An open letter signed by the panel's members stated that new flag must be "unmistakably" New Zealand's, noting that the design must be "timeless, can work in a variety of contexts, are simple, uncluttered, balanced and have good contrast." The letter also noted that the new flag should aim to celebrate the country "as a progressive, inclusive nation that is connected to its environment, and has a sense of its past and vision for its future."
The panel said that its decision on the shortlist was guided by input it had received from "thousands of Kiwis across a range of communities" telling them "what is special to them about New Zealand."
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, who authored the initiative to change the flag, is said to favor a silver fern design to replace the present flag.
As the New Zealand Herald explains, the silver fern is believed by many New Zealanders to be emblematic of the country, much like the maple leaf is widely considered to symbolize Canada. The symbol is widely used by sports teams, by the military, and by emergency services, and is present on the country's money, on passports, and on the planes of the country's national airline.
The flag-changing initiative has been subject to some public criticism over its cost, estimated at NZ$26 million (equivalent to about $17.09 million US). Opposition Labour Party leader Andrew Little argued recently that the second referendum should be abandoned if the first attracts less than half of eligible voters.
Pax Zwanikken, a Sydney, Australia-based New Zealander who submitted roughly 20 flag designs, saw two of his proposals make the shortlist of 40. The graphic designer told The Guardian that while "there is a strong sentiment that this process isn't something the public really asked for at this time…it's happening now so I think we should turn our energy towards making sure that this money isn't wasted and that we take the opportunity to create something good out of it."
Following the referendum set to take place later this year, a second referendum will be held in March 2016, when New Zealanders will choose between the existing flag and the new design. New Zealand's current flag was formally adopted in 1902.