Rich and Impoverished Design
Posted by Luz Bratcher
One of my favorite jobs was art directing at my church. It was during this time that I became sadly aware of how visually mediocre Christendom has become. Somehow our theology of creativity has become disengaged from our theology of Creation, leaving us a wasteland for visual innovation. In the process, our communication of who Jesus Christ is becomes obscured by production teams, marketing techniques, clip art, and Papyrus.
How does this happen? Simply put, it’s as much a theological problem as it is an aesthetic problem. Our impoverished view of design grows naturally from an impoverished view of God as Creator and ourselves as his creatures, often reversing the two. I had a professor in college who was adamant about us understanding ourselves as designers rightly, asking us if we’ve ever created ex nihilo. He’d then tell us that we make out of materials already there, so we’re makers, not creators. It’s easy to let the association of being a “creative” become a title rather than an aspect of image-bearing.
Good design work involves the right tools and training, but being a faithful designer doesn’t start at hating Comic Sans. Faithfulness to this calling starts at the greatest commandment to love God and love our neighbors. And from this, I propose that we cultivate a rich sense of design to counteract our impoverished design sense.
Our goal is to clearly and accurately bear God’s image. Designing well requires us to check our pride at the door, knowing that it’s not about glorifying the means of message, but about communicating with clarity. Clip art doesn’t reflect the originality in which God created. Flashy special effects cheapen the depth and complexity of reality. Mimicking design trends develops an attitude of “You’re not good enough on your own.” It’s easy to hang paintings of quaint houses with warm glowing light and inspirational verses. It takes hard work to do honest design, to make something truthful and beautiful.
While I studied at L’Abri, Ellis Potter gave a lecture on appreciating art that went much farther than just increasing aesthetic awareness. His primary tenant was that art is relational, not a commodity. Art wasn’t created to be consumed, but engaged with. He encouraged us to treat art the same way we treat people. I believe this speaks directly into the design process, starting with asking ourselves what it looks like to love our neighbors. We put effort into our relationships; ask questions; deepen our respect; approach with delight and wonder; display care and concern for their well-being. This should be the aim of our work. After all, we design to communicate to people. The moment a flyer becomes “just a flyer”, a website “just a website”, a disconnect happens. It’s an object. You can pick it up and throw it away after church. If loving people isn’t a part of the equation on the making end, it will be felt on the receiving end. Sadly, it’s all too easy to impede our brothers and sisters from engaging in worship by perpetuating a consumerist attitude.
Our ability and desire to be makers is a continuous cycle of response and initiation. God created. Our creativity starts there and respond by making. In turn, it ought to be our goal to serve those interacting with our elements. Have you ever considered that design is a means of hospitality? Just as we are called to be hospitable to strangers (Heb 13:2), we ought to intend to communicate in our work, “I thought about you; your ability to understand and engage with this is important to me.” It’s all too easy to let our own design agenda be the focus of our work, to selfishly seek our own glory instead of seeking to love our neighbor and glorify God through what we create. Our culture values self-expression. In Christianity, it never starts nor stops at us.
Ultimately, rich design is about love. As Christians, we are new creations in every aspect of our being. If our heart is in the right place, our work will follow suit. We are free to fearlessly innovate in new, fresh ways that communicate our deep gratitude for a gracious God and our bold love for our neighbors. Whether it’s designing well systems in Uganda, to designing a church bulletin, may our hands convey the richness of a masterful Designer.