his Ted talk about city flags (worth a watch with the current flag debate anyway) also refers how flags and design can help shape PT to be better.

32 comments to Flags and Public Transport

  • Bryce P

    There are some similarities between the current flag discussion and the ‘new network’ consultation. For example, AT did not provide a ‘best, simplest, mostcost effective network plan for Hibiscus Coast. If they had, it would have removed the expensive to run express buses in favour of frequent 15 minute) local buses connecting to the NEX with a transfer. And an explanation about how that could boost PTfor the entire area.

  • Stu Donovan

    raises the interesting question of whether Auckland should have a flag?

  • simon

    The 3rd flag looks like a monkey butt. How they missed that I don’t know…

  • Mr Plod

    Is it not surprising that John Key and his cronies have stuffed up the three big design challenges of their time; Christchurch, transport and the flag. Their unwillingness to listen to contrary voices and hide behind process has created problems in all three and the idiocy of poking a wasps’ nest with a stick has bought the third upon us all.

    • Brendon Harre

      I was talking to a PR guy in Christchurch, they have international media contacts who are wanting to run stories. The PR guy needs to tell a story of what the vision is for Christchurch. What aspirational story can he tell? Is Christchurch a phoenix rising up from the rubble, a new international city in the making, a knowledge city, a connected city….. PR Guy really struggled (and he knew it too) to get past general positive platitudes -it is going to great, lots of activity…..

      Mr Plod I think you are right, somehow NZ has a problem with design, we are not connecting the dots to provider clear leadership, a vision for the future.

  • The current AT logo is so clunky and haphazard. The A looks thicker than the T, visually pulling the whole logo to the left. And why are the 3 colour strips all different lengths. What on earth were they trying to convey with this logo? There are so many great design/brand agencies in NZ – for the amount of money AT have at their disposal, they have ended up with an amateurish and poorly executed design that does not represent a world class public transport system. I predict it will be replaced within a few years.

  • When AT gets a name change – then expensive rebranding exercise will ensue – they need to have a standalone logo as you suggest – like the tube etc

  • Ak-Sam

    There;s a missing solution here. Instead of a full rebrand, why not an evolution. Look at Coke or Ford or any large long-lived company and you’ll see a clear evolution of the brand/logo. Companies (like Telecom or Auckland Council) tend to do a complete re-brand when they are fully restructured or something is failing, badly.

    For the NZ flag, that would mean larger, red stars, a different shade of blue – pulling us away slightly from the Australian example, but not actually changing what we are doing. Cheap, easy…an update, like we update the Queen’s head on our currency.

    For Auckland Transport – how they even got a budget for creating their own logo is beyond me. Clearly they dont feel part of Auckland Council (and don’t act like it either). I read their logo as “ferries/buses (blue), Walking and cyclists (green) and Cars (red). Cars are at the top.

  • Chrissy

    Where’s red peak?

  • Luke

    Change the prime minister, keep the flag.

  • Alex

    For those who are opposed to the flag. I heavily urged you to vote on the first referendum.

    VOTE FOR THE KORU FLAG!

    Do not waste your vote. Vote for the Koru Flag. Do not just write KOF. Vote for the flag that has less chance on winning against the current flag. This will also send a message to John Key… We don’t want corporate branding on our flag.

    So if you care about our current flag or just don’t like any of the choices. VOTE KORU FLAG

    Please tell everyone you know. Spread the word. Lets make this a landslide vote.

    • Ari

      I guess that could work. Vote for the worst flag, no hope of winning against the current.

      • Brendan

        I actually like the koru flag better than the current flag, so if it wins the first vote I’ll be voting for it for the serviced I second vote.

        Our current flag is a mashup of ideas, and the Union Jack itself is a mash up of ideas.

        Then again most of the flags of the world are mashups. What is up with stars and stripes, 60 different elements, that’s crazy!

    • Michael

      Surely it makes the most sense to vote for the alternative flag you like the most, rather than just sabotaging the process… Vote for the existing in the second round if you must, but your suggested approach seems immature….

      • I’ll vote for the one I least hate and I loath the fern flags.

        • Atooga

          Oh look – a perfect demonstration of how subjective our tastes are. And how politically motivated the opposition to this process is. No surprises it pops up on this website in an awkward attempt to relate the flag change to transportation.

          The process is proving itself in both the support and opposition it’s generating. If you don’t like the final alternative, you get to keep the existing flag. And you’ll be voting for a mash up anachronism that may not exist in a few years anyway, if Scotland secedes. But here’s your chance. You get a say. How else should it be done? By a PM that you personally prefer? Would you have opposed this if Helen had done it?

          Oh and before everyone bleats on, Red Peak scored almost last across all demographics in the rating of the top 40. It really is just a whiney attempt by Twitter Twits to moan all over again, having ignored themyriad opportunities to participate. Because, you know, it sucks to participate.

          • harrymc

            “And how politically motivated the opposition”.
            What are you on about? It was proposed by a politician and you’re complaining about a political response? Naive or disingenuous. And if ‘it sucks to participate’ then why are you complaining about this blog doing just that?
            You need to do better mate.

          • Yes it’s subjective and that’s the point, not everyone likes the same thing.

            As for Red Peak, yes it scored lowly but I also think it’s something that grown on many people as they’ve thought more about it. I certainly didn’t like it at first but have been impressed by the many different ways people have interpreted it and in a way that isn’t possible with the other alternatives – or what we have.

  • Ian

    I actually like the AT logo! Whack it on everything like the trains have and you’re in business.

  • James Howitt

    Those flag designs are pish. Utter pish.

  • harrymc

    The flag exercise has been a complete disaster from start to finish. I’m starting to think that Key wanted it to be this way. He can’t be that stupid? Or maybe it is what gets all politicians in the end – excessive hubris?

  • sjc

    I like the MAXX logo better than the current AT logo. It looks morbid to me.

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