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Swiss Font, Swiss Church

November 28, 2013 — 1 Comment

Laying on HandsImagine flipping through the cable channels, and stopping when you see an unbelievably gaudy television set with hundreds of people in the audience. The host has platinum hair and an atrocious double-breasted suit. His wife (because there is always a wife) is dolled up with pounds of makeup on her face, and–if you’re lucky–you catch the program when she’s crying “for joy of the Lord” and that mascara is streaming down her cheeks.

Imagine that you see a man asking for hundreds, thousands, millions of dollars to do his work in the name of Jesus. To prove his calling he heals the blind and the lame, often through dramatic and theatrical histrionics, including knocking people over as they are overcome by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Until I was in my early twenties, this was my world. I grew up in a religious tradition I call “Charismatic Fundegelicalism.” To be Fundegelical was to be overtly expressive and emotional. Your passion for Jesus must be readily apparent. You must be “radical” and “on fire.” Any “lacking in zeal” was cause for being reprimanded or, worse, shunned. It was the height of tautological religion in that it attempted to prove its worth simply by its very existence.

I am an introverted man, and quickly grew weary of this form of faith. I needed something more stable, something less ostentatious. What I found was the Presbyterian Church and the Swiss Reformed Tradition of John Calvin. I found clear thinking and consistent boundaries. I found logic and balance. I found a form of faith that provided me with a framework within which to explore and suggest. I was no longer required to give myself wholly over to the extravagant trappings of a spirituality bent on making me “feel” above all else. I was encouraged to consider the content of my faith as almost more important than the expression of it.

Is it any wonder that I have developed a deep and abiding love for Helvetica typeface?

HelveticaDesigners are mixed on the use of Helvetica. Helvetica (properly, “The Swiss Font”) was a revelation when it appeared in 1957. Born of a time when most typefaces were ornate scripts that had become muddled and lacked any kind of consistency, Helvetica signaled a modern era in design. Designers used Helvetica to ensure the clarity of their text, for it had no intrinsic meaning in its form. Companies from American Airlines to Apple adopted it as their go-to for text. New York City’s transit authority rendered all city signage in Helvetica, and every tax form you fill out uses the font.

To lovers of the typeface, Helvetica is a healing balm, for it takes the confusion out of communicating. Typographer Wim Crouwel:

“The meaning is in the content of the text and not in the typeface, and that is why we loved Helvetica very much.”

Others disagree. “Grunge typographer” David Carson:

“Don’t confuse legibility with communication. Just because something is legible doesn’t mean it communicates and, more importantly, doesn’t mean it communicates the right thing.”

So I find that I’m left with this choice in my design life as in my religious life: How do I want to express what my convictions are? What is the “proper” form with which to share things I believe are exciting and worthwhile (typographically), to express the profound experience of God that I have had (religiously)?

For me, it always comes back to the Swiss Font and the Swiss Church. I am most comfortable with the Swiss way. I dislike clutter and chaos. I love order and balance. I crave the parameters that both Helvetica and the Reformed Tradition place on me. I revel in the extra inspiration I am forced to mine in myself that would allow me transcend the staid form I have chosen to work with and in.

My choice of typeface and religious tradition require the same thing that the structure of a haiku requires of a Japanese poet: to accept the form and transcend it, creating beauty in the process.

Landon Whitsitt is writer, speaker, theologian, and artist. He is the author of Open Source Church: Making Room For the Wisdom of All and Theology is Art. He considers himself to be “Midwestern But Not Religious.”
Photo public domain.
Image by GearedBull Jim Hood / CC BY-SA.


Where’s the design?

September 30, 2013 — Leave a comment


But this doesn’t look pretty.

Yeah, Theology x Design is pretty minimalistic at this point. And that’s actually by design.

You see, putting something new out in the world is scary–but I’m trying to embrace is the idea of working in public. Of externalizing everything and refining and improving it through critique and feedback and community participation.

I actually don’t want to publish a complete website with flashy graphics and a clever logo. Someday, I plan for this space to be more polished, but I want to get there through making things. Through working collaboratively with a broader Theology x Design community to develop logos and graphics and messaging and tone. By posting ideas and engaging with readers and theologians and designers around philosophical and practical concepts.

So where do you want to see this project go? What questions should we start working through, together?

Design evangelist

June 21, 2013 — Leave a comment

soapbox image

When I applied to study Interaction Design and Social Entrepreneurship at the Austin Center for Design (AC4D), part of the application included writing a “statement of purpose” outlining why I wanted to go to AC4D and what I hoped to learn from the program. As we start this blog, I wanted to share a few choice snippets from my essay:

I have a mission. I believe in the power of design. I believe that faith-based and non-profit organizations have an important role in serving people and doing good in the world. And my call is to help these organizations embrace the tools of design and design thinking to have a greater impact at addressing the big problems we face in our society today.

When I talk about design, I’m talking about a process that builds empathy. That synthesizes observations and qualitative research data into insights and design ideas. That thinks about interactions between people and systems–and seeks to humanize technology. That includes people in the design process instead of creating something for them. That favors hard, messy, frustrating, iterative work over propagating the myth of “magical” or “genius” design. That addresses problems worth solving.

I’m inspired by Roberto Verganti’s use of the word designare: “The etymology of the word design goes back to the Latin ‘designare’ which means to designate, to give meaning to things…Design is not about styling. It’s not about technology. It’s about radical change in meaning. These are things that people were not asking for, but when they saw them, they fell in love.”

And when I think about this definition of design, I can’t help but think theologically. The stories we talk about in faith communities are stories about meaning. They are invitations and offer frameworks and scaffolds for people to make meaning in their own lives. I think design does that as well–and in ways that the church could learn from.

Which brings me back to my AC4D statement of purpose.

I’ve become an evangelist for design thinking because even with good intentions, motivation and execution are difficult. However, design shifts the focus from me to us. From individuals to collaboration. From consumption to participation. From problems to opportunities.

I wrote these words over a year ago. And after 32 of the most challenging weeks in my entire educational career (plus a couple months back at sparkhouse, pushing our design processes), I’m happy to say that many of these words I wrote over a year ago still hold true.

And I’m more convinced than ever of the importance of working in public. Of creating something, getting feedback, iterating, and growing. Which brings me to this space. If I want to be an evangelist for design, it’s time to “put up or shut up.” And I’m not a very quiet person.

So with that, welcome to Theology x Design.