From the awe inspiring Gothic cathedrals of the 13th century, to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, to the seven-ton crucifix built by sculptor Marshall Fredericks, the artistic and church communities have grown up almost hand-in-hand. Behind all these master-works is the feeling of artist that God’s greatness can and should be reflected in our artistic creations. In today’s visual world, the Church more than ever, needs to embrace the rich history and current face of the artistic community. The face of information has changed, the line between truths, information, and image are being blurred together and without embracing and responsibly reacting to this change the Church’s voice will be drowned out in a time we’re needed most.
The first goal as Christians is to reach as many people as we can with the message of God, this task is one that can never be completed or perfected, but one to pursue throughout a lifetime. There are many effective ways to spread the word, and many different ears to hear it, so our work as messengers should be to use as many avenues as we’re capable of to reach those unhearing ears, and to ignore a medium so vast as visual arts or graphic design would we would be in remiss. My belief and message to you, church members and leaders, is that due to their wide variety of uses and universal accessibility print media and graphic arts are an effective way of engaging seekers and believers alike for the church’s mission.
To move forward it’s important to understand where the church and the artist communities have stood in the past. All of us understand the importance the ancient Christian church had placed on arts in the past, commissioning great artists to give the illiterate public a chance to understand the Bible’s loftier ideas. This relationship hit its peak during the Renaissance, when the Church as a whole was at its height of influence. Creation and beauty were able to grow without borders under the benevolent church leaders power and backing in a culture so influenced by art. This burst in interest in the arts in turn brought people towards the center of artistic thought, which was at that time the Christian Church. This sort of mutual growth brought the two cultures so closely intertwined that the major themes and characters of the Christian faith are usually directly tied in our minds to their visual representations more than the stories they appear in. Some of the greatest times of expansion for the church and impacting times for classical art forms could not have been possible without this interlocking mission of reflecting God’s glory through the hands of man.
Why then are the Christian and “art world” cultures so distant now? While there are obviously a handful of reasons or explanations as to where and when the split occurred, most believe the blame is shared. Art has always been made by the elite few, but in the past was at least aimed towards the enjoyment and appreciation of people across classes or backgrounds. During the Romantic period, which began during the 1800’s artistic culture began sectioning itself off from its appreciators, gaining an air of elitism that it has yet to let go of. The idea that art is only to be understood by other artists of the same social crop meant that the envelope had to constantly be pushed to exclude any wandering eyes from the bourgeois public, in a movement lovingly referred to as avant-garde. While great artists and works have come out of this freedom of expression, unchained by outdated ideas like sensitivity or accessibility, the end result was wall built between artistic extremists and the generally conservative minded church over the last 200 years.
Graphic design as an art form only recently took off to become a big a part of the art world as it is now. Within the last hundred years the relatively new art has grown from it’s humble beginnings as simple display of information to one of the fastest growing and widely practiced arts of the day. Design as a means of expressing creativity and beauty has been around since the days of scribes translating and copying the earliest Bibles and before. Typography and layout design started out mostly as heraldry for the rich or indicators of one’s status, keeping it a fairly unimportant part of artistic movements as a whole. Only with the invention of mass advertising did the young workhorse of an art form really get a foothold in everyday life. In fact, an advertiser, William Addison Dwiggins, coined the term “Graphic Designer” in 1922 to define his particular practice of art. In Europe, by the turn of the century, it was the designers that led the way in advertising firms, political campaigns; even militaries were reliant on impacting and powerful design to encourage (or discourage) the populous to get behind various actions. (See — Vintage Soviet Propoganda) Today the constructivist sense in design has been overshadowed by the possibilities the medium has opened up. Rock posters, magazine ads, web design and modern book design hold some of the most beautiful creations of our generation, but unlike other forms of art, graphic design is fulfilling needs and presenting information along the way. The acme of design as an art is right now, when practical necessary information is displayed with creativity and aesthetics previously reserved for fine artists. In fact, graphic design is not only the largest focus of the commercial and business world; it’s been for several years the vanguard of modern art in almost all its forms. Graphic designs versatility have allowed it, as a fine art or commercial, to permeate almost all other forms of art; photographers (example) use concepts of balance created by designers, painters (example) take cues from layout design, and mixed media artists (example) even blur the line between the three.
Popular contemporary author in the world of graphic design, Stephen Heller has divided the uses of modern design into three categories in his book “Graphic Design History,” whose borders may overlap but have important distinctions to the artists and the audience. First is design that supports life. This type of work is purely towards the goal of information conveyance promoting safety or health, like industrial or traffic safety warnings or instructions. The second, and already more common type is design that facilitates life. This is task oriented design, or design that helps us to do something better, faster or more efficiently; examples like instruction materials or sign systems are all pieces of design that facilitate our lives. Third, and where most designers today focus, is design aimed at improving life. This final category is defined by the author as “…design that focuses on human dimensions, such as spiritual qualities, cultural values, humor, pleasure, and indeed, beauty and the awakening of consciousness. Good furniture, enjoyable books, and elegant solutions to difficult communication problems, are examples of that type of design. The distinctions between these are important to make to more fully engage the conversation about graphic design in the church, as their goal is mostly to create the final type of design that both edifies and inspires.
From starting wars to selling iPads, the world today is covered by graphic design and no group has spent more time researching, remaining, and harnessing that power than those in the business world. Hardly can you look around yourself and not be barraged by the influence of graphic design on our day-to-day lives. The reason everyone from major corporations to start up businesses devote such a focus to deliberate and identifiable design is easy to understand; in a visual age, without an image you can have no voice. The question now is, what does this say to us as Christians and members of the church? Graphic design is no doubt a popular form of art, and a useful tool for those with an idea to sell, but does the message of God need to be packaged and printed to win over people’s hearts? Is it worth the cost that big businesses can afford? And the biggest question of all, is design alone enough to spread the word, or if it can why not just print a box of flyers and mail them across the globe? These and more questions are expounded on in Zach Boyer’s essay “Church Media…” and Samantha Foster’s “The Power Media Has in The Church.” Both authors argue that media, visual or otherwise compromise the integrity and message of a church community. They’re both right. The effectiveness of design as a means of advancing the message is hard to quantify, and even harder to control, but done responsibly and intentionally, with those worries in mind, design can be one an effective tool in ministry.
The state of church design is encouraging, but has need to improve and room to grow. Traditionally, it’s churches with a larger budget and higher volunteer base that give their graphic arts program special attention. Institutions like Kensington in Michigan or Park Community here in Chicago have integrated design into the culture and community of their churches with varying degrees of success. The reasons they do this, along with those reasons that present themselves to the secular or business world are many.
The first motivation behind prioritizing design is based on the passage Matthew 16:3 “Oh ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but ye cannot discern the sign of the times.” In this verse Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees who demanded that he show them a miracle to prove his authority. His response was that they could have all the knowledge in the world but they were missing out on what was happening to them right now. This same principle isn’t a perfect analogy to the Church’s relationship with the unreached world but the idea remains true. We can have the greatest message in the world and understand it to the nth degree but if we can’t understand and respond to the world we live in, our message means nothing. The message of the church is one that must be spread, but if we ignore the cultural climate we can’t hope to reach as many as we could if we more clearly understood how the people around us think. To get through to the culture we must become a part of it. Now this doesn’t have to mean that we hold back any of the massage that may seem hard to swallow, nor do we sweeten up the image of a Christian life to fool seekers into the fold, what it means is that the way we package our same content should have a little something to do with the people receiving it. The parables are a close example of the message, retaining all its truth and urgency, given in the most understandable and relevant way.
In some ways, the goal of an evangalist isn’t too different from marketing a product, or campaining for a cause. Our goal is quite a bit loftier than theirs, but engaging someones mind, interesting them to learn more, and exciting them to get involved are important functions of all three. The first, engaging someone’s mind, as it pertains to graphic design and visual arts, has much to do with the initial “in your face” attention grabbing that good design is known for. What makes us stop to look a moment longer when flipping through a magazine when one advertisement seems to be doing things a littler different. This is where graphic design enters the third of Heller’s three types of design, design that improves life. That may seems a little large a statement at first reading, but the idea that design can be more than just a black and while bulliten with names and dates on it is what Hellers theory is all about. Church design, more than any other has the right content to appeal to the human condition, if only we take the oppourunity to think outside the box.
The second goal of church design is to interest people in learning more. Beyond that initial grab of attention by the aesthetics of a piece, the message provided should go a little deeper. We have a responsibility as a church to provide real information about our beliefs and mission at every corner, so effective design must have a reason to exist other than just a good look or it is useless. Examples of design that takes that next step are flyers that describe and detail upcoming events or programs that outline the events occurring right then and there.
Finally, exciting people to get involved in the churches mission is an imperative. For all its uses and intentions, if what the church produces doesn’t enoourage and equip their members or outsiders to get their hands dirty giving back to their community and joining the churches mission. Giving people clear oppourtunities to learn or participate, objectives for personal growth, and motivations to remain in service are all tasks for the church designer that can reap incredible benefits. Phil Cooke’s book, “Branding Faith” describes the emphasis on design and messages that inspire action, “Today it’s about making a connection — the kind of connection tht not only makes them want to hear what you have to say but also makes them respond.” Part of inspiring action from a body is making them feel like the institution is capable of using them and their funding with responsibility and professionalism. Professional design is an outward display of inward conviction and dedication to a cause we really believe in. To inspire and encourage extra giving for their latest capital campaign Kensington Community Church released their campaign brochure after weeks of copy writing and intentional deliberate design. This serves both as a way to really inform the body of the campaigns goals, but also to connect them with the sense of responsibility and maturity along the length of the campaign. It can be read here.
Ellen Lupton, in her book “Mixing Messages: Graphic Design in Contemporary Culture” has this to say about the use and application of design that can be directly applied to the church, “The central social function of graphic design is to embody identity through visual forms. Design creates a visual personality for institutions, products audiences and designers themselves. Organizations…use design to convey a sense of purpose and values. [Design] symbolizes an institution’s purpose and services.” What this is saying, and what we need as church leaders to be acutely aware of, is that our design, in whatever capacity, is a window into who we are as believers and as an organization. For many, print materials and web presence are the only glimpses of the church they’ll ever see so it’s imperative that that glimpse is both glorifying to the God and authentic to ourselves as a community. Jake Herings essay “Imitation and Authenticity: Evangelism’s Binge on Worship Music” speaks mainly about remaining authentic to the people you’re living life with. If what we create isn’t an accurate depiction of the Church body or it’s goals then it is sure to fail. For all the beauty and even good intentions, if your work doesn’t connect seekers or believers to something real in the church it’s only a façade that will ultimately hinder the goal. What’s important to a church body and the hearts of their leadership will be reflected in everything they create, from the stage to the flyers handed out at work. The capital campaign brochure shown earlier is made up entirely of community photography, and quotes from people who will actually be handling the money.
With those motivations explained and fears hopefully subsided, my hope is that the growing church will be more open to embracing one of the most effective and understood arts today. The fact is that design can’t be escaped; every brochore you print or poster you hang sends a message, and that message couldn’t be more important so let’s make sure to treat every aspect of our churchs outreach and identity with care and eagerness. To end the section I’d like to word of warning and inspiration from Paul Armstrong’s article 5 Tools Church Designers Need: Teamwork, “The most important aspect for your work as a designer with and for a church is that your communications have eternal implications. That isn’t to say that design will bring someone to Christ (though you can’t handicap what God can do), but how you present this message has everything to do with the message of Christ. It should be taken seriously. Never expect more from your church than what you expect from yourself—excellence, clarity and community.”
Along the way I’ve made a lot of strong statements about the work good design can do, and all it can achieve with the right mindset and understanding of its implications. For most articles that would have been enough, but that would have left the most important question unanswered: “What does this look like?” We’ve seen examples of good design throughout the article but in a church setting, but what are positive steps you can take and apply to your own work? To being to answer that I’ve designed several examples, representing the themes and ideas we’ve been working through in the duration of this feature.
The created examples, found here demonstrate accurate community reflection, relevant information, and engaging visuals. This was accomplished through careful understanding of the church’s needs, its character, and hopefully, with the help of basic design principles. Each is different in function, but should provide a coherent connected theme, each pulling from the same corporate identity. All photography is done in house, as is the layout and any typeface alterations.
Armstrong, Paul. “Graphic Design Archives.” Church Marketing Sucks. 19 Apr. 2010. Web. .
Bierut, Michael, William Drenttel, and Steven Heller. Looking Closer. New York: Allworth, 2002. Print.
Cooke, Phil. Branding Faith: Why Some Churches and Nonprofits Impact Culture and Others Don’t. Ventura, Calif.: Regal, 2008. Print.
Heller, Steven, and Georgette Ballance. Graphic Design History. New York: Allworth, 2001. Print.
Heller, Steven, and Karen Pomeroy. Design Literacy: Understanding Graphic Design. New York: Allworth, 1997. Print.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2004. Print.
Lupton, Ellen. Mixing Messages: Graphic Design in Contemporary Culture. New York: Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution, 1996. Print.
Student’s Life Application Bible: New Living Translation, Personal Size Ed. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 2004. Print.