A Guide to Graphic Design
for Worship & Outreach
Thank you for attending my presentation at the 2014 WELS National Conference on Worship, Music, and the Arts. Also, welcome to those who did not attend. This page will serve as an extension to what was discussed and be beneficial to anyone interested in graphic design and how it may be applied in worship and outreach.
Much of what will be written about here concerns the art of visual communication. The very things we produce at a church visually communicate to the churched and unchurched—that ultimately enhance and support the gospel. You do not need to be hip with the latest trends in design in order to impress people. Nor do you have to be creative, that is, reinventing the wheel for the sake of doing so. Graphic design does not come from ideas that are plucked out of thin air, but much of it comes from trying to solve real problems that exist.
Despite what many people will tell you, the lack of graphic design or the use of bad graphic design are not the real problems. The problem is the fact that many people do not know Jesus as their Savior. We taste the bread and wine. We hear the music. We feel the ashes driven into our foreheads or hands. We smell the incense as we pray. We see the cross, stained glass, banners, or artwork. Graphic design is not the solution, but it is used to communicate the gospel to those online, our local communities, and in our sanctuaries.
This is how we approach graphic design, whether we are making flyers for canvasing, logos and branding for church, or online digital media. My hope here is to teach you what design is and its basic principles, while filling you with knowledge on how to support the gospel through the use of good graphic design.
Design is everywhere, but it's rarely seen
Design is hard to define because it's everywhere. It's in the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the room you're sitting in, and the device you're using to read this guide. Defining it too specifically will risk excluding many other disciplines of design (e.g. editorial design, architectural design, automotive design, video game design, etc.). Too generic of a definition and design will lose its meaning: "Design is to make things better for people", "It's solving problems", "Communicating ideas and values are what design is really about". All these are good definitions of design, but design is not limited to any one of these on its own.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines design as "A plan or drawing produced to show the look and function or workings of a building, garment, or other object before it is made". In other words, design is the work of translating an idea into a blueprint for something useful. A designer will often use things like technology, manufacturing, engineering, and sales, for example, to make a concept and turn it into something desirable, successful, and valuable to people.
A common misconception about design is that it’s restricted to how something looks. This is only partially true, and is often added only to the end of the creation of a product—something I have to constantly remind myself of when starting a new project. Design, if done well, is taken for granted by the people viewing or using the thing that is designed. A designer will research, test, and go through a lot of trial and error to get whatever it is they’re making to look effortless. Understanding the basic meaning of design is important for us today as we consider graphic design in our worship and outreach.
Graphic Design is visual communication
Graphic design is visual communication that is intended to convey specific messages to specific social groups. It can be found in several fields, like advertising, editorial work, corporate identities, web design, packaging, etc. Graphic design considers the structure, typefaces, headlines, and illustrations for example, as it attempts to articulate a message. It is of no surprise then that the history of graphic design and the histories of typography and the book are linked very closely.
One of the earliest examples of intentional graphic design is the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels, created around 800 AD (iPad app). Some pre-history art found in caves and parchment could also be graphic design, but we have no way of knowing whether this was truly graphic design or merely art. In the Book of Kells, the elaborate illustrations and symbols serve not only as decoration, but also to communicate to the reader what is described in the text. The page layout was also intentionally planned out. It was designed to serve a purpose. In this case: To enhance the gospels and help guide the priest or whoever read from it.
Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, namely the invention of moveable type and the hand mold, made graphic design easier to produce. By using sturdy, yet malleable metals for type, a typesetter could quickly reproduce individual characters using a hand mold. Wood engravings and other relief print materials were now able to be precisely aligned on a matrix along with typefaces of varying sizes and shapes. The art of visual communication and the ability to quickly reproduce materials became a driving force behind the Lutheran Reformation and the Renaissance. Graphic design's connection to the printing press would remain the same for the next few centuries.
By the late 19th century in Britain, efforts were made to separate the fine arts (it stands on its own merits as a work of art or is useful for intellectual stimulation) and applied arts (applying aesthetics to things that function and are for everyday use). William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement wanted to make a distinction between art that is useful and commonplace versus art that is exclusive and esoteric—a thought that was driven by early Modernists. Daniel Berkeley Updike's Altar Book is an example of this distinction by using old forms and methods to apply art in a useful way. Illustrations and the art of the borders were used to reflect the written word, often in key texts used for festivals.
Today, graphic design is usually assisted with digital tools. Computers gradually replaced analog technical procedures and brought about the democratization of graphic and publishing tools. Microsoft Office and Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, and InDesign made graphic design more accessible to everyone, but also brought about lower quality of design as a result. Professional techniques and layouts were simplified or removed. Many people began to put less value on graphic design that they "could do themselves". Fortunately, as with the democratization of music recording tools and photography, the cream always rises to the top and value is still seen in professional graphic design work.
Even though the production methods have changed and communication channels have been extended, the fundamental concepts of graphic design and how we understand human communication remain the same. No matter what tools you use or what medium you create for, good graphic design adheres to a set of principles that will aid in effectively communicating a message to your audience.
The many principles of Graphic Design
There are several principles that every good designer will follow when implementing different elements (lines, shapes, colors, texture, etc.). Most of these principles find their origin in the Berlin School in the early 20th century. This was the birthplace of Gestalt Psychology that focused on a person's visual perception: How people tend to organize visual elements into a unified whole when certain principles are applied to an image. Designers will often use Kurt Koffka's phrase, "The whole is other than the sum of the parts" as the objective of whatever they're producing. The ultimate goal is to create something more than what the individual elements could otherwise do on their own.
The following principles are by no means comprehensive, but are six of the most common things that a graphic designer will consider when making things like logos, stationery, brochures, digital graphics, and other media.
Creating order and making visual connections. A grid is quite often used by designers when beginning a project. This does not always need to be the case, but creating a framework at the beginning often proves useful as you start applying more principles to a design.
Providing structure and stability. This can be done by using symmetry or the lack thereof to distribute the 'weight' of certain elements. For example, photographers will use the rule of thirds to help create balance in their compositions.
Emphasizing or highlighting key elements. Contrast can be made in color, shape, scale, movement, and space. By juxtaposing these elements, what you are trying to communicate will be brought to the forefront of the piece.
The visual relationship between elements. Elements can be grouped together or separated while still retaining some sort of visual connection.
Tying together individual elements. This gives strength to the composition by creating consistency, association, and organized movement.
The distance around elements. Sometimes called "The Art of Nothing", the use of both positive and negative space is a vital part of any design. This can include the space between lines of text or how much text is included within a document, but also extend to the composition as a whole and how it is presented on the page.
There are others that could be mentioned, but these six basic principles will help guide you in making things as complex as a new church brand with all its various components to the smaller materials like worship folders and flyers.
Utilizing these principles to their full potential does not come overnight, but through prayer, faithful research and much trial and error (in that order). If an architect would use his or her initial concepts to immediately build a real building, it would most certainly crumble and fall. In the same way, a graphic designer who puts their initial drafts into production will often fail in successfully communicating with their audience.
This is not meant to scare away a pastor, secretary, or lay person away from the work they are doing or will do, but to stress the importance of graphic design as a way to communicate to your members and to the unchurched the life-changing message of Christ.
My heart still pounds and hands still shake every time I play piano in church. It's not so much a fear of playing in front of people as it is a realization that God uses my sinful hands and mind to magnify his name and elevate worship. Whether we are supporting the gospel through art, architecture, music, or graphic design, there is a great responsibility to be good stewards of the gifts he has entrusted us with. Thankfully as Christians, everything that we are and do are gifts from God, which means that God never asks from us anything that is not his own. Jesus was always aware of this truth in his use of the gifts and talents God gave him. By making perfect use of everything God gave him throughout his life, Jesus won our salvation and set an example which everyone who know him by faith will want to follow.
Planning a Graphic Design Project
Like for any major project—be it a new organ, stained glass windows, or tiling on the sanctuary floor—you'll want to formulate a plan when considering a new graphic design project. This applies to both small designs (flyers, stationery, web graphics) and large undertakings (logos, branding, banners). To be honest, good graphic design is typically not cheap and can take quite a bit of time. You'll want to consider things like your church's budget, timeframe in which you'd want the project completed, who will be the designer, and the leader or committee operating the project.
A budget can make or break a graphic design project, much as it would in any other substantial addition to your church. If you choose to use a professional graphic designer, it's wise to have money already set aside. It's also beneficial for the designer to know what this amount is, so that they can fully understand what can and cannot be done within the confines of the budget. This helps set clear expectations for both parties.
You can expect a logo to be $1200-5000 when done professionally by a freelance designer or small studio. Branding can be from $2000-8000 that includes the logo, stationery, and other supporting materials. Websites can be $3000-10,000, depending on what you want to have done and how elaborate it is. Other print materials can cost $250-1500. This would include stationery, t-shirts, posters, outdoor banners, and brochures.
Factor in your estimated printing costs as well. You wouldn't want to use up all your budget on design only to have a few dollars left for printing the materials. Local printers can give you quotes and online print companies can give you a pretty accurate dollar amount for what you wish to print.
Set strict goals for the completion of logos, websites, and print materials. Sometimes you'll want the design finished for a church anniversary, the new school year, or another major event. For large projects, 6-12 months out is a good start date. Smaller projects could start a few months before its planned completion. Keep in mind that designers schedules vary and that they often work on several projects at once, so plan accordingly.
Deadlines are also good for large projects in order to keep it on track. This helps the designer plan the execution of a project and can provide the church council or committee with positive anticipation for the new designs.
Decide whether or not to hire someone to do the design for you. Hiring a professional designer is always the best route to go when considering graphic design projects. Not only do they have the knowledge and expertise, but from a church's perspective, it's useful to have a professional to contact that you've worked with before when a new project is in the works. Yes, it is more expensive than say, using a salaried worker at church or using one of those cookie-cutter graphic design companies on the internet, but the end result will be worth every penny.
If you have a graphic designer in your congregation, use their gifts to serve your congregation. It's truly a blessing to have someone in the graphic design profession in your church, even if they do it part-time. If they are willing to do the work pro bono, make sure to pay them for their work (pro bono graphic design for non-profits and charities is not tax-deductible in the U.S.). It doesn't have to be a substantial sum of money, but it certainly goes a long way in showing the church's appreciation for their work, and the time, money, and education it takes to achieve it (the same can be said of musicians).
Stay away from websites that offer to make logos and print materials for dirt cheap (a couple hundred dollars). They are quite often reused or copied (stolen) designs and the results are frequently sub-par. This means that you will not be receiving something that is unique for your church. The same can be said for crowd-sourced, winner-takes-all logos. Not only will the quality be the same, but it devalues the profession of graphic design and is borderline unethical. Much of this would be the fault of the person who agrees to it. However, the church should not encourage the practice of using these "designers" to get a cheap design.
If you are hiring someone or using someone from the church, it's important that you set clear expectations and remain very transparent with what you want to accomplish. Here is a list of things to consider with any designer:
- Do they have experience with churches? This can be significant factor in deciding which designer to hire. Look at their portfolio. Ask them questions. There are far too many church logos out there that were obviously made by designers who predominantly work with corporations and have no knowledge of Christian symbolism and churches. Not only is this important with how a design is made, a designer with this experience will know how a church operates and can ease the overall process.
- What is their design process like? Are they simply going to sketch out designs or create drafts before presenting them to the committee? Or are they going to take the time to research your church, pour over census and demographic data, and ask you multiple questions about your congregation, its mission, and church life? Research can span half the timeframe of a project or more. Will they be doing what is expected of them?
- Are they a good communicator? Chances are if they are a bad communicator, they won't be good at graphic design (i.e. visual communication). Those first phone calls or emails can usually set you on the right path. A good graphic designer needs to know how to communicate well with their clients, as well as communicate your content through graphic design. It's not so much about good verbal skills—although, that's a plus. A good communicator will be transparent with their client and also keep in steady contact throughout the entire process, especially around project deadlines.
Assign a liaison to bring questions to the designer and relay their comments to the committee if necessary during the project. This person could be a pastor, committee member, or councilman. This will ensure that communication is focused and the graphic designer will not be bombarded with emails and phone calls that may potentially have conflicting messages. A conference call may be scheduled at the very beginning for a Q & A session, but limit the communication channel to just one person afterwards.
A good leader will make sure to keep in contact with the designer during the entire process. Communication goes both ways. When you have a designer and project leader who can communicate well, then you are setting yourself up for a smooth and painless process.
A large portion of the conference presentation focused on worship folders and some of the best practices when designing them. You can read more about this on pages 6-12 in the handout and Pastor Jon Hein's articles on the subject.
It became apparent very early on as I was drafting my presentation that I could not give you a shortcut to good graphic design when applied to different media. There's simply no way to cover everything that could be talked about with graphic design and the church here in this guide. Not only that, but graphic design is very hard to teach since it is centered on the actual content that you are trying to produce. A church that has a well-designed brochure or logo cannot be copied over to another church. Graphic design will be unique to your church, school, or institution.
I hope you find this guide useful for you and you ministry as you use graphic design to enhance and support the gospel.