Does spirituality have what it takes to change design for the better?
From typefaces created for ancient covenants to the rebrand of a modern church, spirituality is becoming a larger force within design. Here, we speak to a handful of practitioners to find out what place spirituality has in the world of design (and vice versa).
Have you noticed an uptick in religious iconography being used in design? Or maybe you’ve seen the reverse: religious institutions paying a touch more attention to their visual output? Clearly, something is in the air – and it’s not just the wafting Nag Champa incense. Birth charts, healing crystals, Tarot readings and Neo-pagan practices seem to be becoming increasingly common in the Gen-Z visual landscape. And while it’s true that divinity is undoubtedly chic (Fleabag’s hot priest springs to mind), it’s not just the vibe that people are drawn to: it’s the tantalising possibility of navigating worldly matters with some divine oversight, this time on our own terms. Spirituality is sexy – again.
Put in a broader context, this makes sense. Recent statistics show that England and Wales are now minority Christian countries for the first time in the census’s history. At the same time, the number of people identifying as “spiritual” but not religious is growing every day. That’s why, now, you might pick up a church pamphlet and be met with sleekly illustrated assets, carefully kerned type and a true believer’s adherence to grids. Try going five minutes on the internet without running into a feel-good wellness brand capitalising on this new age of spiritual awakening. Good luck.
Nowadays, designers are being asked to design not simply for what sells, but for what connects, what builds community. And so perhaps it’s natural to see us return to visual cues that helped build some of the strongest and longest-lasting communities in history. For instance, typefaces are being designed for ancient covenants and given the task of transmitting the message of sacred saints. But this wouldn’t be the first time that brands and voracious designers have become smitten with a larger-than-life trend, only for it to fizzle out into half-baked Etsy posters. In an environment of declining community and feelings of belonging, does the intersection of design and spirituality have what it takes to cross the boundaries of faith, heal the schisms of religion and make some narrative sense of an incoherent world? Or is it just swings and roundabouts? To answer that question, we check in with some of the practitioners giving spirituality its new coat of paint.
Traditionally, innovation in design has been anchored to technological developments – think woodblock printing, letterpress and eventually phototypesetting. And while forward-looking fonts that focused on mass production, legibility and commercial success worked for a while, it also arguably ushered in a culture of cookie-cutter consistency. But what if we could innovate by looking back, towards more divine sources? When Taiwan-based graphic designer Shun-Zhi Yang noticed the schism between the austere design of the Buddhist scriptures he saw and the grander sound of the same scriptures that he heard, he decided to reconcile the difference. “That scripture sounds solemn and peaceful, but the typography I saw was too casual,” he says.
And therein lies the issue: the scripture suffered the same bugbear as mainstream typography. Could divine significance break the spell of commercial-driven dullness – predictable use of negative space, kerning without thinking and the good old Golden Ratio? As Shun-Zhi points out: “With a better understanding of Buddhism, the importance of characters to inheritance becomes more apparent, which further affects the function and importance of typography in it.” These revelations allow for clever turns, like Shun-Zhi’s Buddhist Sutra Reconstruction, which includes water droplets to represent the Buddha Bead used in traditional Buddhist monastic chants.
1 of 5
Shun-Zhi Yang: The Buddhist Sutra Reconstruction, process (Copyright © Shun-Zhi Yang, 2020)
Spirituality in the modern world is big business, but what about those who aren’t trying to make money, but provide something different? Al Gordon, rector of Saint Church in Hackney, oversaw two major branding overhauls of the church, including a new visual identity by London-based design agency OMSE. “We’ve been in the hope business here since 1275 AD,” Al tells It’s Nice That. But rarely since then has the church had to cater to consumer inclinations. With an emerging spiritual or ‘psychic services’ industry now worth $2 billion annually, the question of how to appeal to a younger generation is one asked in the parlance of branding. “Ironically, to stay the same you have to change. To create something iconic, you have to be iconoclastic,” Al says.
So, out with the gold-embossed religious insignia we’re used to and in with slick animated typography, 3D characters, flat illustrations and colourful can designs. And while branding campaigns scramble to tap into the divinity associated with astrology, numerology, palmistry and Tarot cards, the church comes with all of that baked in. “The cross is such a powerful symbol – arguably the most powerful brand of all time,” says Al. “And yet as Christians, we believe it’s also a window into life, resurrection, hope.”
This idea that you can prioritise design without sacrificing faith is becoming increasingly popular. Earlier this year, the Vatican announced plans to develop the first-ever VR and NFT gallery hosting its art, content and academic initiatives. Father Philip Larrey, who heads the programme, stated in Artnews that they were keen to “explore ways to democratise art, making it more widely available to people around the world regardless of their socio-economic and geographical limitations”. Elsewhere, the charity Santa Casa da Misericórdia de Lisboa (SCML) offered some of its art collection and digital replicas of a reliquary of St Francis Xavier as NFTs. Al says, “We’re in the communication business. It’s just we’re not promoting a product, we’re pointing to a person.” And since we’re in an age when you can visit Mecca virtually, where pastors are holding mass in VR and faith-based apps like Hallow and Glorify are raising millions in VC funding, religious organisations may need to start investing in design departments.
1 of 7
St John’s-at-Hackney, photography by Gilbert McCarragher
Oscar Torrans is an Irish designer specialising in work inspired by Irish folklore. “Traditional Irish design elements have been co-opted for sale to American tourists in the airport and the ‘Irish Pubs’ across the world,” he says. “Clients tend to want to steer clear of it.” Oscar has built his practice around reclaiming those elements of traditional Irish ceremony and worship, those which have become lost and erased by “British colonialism and the spread of Catholicism”. As a result of that dilution, graphic design associated with the region is often peppered with cartoonish Celtic symbolism alongside frothing vector beer mugs, leprechauns and shamrocks. These mass-produced caricatures have stifled the visual exploration of niche religious topics and brought about broader disengagement with the spiritual path.
As Shun-Zhi learned, we’re simple creatures; visual disconnection triggers spiritual disconnection. Today, Oscar explores what he calls “non-Catholic outdoor ceremonies of spiritual transcendence on Irish soil” through ancient Irish stone worship and the Irish trance festivals of the 2000s. “There’s a beauty in the mystery of these traditions and structures, there are no definitions or hard facts, it’s open to interpretation and people have different theories.” He adds: “It sparks conversation and a sharing of stories.” This is an especially salient point given that polls have shown that about half of the US seldom (33 per cent) or never (16 per cent) talk about religion with people outside their families. If traditional dialogues around spirituality have been constrained, then changing religious demographics could signal a change in the medium of religious communication.
1 of 5
Passage Tomb: Machine Learning Irish Poetry (Copyright © Passage Tomb)
Mason Goolsby, a multi-disciplinary designer based just outside of Detroit, says that for a younger generation growing up in a “capitalist hellscape”, it’s “hard to find a deeper meaning in almost anything or connect to something outside ourselves”. Mason grew up in an evangelical Southern Baptist Church in North Carolina, and his queer identity presented the kind of issues you might expect. But Mason hasn’t outright rejected his past. Like many young people, he’s trying to navigate his moral, spiritual and emotional history outside of organised religion. “I like to think of a lot of my work as prayer manifested in physical forms,” he says, extolling the virtues of being able to put together his own rules through design. With a focus on publications, Mason combines gritty, textured type, photography and collage to humorously investigate intimate aspects of religion. “What is your personal north star? What’s your truth? I think manifesting that personal dogma and materials, or even digitally, gives it a place to exist within the world.”
Today, organisations are indulging in riskier visual gambits to reach potential believers where they’re spending time. Religious groups are releasing public service announcements on good design while negotiating scripture to accommodate these little tweaks. Individuals like Mason are rewriting the rules of religious messaging, opening new dialogues and using design to investigate thornier theological nuances from novel angles. As Mason points out, “My work can be branded as heretical and sacrilegious as easily as it can be branded as zealous and reverent, depending on the viewer’s bias whenever they’re engaging with it.” The common factor is that it’s design that’s highlighting these biases, spurring conversations and shimmying along these changes. But is it enough to stop this movement from being relegated to a footnote in graphic design’s long history?
1 of 6
Mason Goolsby: Snake (Copyright © Mason Goolsby, 2022)
As with so much in the world of design, it comes down to who we’re designing for, and why. Fundamentally, spiritual practitioners of all sorts are on a consciousness-raising campaign of their own, and increasingly they are understanding and harnessing the power of design. At the same time, in our 21st Century world of visual overload, creatives are going back to older examples of spirituality in an ongoing search for deeper meaning, while brands – as they do – are finding all of this fertile ground for nurturing connections with their audiences. Al from Saint Church perhaps sums it up best: “There’s something in placing value in how you communicate that hopefully is a sign that you care about your audience. Logos come and go, but love sticks.”
About the Author
Roz (he/him) joined It’s Nice That for three months as an editorial assistant in October 2022 after graduating from Magazine Journalism and Publishing at London College of Communication. He’s particularly interested in publications, archives and multi-media design.