“New year, new me”; the tiresome chatter that babbles about us like a mantra around this time of year is gently abating, as the more functional trainers are stashed and the quinoa is surreptitiously pushed to the back of the cupboard. Tiresome podcasts about ketosis—or neatly packaged, 21st century mindfulness-for-millennials, or how best to keep a minimal house and a minimal mind—languish, quietly updating, never to be listened to. Increasingly, it seems, this relentless and often January-specific drive for that elusive better self doesn’t just tackle our love handles and love lives, but a more metaphysical challenge. Spirituality is becoming less of a thing we think of as “for other people,” and more of a broadly-defined part of a person’s lifestyle, no matter your take on it or faith background.
27% of Americans now consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.”
What does this mean for its design, though? And, without sounding too much like a squeamish curmudgeon, how can we align modern ideas of “branding”—something whose natural home is firmly in the world of corporate communications—and ancient, sacred ideas around belief systems?
According to research from the Pew Center, 27% of Americans now consider themselves “spiritual but not religious,” while NCCIH figures show that 18 million Americans (8% of the population) meditate via their iPhones, while another 36.7 million (16.2%) practice yoga. In 2018, this means visuals around these are no longer just muted browns, sunsets, and script-y serifs; they’re fast becoming modern brand-aware graphic powerhouses.
Recent years have seen a raft of thoughtful, interesting design work being created for places of worship across all faiths. But should the designers behind them share the faith of the client they happen to be working with? Is there really too much difference between designing for religion and designing for business?
In a statement that may make some squirm, international branding agency Base Design pronounces that “spirituality is in the midst of a renaissance,” as it launches its new identity for The Kabbalah Centre, “the world’s leading school for the 5,000 year old Kabbalist wisdom.” The studio was brought in by the organization to develop a new visual identity system that “demystifies spirituality and celebrates a world where it is an essential part of life.” Base managing director and creative director Min Lew says that the agency looked at ancient Kabbalah wisdom and used the Sefirot, the visual symbol that communicates the ten emanations, to create the designs, using it as the foundation of an “endless grid that connects dots to reveal the answers to people’s quests.”
“Our usual interactions with spiritually focused imagery are the aforementioned wishy-washy Google image yoga fodder; those “YOU’RE GOING TO HELL BUT WE’LL SAVE YOU” flyers; or the famously hateful all-caps against fluorescent colors of the Westboro Baptist Church placards.”
“The spiritual geometry became a visual language that could be used at a micro or macro scale, complete or fragmented, to contain a single piece of information or image,” Lew says. The agency also created a customized classic serif typeface, OHR, “with a modern twist.” Its designs are used across an outdoor print campaign “encouraging passers-by to find their more—be that more love, more happiness, more calm, or beyond.”
The work certainty confounds preconceived ideas around what any form of spirituality “looks like,” perhaps especially to agnostic eyes. Our usual interactions with spiritually focused imagery are the aforementioned wishy-washy Google image yoga fodder; those “YOU’RE GOING TO HELL BUT WE’LL SAVE YOU” flyers doled out by generally lovely people around the streets of east and south-east London; or perhaps the famously hateful bold all-caps against fluorescent colors of the Westboro Baptist Church placards.
Back in 2013, Norwich, England studio Maddison Graphic embarked on a project to design materials for The Methodist Church, the third largest denomination of Christians in the UK, including booklets The Fruitful Field and A Handbook for New Superintendents: Circuit Processes. The studio’s founders, brothers Alfie and Edward Maddison, are not religious themselves, but had “a fairly religious upbringing,” says Alfie. “I was a chorister at Ely Cathedral, and a lot of the work our parents have done is to do with religion”—their mother is an architect who’s worked on a lot of church restoration projects, while their father is an artist, who originally trained as an art historian specializing in Medieval church architecture. “Some of our early jobs came via our mother’s company and so there were some church-based jobs, and I suppose that might be what attracted The Methodist Church to us,” says Alfie.
“Our client gave us a good brief and we got on well with him, and he was working for the head offices of the church, so in many ways it didn’t feel that different to working with any other large organization.”
Yet while the client the studio was dealing with directly was helpful, open, and very keen to see the slightly stuffy former image of the church make way for something more fresh and bold; wider rumblings in the church hint at an undercurrent running through many projects with smaller clients unused to working with agencies—a smidgen of mistrust at the world of design, perhaps a belief that graphic design is about paying someone to make things “look pretty.” Of the three main projects it worked on for the church, for the third it was asked to gently tone down the design, making it more sober and less colorful, and importantly, less ‘expensive’-looking. “Even though it wasn’t necessarily expensive, I suppose they might have felt it looked like it cost a lot of money,” says Alfie.
While the Maddison Graphic brothers are open about being non-religious, Bobby Burrage, founder of fellow Norwich-based agency The Click, directly attributes his own faith to engendering a self-initiated project for St George’s Church, a collaborative book of letterforms entitled An A to Z of St George’s. In fact, he was attending a service at the church when the idea for the book struck him. “I was standing in the queue to take communion, staring at the floor—obviously it’s a very quiet moment,” he says. “In this church there are tombstones all around between the pews, and at the center of the church you’ve got all these amazing hand carved letterforms from hundreds of years ago.”
The lower case ‘g,’ in particular, has a great swirl and form to it. Burrage decided to build an alphabet from the letterforms and make a book around it. All profits from book sales go toward the preservation and upkeep of the building.
A far larger-scale spiritual project undertaken by The Click, but a no less charming one, was its branding for Norwich Cathedral, the vast building that forms an omnipresent beacon in the city’s horizon. It’s not only a building that looms large in its physical size, but in its renown, both locally and nationally. It must’ve been something of a daunting project, and one that was won in a competitive tender against a bunch of other, some much larger, agencies. The connections between such a revered, ancient, and spiritually rich building and modern day ideas around rebrands are interesting ones; but it’s important to remember that such organizations encounter exactly the same design or brand issues as any other client.
“We feel that this is going to be around for some time: there won’t be a need for them to create a new identity for some time in the future, as they’re not in a commercial world.”
“They had three different logos and a website, which was not so much a logo but a name across the top,” Burrage says of the Norwich Cathedral project. “They needed a cohesive look and feel to unify it all.” The Click created a core mark from the ‘w,’ stretching up the center of the letterform to make a spire. It also created an awareness campaign with a series of posters promoting lesser-known aspects of the church, like the herb garden and restaurant.
For Burrage, the project felt like both a dream job and a huge responsibility to “get it right”: on the face of it, the process was just the same as any other, but he felt the weight of the potential longevity of his designs. “We feel that this is going to be around for some time: there won’t be a need for them to create a new identity for some time in the future, as they’re not in a commercial world,” he says. “There felt like a real opportunity to create something that’ll go down in its history… You can see the cathedral from everywhere in the city, so it was bit of a hero project and we just wanted to get it right.”
So how did his own faith inform the project, both in its delivery, and winning it in the first place? “I don’t think there’s an argument that it’s crucial to have to have a faith to work on that sort of project,” he says. “Some of my team weren’t religious and I don’t think that compromises the project…. The fact that I have a faith maybe did play a part in use being awarded the project, but it’s hard to say if it’s crucial in delivering the work. An atheist could definitely think of using a spire as a ‘w’!”
The London Buddhist centre takes a rather different approach to its design output. Sited in east London’s Bethnal Green, the center is both a very local one, nestling snugly into the slightly ragged surrounds, but is also a proudly international one, acting as the leading Buddhist site in the English capital. For the center’s staff, it’s important that everything they create—be that physical posters and flyers or Facebook banners, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram communications–are made in alignment with Buddhist beliefs and values. As such, for now, everything is taken in house, with Singhamanas Singhamanas, nominally the PR and comms guy, taking care of the design work. He is largely self-taught, undertaking some training on the job.
“Sometimes Buddhism has a fairly effeminate, calm, relaxed, passive sort of presentation—we try and counter it and keep it to more of a bold aesthetic while relating to our integrity.”
“What’s important is that we have to tread a line between trying to be present in the mix that is busy London, with its attention-grabbing culture, and also have some integrity—or as much as we can muster—in those situations,” says Singhamanas. “We’re talking about publicity rather than advertising, as we’re not exactly selling something. We’re a charity, so we’re trying to share something.”
Aesthetically, Singhamanas is keen to challenge preconceived ideas about what Buddhism means and looks like—those rather tiresome sunsets, coastal prayer poses, and so on.
“Sometimes Buddhism has a fairly effeminate, calm, relaxed, passive sort of presentation in a modern cultural climate—we’re inundated with images of white linen, beaches, pebbles, and flowers,” he says. “That’s not how most people’s lives are, so we try and counter it and keep it to more of a bold aesthetic while relating to our integrity. Sometimes they’re slightly surprising; a bit edgy or more gritty, or, dare I say it, slightly more masculine in the graphic choices, with strong bold type, black and grey, quite a lot of core shapes like circles, or cosmic images like fire or skulls.”
True North, an agency in Manchester, England, recently created a campaign and series of designs for the Church of England’s Manchester Diocese; and according to non-religious True North creative director Ady Bibby, the work was partly informed by how his wife’s religion, Jehovah’s Witnesses, operates through directly engaging with people, as opposed to using the church as a “beacon” they’re expected to flock to.
The campaign materials use illustrations by Michael Lester and conversational copy that aims to open a dialogue with potential church-goers. “We were brought in as brand experts to support and consolidate that,” says Bibby. “I went to Sunday school—mostly because they had a fantastic five-a-side football team—but I’m not religious now, and I don’t think it matters [for projects like this], although there have to be precautions, as it’s very sensitive and emotive subject matter.”
Michael Lugmayr, creative director of Design by Toko, which created a new visual identity for Vine Church, agrees, saying that it’s “not so important” whether or not you have a faith when working with spiritual organizations. “This was a job like any other,” he says. “Our approach was the same: we research, conceptualize, and create. We prefer to work pragmatically, clear of preconceived expectations and cliches.”
“Religious symbols, like the cross, are often more recognizable than any logo.”
So how can designers sensitively, yet creativity bridge the gap between the worlds of commercially minded branding, and spirituality? Jessica Schrader of New York-based cvedesign recently created a new identity for The Riverside Church, an interdenominational church which “does not tie itself to a single religion, so our design solution couldn’t either,” she says. For her, the worlds of commercial branding and spirituality “parallel each other.”
She adds: “Organized religion has shaped virtually every aspect of human behavior for thousands of years. Religions offer a community to belong to, values to believe in, and symbols/rituals to follow. So do companies like Apple, Starbucks, and Coca Cola. Religious symbols, like the cross, are often more recognizable than any logo.”