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Features / Graphic Design

Design studio Maddison Graphic discuss the trials and tribulations of working with The Methodist Church

First published in Printed Pages Autumn 2014

Words by

James Cartwright

Maddison Graphic know churches. “Our mum’s a conservation architect so we spent a lot of time in them when we were kids – touring round the country looking at tombs and that sort of thing – so I suppose our path was set from then in that respect.” These childhood experiences have had a lasting impact on the way Edward and Alfie Maddison work. The two brothers run their own design studio in Norwich, England, predominantly producing projects for small clients and local businesses. Unusually for a design agency they also work regularly with religious organisations, creating altar pieces, ornate windows and publications for cathedrals and churches in their local area.

Their professional relationship with religion came about early on in their careers while they both worked with their mother’s architectural practice in London. Though both Maddisons are atheists, their father, an artist with a specific interest in religious buildings, would receive requests for commissions in churches and chapels, and whatever he lacked the time or interest for would pass on to his sons.

Edward was always acutely aware that he didn’t want to be part of a large agency, and so started to freelance immediately after he’d graduated from university. His initial endeavours were unsuccessful, but when Alfie grew tired of his marketing job in London, the pair began working together and entertained the idea of running their own studio. “It made more sense if there were two of us,” says Alfie. “So we went back to live at home – our parents were really pleased by that – and basically just set up in the attic.”

Three years ago they made the move to Norwich and set up studio on their own, outside of the confines of their parental home. One of their earliest commissions came from the Methodist Church, and became the most defining in their careers to date – though mostly for negative reasons.

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Sion Rhys Evans was a recent employee of the church, and commissioned Edward and Alfie to work with him on a large print project. “One of the first things that was on my desk when I started working for the Methodist Church was this rather awkward project about appraisal called The Ministerial Development Review,” he says. “It was a performance management-type tool for Methodist ministers; something that enabled them to be assessed and set goals and to consider what kinds of support they might need to meet those goals. Even though this kind of tool is pretty normal in the secular world, within the context of the church it’s almost unheard of.”

Introducing secular structures into a religious organisation caused friction among the ministers and lay-people from the start. Many feared it undermined their values and placed emphasis on performance in a way that was contrary to the church’s purpose. Others were simply too set in their ways and vocally reluctant to change. “It was a bit of a poisoned chalice from the start,” says Sion. So Edward and Alfie were brought on board to soften the blow.

“Obviously most people in the church aren’t interested in management structure,” says Edward, “and to them the project felt like a threat. So our brief was to make a document that would look gentle, not aggressive and not too formal. We were always going to lose I think, but we didn’t know this at the time.”

The first problems arose as soon as the pair were commissioned. Eyebrows were raised internally about the employment of outsiders, people who weren’t involved in church life. The Methodists in fact have an in-house design team working on all of their visual output, but Sion believed their work to be unsuitable for a project of this sensitivity. “I found the work that our in-house design team produced uninspiring. They were uninspiring people, and that was a pretty widely-held belief within the organisation.”

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“I think what Sion wanted,” says Edward, “was for us to work for them, to produce this new work, and then they could improve their whole output, or change their designers for new ones.”

Instead Sion bent the truth somewhat when hiring the Maddisons, citing concerns about mismatched deadlines and prior commitments that would prevent the in-house team from participating. “It wasn’t something that we dealt with directly. In that kind of organisation most of your job is about negotiating your way to getting the outcome that you want.”

With a few feathers within the church already ruffled, Edward and Alfie began work on The Ministerial Development Review and produced three books that set down the Methodist’s new plans, encouraging ministers to reflect on their personal contribution to the church. Their design was simple and professional, with bright accent colours for each of the four volumes, light-hearted illustrations and helpful diagrams that translate an enormous body of otherwise impenetrable information into a more digestible proposition. In terms of layout the pages are sparse, with enough white space to prevent the content from overwhelming the reader. They also look good at a straightforward aesthetic level, removed from the context for which they were produced. This in itself is no small achievement. The church is not known for punchy design outside of Catholic iconography, nor the quality of their print – you’ve only got to look at an English Hymnal to know that they spend their money elsewhere. But the creation of a document with wider aesthetic appeal makes perfect sense for an organisation facing dwindling numbers. Members of the clergy weren’t so sure.

As soon as the final documents were presented, the more vocal ministers kicked off. Some objected to what they deemed a luxury and expensive product. Others were of the opinion that the design didn’t reflect the values of the church; most were united in their discontent. “My intention was to make something really accessible,” says Edward, “but I think some people found it elitist, and that’s something you can’t really say of the Methodist Church; they’re usually very open and accepting.”

In spite of a poor reception from the Methodists, The Ministerial Development Review was well received outside of their target demographic. “Our other client at the church, Sue Miller, said that someone came back and asked for a second copy of the book because they really loved it and wanted to show it to their local independent church. And a church in America got in touch to get hold of copies as inspiration. Certain people definitely saw the value of it and realised it could be a really positive thing to invest a bit more in design.”

Edward believes that good design is still a rarity outside of specific communities, which leads to difficulties when working with less cosmopolitan clients. “If you don’t come from a world of design then a publication like this can feel very other. It’s not something that occurs to designers very much when they’re working, because they’re so involved in the brief that they just see things as a solution to a problem. But actually sometimes you’re working in a context that’s just completely alien to other people.”

But Sion puts it down to poor standards. “People in churches have developed quite low expectations because they’ve been living in a context of decline – where resources are diminishing – for a while. It’s produced a mentality of austerity which means whenever anything looks professional people’s first response will be; ‘How much did this cost?’ instead of; ‘Doesn’t this look nice!’

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“Part of what I wanted to do with the design of these documents was to raise people’s expectations and up the standards of the church. So I’m hugely unapologetic about the negative feedback we received. There’s a culture change that needs to happen in churches of increasing expectations, becoming more professional and making sure that everything we produce – the design of it and the materials – are of a high quality and we can be proud of them.”

Undeterred by the negative feedback, Sion put Edward and Alfie to work on two further projects, one of which dealt with even less appealing subject matter. “When we did The Fruitful Field document it was really controversial,” says Edward. “Basically everyone was getting sacked. They had 12 training colleges around the country and they were trying to reduce them to two. It was going to involve a huge number of redundancies and people having to move their families to different parts of the country. And then we came in with this spacious publication made of really thick, expensive paper – quite an opulent thing really. I suppose we gave them a lot of reasons to be angry.”

The main problem with The Fruitful Field was that it was intended to be a consultation tool but was interpreted as a comprehensive final policy change. It was designed to propose and review the idea of downsizing the Methodist’s training facilities, not to announce a slew of redundancies. When the documents arrived looking as polished as they did, people began to panic. “They thought, ‘This is it! This is the final thing!’ because it looks like the real deal,” says Edward. “But it was just meant to encourage people to discuss some ideas. Again the intention was to make something that looked fun, even though it dealt with something pretty miserable.”

For their third project the boys toned things down and designed with Methodist austerity in mind. The Superintendent’s Handbook was a document for senior Methodist ministers, many of whom had so strongly objected to the first two documents. Bright colours were banned, white space was vetoed and the pages were crammed full of dense text. The result is a much less joyous affair than its predecessors, robbed of colour, illustration and much of the welcoming charm that gave the others such a crossover appeal. It still features Edward’s considered approach to layout and text, and looks slick for a religious instructional document, but Sion and his team were keen to avoid the uproar they’d dealt with before, so something had to give.

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“_The Superintendent’s Handbook_ is a much more sober affair,” says Alfie. “They didn’t want us to use colour – although they were happy for us to use nice paper again – and they didn’t want too much white space. It’s much denser this one; you can see we’ve just crammed it all in.”

“We did change the brief at that point,” agrees Sion. “We had to deal with some of the most vocal concerns about colour and white space, so part of the brief was for the book to look cheaper than the others, even though it’s not. I’m still sad about that because it felt like giving in to negative voices. It was always a controversial piece of work and anything we produced would have been met with criticism. So when people focussed on the design of the thing it was just their general anxiety and annoyance about being involved in the process at all. For some people the whole concept was such an unwelcome one that even if we’d sent them 100 photocopied pages they would still have been pissed off.”

Sion no longer works for the Methodist Church – “I’m working somewhere now where people are in a more positive place” – but Edward and Alfie have just been commissioned to produce a new, slimmed-down run of The Ministerial Development Review that sees the four books reduced to just one – presumably with the intention of courting less controversy.

“I don’t think we can take this as indication of more work to come,” says Alfie. “They still have an in-house design department that does all their stuff and I think in this case it was just simpler to ask us. However, it is an opportunity to try to produce something that will appeal to areas of the church that struggled with the previous version. And if it is successful, who knows, maybe there will be future chances to work with the Methodists.” But this seems unlikely.

While it’s tempting to vilify the Methodists and paint them as an antiquated institution that simply fails to understand good design, their stance is indicative of how many perceive the creative industry; as a luxury. Edward and Alfie’s experiences are no different to any other designers trying to justify their fee to a client. But the key to good design is being able to make it universal, and that is arguably something the church is not. “We just wanted everything to be accessible to people who weren’t necessarily religious,” says Edward, “and that seemed to put everyone off.”