Designed by architect John Hardwick-Smith and sculptor Paul Dibble, the memorial consists of 16 cross-shaped vertical bronze 'standards' set out in formation on a grassy slope on the Hyde Park Corner traffic island. Each standard is adorned with text, patterns and small sculptures. The budget for the design and construction of the memorial was NZ$3 million.
The memorial was established to commemorate "the enduring bond between New Zealand and the United Kingdom", and the lives lost by the two countries during the two World Wars. Dibble said:
We set the memorial in a position where the main pedestrian route runs through the memorial so that visitors will walk amongst the sculptures, encouraging people to stop and explore. Through the words and images, any New Zealander visiting the memorial will recognise home, and British people may learn something of the relationship between our two countries.
Richard Shone, editor of The Burlington Magazine, criticised the memorial and its design in an attack on the "infestation of public space", describing it as "bristlingly unlovely".
In October 2004, 12 design teams were selected from the 68 who submitted expressions of interest in the New Zealand War Memorial. These teams submitted designs for the prospective monument and an expert panel, appointed by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, selected the final design. The design was then refined and submitted to Westminster City Council in London for planning approval. The design was a collaboration between Dibble Art Co and Athfield Architects, led by Dibble and Hardwick-Smith respectively, with Jon Rennie as the team's London representative.