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:
- 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?
- 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.
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.
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.
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
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.