The four finalist designs for a new flag for New Zealand. 
The four finalist designs for a new flag for New Zealand. 

In the world of architecture, we tend to think of graphic design as an afterthought. It is what lets us move around in a world much smaller than most buildings. It gives identity to abstract entities such as companies or countries. Graphic design also solves problems created by architecture by showing people where to go in a building, and by letting users or sponsors identify themselves in a manner that a building has a hard time accomplishing. So the recent change in Google’s logo and the proposals for New Zealand’s new flag might not seem of great consequence, but they are fascinating to me.


Google unveiled its updated logo on September 1. 
Google unveiled its updated logo on September 1. 

Google’s logo was never a thing of beauty. A serif-laden word that seemed out of place on most computers, it usually hid behind the little doodles the company swarmed around it to celebrate just about any occasion it could think of. Now the word has become a blobby version of itself, having lost not only the serifs, but also any sense of integrity. Thin and badly proportioned, it does not even serve to remind us of the joys of reading. For me, it points to the still unmet promise of the virtual world: that it would develop a visual character that would be all its own, and that would be as strong, in that particular way, as what we have developed in meat space.

Perhaps it will just take more time, but it is discouraging to me that all the major websites and search engines, from Yahoo to Amazon to Target, are becoming more cluttered and confusing over time. Only some travel sites (I use Delta a great deal and, though it is not beautiful, it is at least clean) and a few of the high-end fashion portals seem to be living up to the promise of clean and logical virtual space. The rest of the virtual space is just infested with bad design in everything from the designs of the words to the organization of the space.

The same is true for national identities. I cringe every time I confront a U.S. government website, let alone one of its physical manifestations. With Congress having just about closed down the Design Excellence program at the GSA and threatening to do the same at the State Department, not even those “representative buildings” will have much quality. We have a great flag, but the rest of how we appear is dreadful. There was a dream that the EU would move towards a new identity with an OMA (or rather, AMO)-designed flag and identity, but that turned out to be just a dream, and now they are just as bad as we are.

In 2001, OMA designed a barcode which merged the flags of current EU member states into a new representative flag. 
© OMA In 2001, OMA designed a barcode which merged the flags of current EU member states into a new representative flag. 

Now New Zealand is trying to create an identity for itself in a thoughtful process, but the finalists that have come out of that redesign do not promise much. They rely too much on dynamic diagonals I thought we gave up in the 1970s, and on references to a leaf that is difficult to understand, let alone draw well. The front runners all seem to be based on the All Blacks rugby team’s logo, which strike me as a bit odd for a country that prides itself on being the set for the Hobbit movies. At least the proposed flags have a relative simplicity about them.

The dilemma is this: Exactly because computer technologies lets us design anything we can imagine and then see everything in a small space, and because we live in a global culture that technology helps to weave together, we need, now more than ever, to have discipline and opt for less rather than more. We need clear, clean lines, and the solace of empty space and planes so that we can choose ourselves what to look at and learn, where to go, and what to see.

In fact, icons of a graphic variety have the ability to say so much that you do not need much, but what you do need is good design around those clickable symbols. The problem is that both designers and users seem to think that not having to push through or uncover information is easier, though in the end it makes choices more difficultthe inability of car companies to convince users that the layers of information on their screens are a better and less distracting way to operate are a case in point. That which is not immediately familiar and apparent is difficult to accept, and so we have left with clutter and blobs.

Many architects have given in to that same impulse long ago. They have given up and make things that look like old buildings and fill their structures with ever more stuff. They seem to think that the only way to be modern is to be as blobby as the new Google logo. It would be sad if graphic designers, those Helvetica-armed knights of Modernism, would do the same thing.