Design: The Language of a Generation

From bulletins to Web sites—why the medium sometimes matters as much as the message.

Few things are powerful enough to unite an entire culture. Governments, dictators, business leaders and global influencers of all kinds have spent centuries trying to discover how to bring together organizations, communities and nations; and time and time again, they've found one answer: design.

Early in the life of the church, the Christian community discovered the transforming power of images. From Byzantine paintings and mosaics to the great art of the Middle Ages and Renaissance to the icons of Eastern Orthodoxy, the church presented its message through the narrative storytelling of images.

Under Communism, Lenin exploited the influence of propaganda posters, and it didn't take long for the kings of American business to investigate the images of advertising. For good or bad, since the earliest days of recorded history, the power of design has influenced millions.

From the intense graphic design of videogames, to the pioneering special effects of major motion pictures, to the visual treatment of music videos and commercials, young people today speak the language of design. My daughters could retouch digital photos while in elementary school, and by middle school were accomplished Web designers. Today, we live in a design-driven generation, and if the church is going to make an impact, design is the language we must learn.

In Western culture, content has always been king. From the earliest days of the Hebrew Scriptures, to the spread of Christianity across Western Europe and America, we've been a "word-based" people. William Tyndale's translation of the Bible into English sparked a revolution of literacy in the 16th century, and the greatest missionary efforts of the last few centuries have been the goals of translating and distributing the biblical text to every culture and people group on the planet.

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As a result—and rightly so—content has been far more important than form in our art, writing, media, music and architecture. But today, we live in a design culture, and form has become a critical key to connecting with the public. So although biblical literacy can never be taken for granted, we now face a new challenge: presenting a message of hope to a generation that's more visually sophisticated than any generation in history.

The evidence is everywhere. Check out the unique design features of new computers or the interior design of coffee shops. Cell phones, automobiles, software, movies—all are examples of a design-driven generation. Better design isn't just decoration, it's "connection." Designer Charles Eames said, "Design is a plan for action."

Sure, 16th century Pope Julius II could have painted the Vatican's Sistine Chapel a nice solid color, but he chose to give Michelangelo a little creative challenge. We Christians should have learned something, but today we build churches in metal buildings, design boring Web sites and create tacky book covers and CD jackets. As a producer and media consultant, I've spent decades encouraging clients to realize the power of design for connecting with customers, and recognizing its influence on getting a message heard.

Reconsider your church publications, worship graphics and images, product packaging, television programming, Web sites—anything you create—with a new attitude toward design. Rethinking the design elements of a project isn't merely a "cosmetic" issue—it's a fundamental way of looking at communication that connects with the audience or customer on a very deep and significant basis.


Phil Cooke is a media consultant to ministries and churches worldwide. He publishes a free monthly e-newsletter, Ideas for Real Change. Find out more at philcooke.com.

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