Every job has its challenges.

For those in the creative realm, sometimes the hardest part isn’t actually creating something. It’s trying to figure out what someone else wants you to create. If you do design for a church, you already know the drill. The pastor has an amazing and powerful idea for a sermon series, which will bring countless souls to faith… It’s brilliant beyond your wildest dreams. And while you?re excited to be part of this idea, you somehow manage to snap out of your euphoria and naively ask: “So, what kind of look are you thinking?” Blank stares greet your sacrilegious shattering of this sacrosanct silence, followed by the dreaded yet not unexpected response: “I don’t know. Go ahead and mock-up some concepts and I’ll let you know.”?Three (or four, or five) concepts later, you find out the pastor doesn’t know what he wants. He just knows he doesn’t want that. (Or that, or that, or that.) The rest is probably all too familiar. ?How do you get past this painful situation and find out what your pastor really wants?

Building Bridges

Communication is messy, no matter what context it?s in.[quote]Communication is messy, no matter what context it?s in.[/quote] We can?t define a word except by another word, and the context in which we understand those things is not always shared. A designer thinks in certain ways while pastors think in other, unrelated ways. There are no automatic bridges between the two, but you can start by finding areas of commonality. This might be having the other person show you examples of what they mean. Does he want something ?edgy?? Ask for an example of what he thinks is ?edgy?. (Hint: it probably won?t be edgy.) Ask them specifically what they like about certain designs. Is it the color? The shapes? The composition? If you have a long-standing relationship, you will begin to learn their language. This will make future communication much easier and less frustrating for both of you.

Laying Foundations

It?s always a good idea to get as much information about a project as you can. But sometimes you might find yourself overloaded with too much information. People who aren?t used to design aren?t thinking of how to contain something like a sermon series into a single, unified concept. Instead, they are thinking about the details and want to cram as much into it as they can.

Your job is to help your pastor break everything down into a single idea.[quote]Your job is to help your pastor break everything down into a single idea.[/quote] Ask him to forget about the scope of the project and condense it down into one image, one sentence, maybe even one or two words. Leave out tag lines and sermon titles for now, and just start with something very simple.

You could also ask endgame questions: What one idea do you want people to remember? At the beginning, it?s important not to get bogged down in the look and feel. The closer you can get to a core idea the easier the design process will be. There?s a great example in the Gospels with Jesus’ parables. Each of them (even the longer ones) can be condensed into one fundamental idea: yeast, light, pearl, etc. This concept is deceptively simple. But it actually contains the whole of the parable within itself, which is why the parables are so memorable and profound.

Weaving the Cloth

Once you can get to the heart of a concept, it’s time to start fleshing it out. Help your pastor think of this as the threads of a cloth: they hold it together and complete it, but are not themselves the whole. They need to come out of the main idea and always weave between it and everything else that makes up the tapestry. This might be where you start connecting sermon titles to the main idea or developing the overarching design. Refine ideas to the simplest form possible.[quote]Refine ideas to the simplest form possible.[/quote] Imagine you?re reading a billboard on a freeway and have two seconds to say something memorable.

The parables, once again, give a great example. For example, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a hidden treasure. From that central notion there are a lot of directions to go, but Jesus talks about giving up everything to obtain the treasure. This isn?t something that stands alone but is directly linked to the treasure itself. Jesus creates an instantly memorable ethic that is expansive, but not exhaustive.

Icing the Cake

There?s a cupcake place right down the road from where I live that has amazing cupcakes. The cake itself is delicious, but the frosting is amazing. Unfortunately, it?s also the same size as the cupcake. The sheer richness of the frosting means I hardly even taste the cake, and I give up less than halfway through.

Many of our designs are lopsided. The actual style of a design should be the icing, but too often we inordinately put too much on it.[quote]Many of our designs are lopsided. The actual style of a design should be the icing, but too often we inordinately put too much on it.[/quote] Like a cupcake with too much frosting, it can distract you from the whole by simply being too much. You might have the skill to develop a design style that can be retrofitted to a concept, but your first job as a designer is to ensure the aesthetics don?t overwhelm the message. They are meant to complement it.

In this part of the process, help your pastor understand the value of simplicity. Throughout the whole design you should be asking for more by asking for less, bringing ideas and concepts down to the barest level you can. You could ask: whom are you wanting to reach? What age group should this appeal to? What?s the first thing you want someone to think when he or she see this?

The design is the first impression of the message, so make sure it says what you want.[quote]The design is the first impression of the message, so make sure it says what you want.[/quote]

Stick With It

Every situation is different, and it usually takes time to develop the trust and respect that makes this kind of communication effective. You may not be able to change your pastor, but you can change yourself. Demonstrate a deep level of thought and intention in your design process and, at the very least, you will find yourself approaching projects in an entirely new way.

And maybe, someday, you’ll actually figure out what your pastor wants.

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