Let it go. It’s what you learn, after you know it all, that counts.
Distance doesn’t make everything seem small.
On Sunday 2nd September 2015 I published a short blog post about a flag that would quickly become by far the most widely read thing I’ve written (so far, although I acknowledge it’s very likely a permanent high tide mark).
The next few weeks were an education. Here are three things I learned in the process…
One of the questions I love to ask founders about their startup is:
How will you overcome your obscurity?
It’s a seemingly simple question. But it’s tough to answer succinctly and coherently.
When we’re working on anything that’s early-stage often the biggest challenge we have is that, beyond a very small circle of our immediate contacts, nobody has heard about what we’re doing and nobody cares.
Every day startups die of starvation, due to lack of customers. Very few ever die of drowning from a deluge of customers that they can’t cope with.
When we wrote the Trade Me Manifesto we summarised our approach to marketing like this:
Build a great website and people will tell their friends
That’s just a re-write of what it means to be remarkable - i.e. literally, be something that people will choose to tell others about.
For us, back then, that meant obsessing about reliability and usability, even for people who were very new to the internet and likely connecting on a basic PC via a slow dial-up connection, and it meant injecting ourselves into the process of buying and selling only where necessary, but intentionally where it helped.
That turned out to be a winning strategy - we were able to ride the network effects that word-of-mouth referrals created, and in the process built a very large and profitable business in a very short number of years. The rest is history.1
This is another example…
In November 2015, 10.9% of voters in the New Zealand Flag referendum (just under 150,000 people) ranked the Red Peak flag as their preferred option.2 Just two months prior to that, it wasn’t even one of the options selected to be included on the ballot and very few people had even heard of it.
(To put this result in context, the largest party vote for a minor party in an MMP Election was in 1996 when NZ First received 13.49%. The Greens received 11.06% in 2011 and 10.70% in 2014. Since then no minor party has received more than 8% of the overall vote.)
How did it happen?
In early 2015 the government formed a panel of distinguished New Zealanders to select possible new designs for a New Zealand flag. From 10,292 public submissions, the panel selected a long list of 40 designs. Then pretty quickly after that whittled it down to a short list of four designs to take to a public vote.
Unlike most people, I’d been following the process from the beginning. I believe the symbols we use to represent ourselves on the international stage are important and worthy of discussion. I thought it was an exciting opportunity for change.
One of the designs included in the long list had caught my attention.
It was (originally) called First To The Light, designed by Aaron Dustin. We would eventually all come to know it as Red Peak.
I thought it was a considered and elegant design.
It had a story, referencing the Māori myth of Ranginui and Papatūānuku and the geography of Aotearoa.
It cleverly combined two halves:
On the left a nod to tukutuku panels, and the Tino Rangatiratanga flag, with the traditional colours of black, red and white.
On the right a reference to the stars and Union Jack from the current flag, with the existing colours of red, white and blue.
Possibly most importantly, it had been designed specifically to be a flag, with a single black panel in the critical top-left corner, which is prominent when it is hung from a pole.
It looked right at home placed alongside other great flags from around the world:
It was easy to imagine this flag flying on the top of the Beehive or draped over a winning athlete at the Olympics.
It was an uncomplicated design, so worked at any size - large or (importantly) small.
It was a geometric design, so also very simple to draw, even for somebody with no artistic skills:
It ticked all of the boxes, so seemed to me to be the perfect candidate. I was looking forward to making the case for why this should be selected as the new flag design in the referendum process.
But when the short list was released I was seriously underwhelmed. Not only because this option wasn’t selected, but because of the four options that were.
So, as a typical GenX, I did the obvious thing: shrugged my shoulders and channeled my dissatisfaction into a tweet:
Wow. What a sad and disappointing outcome. The best result I can see now is keeping the status quo. Such a lost opportunity. 😥💩 #nzflag— Rowan Simpson (@rowansimpson) August 31, 2015
You can tell that I was both sad and disappointed. I mean, I said that explicitly, but I also included the sad face and the pile-of-poo emoji.
Curiously, that by itself didn’t really seem to make much of a difference, so I thought about what else I could do that might have an impact?
I did the next most obvious thing and published a blog post, which I facetiously addressed to the Prime Minister, John Key, with really low expectations:
It was a simple post that expressed my frustration. I complained that we were promised four choices but in the end we’d been presented with a single solution - four variations of a fern - and were all just left to choose colours.
I struggled to find a positive:
To win broad support, a challenger product or service needs to be remarkably better than the status quo (e.g. selling something on Trade Me vs using traditional newspaper classifieds). I worry that none of the options which have been put up will succeed on that basis. Even as a strong supporter for change, I don’t believe any of these four designs are good enough. But, worse, I worry that one of them will be preferred over the current flag anyway.
I published that on a Sunday afternoon.4
Later that night, I was surprised to see it had already been shared about 250 times. It was, with the benefit of hindsight, just enough to escape my immediate circle. Over the next 72 hours it went nuts on social media. It was shared over 100,000 times on Facebook and was widely read.5
It reached the press gallery. John Key was asked about it, and dismissed it completely saying “we’re not going back to Parliament to change the law.”
However, what happened next was wonderful. There was an amazing and delightful creative response online, as people took the design and applied their own thinking. The things that were shared were inspiring and creative and crazy and fun.6
As a result many more people heard the story.
Earlier in the consultation process John Key had predicted that, once the flag was changed, New Zealand companies would incorporate the new design in their branding and products. He was correct about that, but perhaps not in the way that he intended:
Source: Garage Project
The catalyst for all of this was just telling a story that engaged people and then getting out of the way.
It wasn’t premeditated. It wasn’t coordinated. There wasn’t a headquarters plotting the strategy (most of us who were most vocal had never met and in many cases still haven’t). It was decentralised and chaotic.
Everybody was free to respond in their own way. Different people did different things. Some of those got a response and were amplified. Others, not so much.
This totally flummoxed politicians and those who tried to interpret everything via their political lens. At one point, on the same day, we were accused of being a left-wing conspiracy and a right-wing conspiracy.
Image By Martin Hermans
I discovered an abstract design is like a giant ink blot test. Some people saw a volcanic cone at sunrise. Others saw a nazi swastika. Some latched onto the conspiracy that Red Peak was covertly copied from an US engineering firms logo.7 Others couldn’t see past the triangles.
Each person’s reaction actually said more about them than about the design itself.
When any of the great flags are reduced to their shapes and colours they are also meaningless. The Japanese flag is just a red circle. The French flag (like a lot of other flags for that matter) is just three rectangles. The Union Jack is just some lines and triangles. The Stars & Stripes is … stars and stripes. In every case it is the story attached to these shapes and colours which give all of these flags great meaning. It was the same with Red Peak.
(This is why it’s no surprise that when asked, based just on the shapes, Red Peak didn’t rank very highly in public polling. It was like asking people to choose their favourite singer just based on a photo. But, it’s also why, once people were given the opportunity to consider it in context, it resonated with so many and become their preferred option.)
Some people were only convinced when they saw the flags physically flying. Perhaps the most satisfying thing for me during this time was seeing that happening in lots of different places around the country.
Some people started a petition. More than 50,000 people added their name in support. Within a week of publishing the blog post, I found myself in a media scrum on the steps of Parliament. Four politicians all agreed to publicly receive that petition and advocate for Red Peak, including Marama Fox (Māori Party) and David Seymour (ACT), who were the leaders of the Government’s coalition partners at the time, plus Gareth Hughes (Greens) and, future Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern (Labour).
From there, it really snowballed. The media continued to amplify the story (more on that below). On 23 September 2015, just three weeks after the blog post, Parliament sat under urgency to change the law and include Red Peak as a fifth option on the ballot.
Every movement begins with a vocal minority. But not every vocal minority creates a movement.
Overcoming your obscurity only seems easy in retrospect:
Be remarkable and tell your story. But most importantly show others how to follow then get out of their way.
For my sins, even when in the eye of the storm, I can’t help but be distracted by the meta layer of things.
Initially, the idea of Red Peak was dismissed, because it came from Twitter and Facebook rather than “credible” sources. It wasn’t taken seriously because it was seen as a product of a “social media echo chamber”. The assumption was this audience was a tiny vocal minority - aka the “Twitterati”.
I found this really confusing. The posts on social media that started the whole thing off were the original content. And they were shared on those platforms thousands of times and reached a large audience there. The media reports that pointed to them later were simply re-publishing them after the fact, and sometimes literally just repeating the content without adding anything substantial to the story.8
So, what was the source and what was the echo?
What is the difference between media and social media? Why does the latter have the qualifier?
Has the way we’re all using these different platforms actually changed faster than the language that we use to describe these things can adapt?
At what point does it make sense to switch those names around, acknowledge that social media is now the dominant kind of media, where the majority of content originates, and start to add the qualifier to the older variant (e.g. traditional media, or broadcast media)?
Of course, this sort of transition is nothing new…
What we previously called electronic mail or email is now more often just called mail. And we’ve renamed the old kind of mail to snail mail or “post”.
What we used to call a smart phone is now just a phone, or more accurately “device”. And we’ve renamed the other kind to “landline”.
Some others things are transitioning right now:
Can you think of more?
What’s next after those?
I wonder how long before we start to add a qualifier to petrol cars, unassisted bikes, dairy milk or cell-based meat?
See: List of Retronyms
Every interview with a public figure should include the question “what have you been wrong about and how did it change your views?” The answer shows if the person is intellectually honest or a tale spinner with delusions of infallibility.9
It might surprise you to discover that, despite what happened, I’m actually very fond of the silver fern.10
It is an enduring and unique symbol. It’s widely associated with New Zealand and New Zealanders, and is the only symbol most of us would pick if we had to choose a single icon to represent our country.
The history here goes back even deeper into the archives.
I submitted this design for consideration in 2015. I still believe that if the panel had been brave enough to include a simple “silver fern on black” design such as this in the shortlist it could have been a very different debate.
However, it was ruled out because of another famous fern were all familiar with:
Here are 15 more selected ferns from different sporting organisations:
(Bonus points and a chocolate fish to the first person who can name all of them!)
While it is most commonly associated with our sports teams and specifically with the All Blacks, the Silver Fern goes much wider than that. It’s extensively used, in business and trade, tourism, on our money and our passports, and on the headstones that commemorate our fallen soldiers.
However, this is exactly the dilemma that any designer faces when trying to include a fern on a flag. It’s hard to design a good fern, especially if it has to be visually distinct from all of the others already in use. The only way you can do that is to include some colour or other different elements, which very quickly leaves you with a compromised design.
Also, flags need to fly next to other flags. In our case that means the national flag will often need to fly next to these other ferns, creating what has been called a “cluster fern”.12
Before the long list was published in 2015 I thought I already knew the design that I’d vote for, and which I was confident would become the new flag in the end. But the more I learned about vexillology (I’ll admit I’d never heard of that previously) and what makes a great flag design the less I knew.
It’s what you learn, after you know it all, that counts.
The problem is seldom people who don’t know what they are talking about. It’s people who think they do know, when they don’t really.
We are the No. 8 Wire nation. We’re proud generalists - good at most things, not great at any one thing. I believe this is one of the reasons why we have more than our fair share of founders and inventors. We celebrate punching above our weight, without any regard for what normally happens to underweight boxers who fight larger opponents.
But, remember, our defining characteristics are also often our biggest vulnerabilities. The dark side of generalism is our tendency to rebel against sophistication and to be suspicious of expertise.
Seems to me there is a lot of intellectual snobbery around the flag debate from the "progressive" left and the "design elite"— Steven Joyce (@stevenljoyce) March 3, 2016
Somehow, when we put together a group to select a new flag design, we included business people, mayors, reality television producers, and former All Blacks and Olympians. But failed to include a single designer.
As a result, expert opinion was trumped by public opinion.
Most people we spoke to struggled with abstract designs
— Malcolm Mulholland (Flag Consideration Panel)
Design is a funny thing. We all have an opinion on design, whether we’re qualified to or not. We make the mistake of thinking that every opinion is equally useful. And, often, it’s hard for those of us who are unqualified to explain exactly why we like one design or don’t like another design.
But, experts can explain.
This is actually what makes an expert an expert. They have progressed beyond the complexity to the simple on the far side.
For example, in this case, experts can pretty quickly and easily explain the difference between an emblem and a flag:
The English Rose, Scottish Thistle and Irish Shamrock are all strong and widely recognised national emblems. All three of those countries also have simple and distinctive national flags, none of which include those emblems.
The Silver Fern is our own world class emblem.13
Sadly, we missed the opportunity to have an equally world class flag to complement it, because we ignored expert advice and insisted that it include our emblem.
This is the process that I went through in 2015, and I recommend it to you. It’s very simple and easy to follow:
The important steps are #2 and #3.
Try to differentiate between perspective (an opinion to consider) and advice (direction from somebody who is qualified to give it).
Don’t be distracted by the reckons of columnists or commentators. Seek out those who can explain the “why”.
And, always ask yourself: what would it take to convince you to change your mind?
The window into Rongomaraeroa, Te Marae at Te Papa Tongarewa
Is there another chapter still to be written in this story? Who knows? In the end the whole process to change the flag ended with a resounding vote for the status quo. Given the process and options eventually presented to voters, that wasn’t surprising.
My personal view, for what it’s worth: of course we should change the flag, we should change the name of the country, we should change lots of things. But those should probably all be wrapped up in a much bigger process and be considered together.
The flag referendum was presented as a “once in a lifetime chance”. Perhaps that’s correct. In which case, I’ll leave this essay somewhere for future generations to reference when that time comes again.
But, I remain hopeful that I’ll still be here to see some of these changes happen.
In the meantime, the snow glows white on the mountain tonight. Conceal don’t feel, etc.
It was only later, with more context from working on different ventures, that I realised what an outlier Trade Me was in this respect. Very few start-ups can thrive on pure product-led growth the way that Trade Me did. If you aspire to replicate this then you’ll need a very solid network effect. ↩︎
In the first round of voting 8.77% ranked Red Peak #1, this increased to 9.73% in the second round and 10.90% in the third round, before it was eliminated in the preferential ranking process. Infographic by Jayne Ihaka ↩︎
Despite what it might say on Wikipedia, I wasn’t the first to publish this sort of response. For example, a short post by Toby Morris the previous day also referenced Red Peak, as well as alternatives submitted by notable designers such as Kris Sowersby and Michael Smythe amongst others. It included this perfect commentary of the shortlisted options:
This flag says “this country is here to kick arse”.
The fern flags say “this intermediate hockey team missed the bus”.
OH "it's no basmati rice, but your flag tweet is popular"— Rowan Simpson (@rowansimpson) September 3, 2015
It was especially ironic when this story was first reported on TV3, given their logo at the time: ↩︎
A non-Red Peak example: consider this story which is literally just a tweet explained:
Monica Lewinsky’s hilarious tweet about Clinton affair goes viral online ↩︎
Curiously, one of the people who commented on that post at the time was Kyle Lockwood. He would, of course, later have two of his designs shortlisted, one of which was chosen by voters for the second round of the referendum. We have something else in common too: we are both old boys of Rongotai College. I think the criticism he received through this whole process was regretable. ↩︎