Subtlety and simplicity are wonderful things. Or so I’ve heard. I don’t really use either of them. As a designer, I get paid to “make it pop”. I don’t always understand what that means, so to compensate for my ignorance, I pummel your senses with color and light and texture and drop shadows. This is the landscape I walk through every day. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that a lot of churches get pretty comfortable in this landscape. There’s a huge pull to make the next design bigger and better. Make the text shinier. The textures texture-ier. And by all means, if it looks good in 2D, imagine the number of jaws that will drop when they see it in 3D!
As church artists, we should be inviting people into the bigger story through what we create. Our designs should provide an entry point. A glimpse into the narrative. A foretaste. We don’t need to tell the whole story on our own. We need to whet appetites with simplicity.
Maintaining artistic simplicity in design isn’t laziness. It’s not just throwing a phrase of text onto a stock image and calling it quits. It’s not a lack of talent. In fact, maintaining artistic simplicity is an acquired talent. It’s one that fights our natural instincts. And one, when done well, that will take more time and more effort than throwing every special effect we know onto a design.
Simplicity requires us to subtract the obvious and add the meaningful. It requires us to be intentional in our designs – from brainstorming to the final product. It might mean cutting something that looks cool, but doesn’t add to the overall design.
So how do you get from blank slate to simplicity?
Ask the right questions.
Too many times I’ve sat with a ministry and asked them what they want a piece to look like, only to be told they don’t have an idea, or to do whatever I want. So I did what I wanted. I stupidly went back to my desk thinking I had enough info to work with. And when I proudly showed them what I had created, I was told, “This is nice, but what we really wanted was…” Really? You couldn’t have told me this at an earlier meeting? Smack your palm to your face. Hit your head against a wall. Go to Starbucks and get a latte instead of going to prison for killing a pastor. Or ask the right questions from the start.
I’m slowly learning to ask better questions – questions that not only simplify the process, but simplify the design as well. Questions that will funnel many ideas down to the essentials. It forces the ministry to think things through. To clarify their vision.
We just wrapped up a design for a series tentatively called, “Second Chances.” At our brainstorming meeting, here’s some of the questions we asked.
- What’s the most important takeaway for this entire series?
- How do you want people to feel during this series? What’s the overall mood?
- Can you show me anything that will help me translate this feeling or mood? (movie, photo, song, video, website, etc)
- Are there any non-negotiables? (title, size, color, element, logo)
As the pastor answered each question, I wrote down a few words. I knew the biggest takeaway is that no matter what your past, redemption is available to everyone. He wanted to create a mood that invited you to break free from your past. That’s not a lighthearted emotion. It’s powerful and passionate. The act of baptism was mentioned. The movie Shawshank Redemption kept coming up in our discussions – the iconic poster everyone remembered. The simplicity but raw emotion it conjured up. So, just having some words, phrases, and images went a long way in helping us hone in on the direction to go.
Once you’ve asked the questions, don’t use everything.
Don’t feel pressured to reference every example they’ve given you. Just because they like the graphical style of Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch”, the Ke$ha song “Animal”, and the movie “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo” doesn’t mean you need to blend those together for a Financial series. Be selective.
For our series, we started by changing the title from its working title. Because of the movie Shawshank Redemption, and the fact that “Second Chances” wasn’t a non-negotiable, we decided to go with “Redemption” for the title. Of all the graphical references we looked at and talked about, we kept coming back to the imagery of baptism. So we staged a photo shoot where we took close to 300 photos of someone exploding out of water. Arms out. Arms in. Head back. Head down. Lots of splash. Little splash. We tried every variable we could think of.
We took those 300 and narrowed it down to one we would build from. We color corrected it. Photoshopped out the light boxes. Added the title. Added water splashes over and on the title. Then we sat back and looked at it. Honestly looked at it. Was there too much there? As much as everyone “liked” what we did, it wasn’t working. The colors were dramatic. The passion and intensity were definitely there. But the font was too complex and unreadable. Sure, it was a cool font. All the hipsters like Tommaso. But what’s better than a cool font? A font that complements, not distracts.
I really like what Colin Harman wrote back in the first issue of this magazine. He said, “It’s easy for us to open an application like Photoshop, see the possibilities, and want to use it all…But if it’s done incorrectly, inaccurately, or inconsistently it runs the risk of being an unforgivable distraction. It just becomes extra.”
And that becomes our final step. The third thing.
Remove everything that isn’t necessary.
The fancy, hip, current font was just that. Hip, current and fancy. But we needed simple. We needed the image to be the driving force. Anything that took away from that needed to go. So we replaced it with a simpler font. We reduced the number of splashes and water spray we had going around, over, and through the text by 50%. Then we took another look at it.
We might not win any awards for “Graphic of the Year,” but we can say we did everything we could to keep simplicity. We asked the right questions so we knew where to dream and think big, but also where to rein it in and keep the main thing the main thing. We didn’t try to use every idea or incorporate every style. When we did that, we breached simplicity and confused the viewer. Finally, we went back and removed everything that didn’t add to the overall piece. Just because we can do it in Photoshop doesn’t mean we needed to.
So I throw down the challenge to you. Ask the right questions. Come up with some questions that will meet your audience where they are. Don’t feel the pressure to include everything. Simplify wherever possible. And finally, step back, take an honest look, and remove those things that aren’t necessary. Don’t become so attached that it becomes a personal affront to remove something. Simplicity and subtlety are a good thing. Or so I’ve heard.