Tuesday, June 23, 2009

What does compassionate graphic design look like?

Bobby C. Martin Jr. at Gel 2008 from Gel Conference on Vimeo(15 min.)

Culture? was the theme of the Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) 2009 Biennial Conference held last week at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota and where I presented a paper titled, Creational Graphic Design. After the presentation, conference attendee, Kristin Myers Harvey told me about a great example of graphic design used in the service of positive cultural change and influence. This example was brought about through the auspices of the Abyssinian Baptist Church (ABC) of Harlem, New York and supported by a grant from the Sappi paper company. In 2003, as a graphic design student, Bobby C. Martin Jr. won a Sappi Grant for his M.F.A. thesis project, which was the compelling outdoor billboard campaign in Harlem called The Word on the Street. The Sappi, ideas that matter, website states: “ABC has a long tradition of community advocacy and empowerment. An important part of its mission is to create a viable, dynamic and positive society in the troubled neighborhoods of Central Harlem.”

Applications for the Sappi ideas that matter 2009, call for entry, are due in mid July. Do any of you have ideas for a proposal that we could submit as a Dordt College design student group? Please let us know.

Here’s an excerpt from the conference paper (I always encourage responses):

In the early 1980s, I became interested in Calvin Seerveld’s understanding of Christian culturing to support my art, design, and teaching philosophy. What I appreciate about Seerveld’s philosophical insights is that he leaves room for art and design to reflect back on itself. He allows the elements and media of art to be meaningful and celebratory. In this way, art and design do not have to serve only an aesthetic philosophy but one can benefit and delight in the artifact itself. Seerveld suggests that art is God’s gift to humans and can help us look at all facets of life—beautiful and ugly. Particularly helpful from a design standpoint is Seerveld’s assertion that “artistry is a subtle quality which permeates the whole object or event with an engaging metaphorical coagulation of nuances. An artwork is designed to be a loosely symbolific gift of oblique knowledge.” In addition, some of my views about graphic design, are based on Seerveld’s essay 'Modern Art and the Birth of Culture' as found in his book Rainbows for the Fallen World (1980). In the essay, Seerveld describes Christian culture as “the lordship of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Bible leads the way and marks the act or product with the holy spirit of compassionate judgment.”

Seerveld becomes more incisive when he gives these examples:
“We have got to realize more vividly that truly Christian conversation (= conversation marked by compassionate judgment honoring Jesus Christ’s Rule in its phrasings and very inflection) deepens interpersonal relationships with excitement and joy, while secularized talk brings coldness, numbness, and squalor (cf. Psalm 1, Proverbs 15:1-4). Christian journalism (= reportage in word and picture, marked by compassionate judgment honoring Jesus Christ’s Rule in its very communicating) would spill an incredible blessing of truth on top of all the posturing lies found in (godless) secular “factuality” (cf. Matthew 5:21-30). (Pgs. 182-83).

These examples are actually very close to what I would say about graphic design, but I’d like to restate it this way: Christian graphic design (= constructions in images and words marked by the holy spirit of compassionate judgment proclaiming Jesus Christ’s rule in its very communicating) would craft compelling messages about what is meaningful and true. While graphic design can be a construction, the statement above suggests that graphic design should not be thought of completely as a human construction. Jeremy Begbie, in challenging current music theory, says what I also think is relevant in graphic design: “…the unquestioned assumption of much music theory today: that music should be understood entirely as a human construction, disallowing any attempt to see it as also grounded in realities that humans do not construct. A Christian vision of creation holds together both our embeddedness in the physical world and our shaping of that world.”


  1. hey you have got a nice and well made blog. i really liked your work and feel that you have done a great job. I agree with these efforts and look forward to more such movements.

  2. ar,
    thank you for noticing and leaving a note.



Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the editor has approved them.