The Chesapeake Van, March 2009, photo by Kenneth FitzGerald
In each of the communities I’ve lived I’ve encountered one of these trucks. It’s always a white van, hand-inscribed by paint or permanent marker with a variety of Biblical verses and religious admonitions. From this base model, the individual owners accessorize. The van I knew in Massachusetts had a set of small crosses rising from the roof (the owner was a carpenter by trade). Here in Virginia, some of the texts are lettered on florescent colored paper.
Of course, the intention of the owners is for me to take notice, and I do. However, the next step should be for me to contemplate religious faith. And once again, I do — but in a context of design. For me, these vehicles are one manifestation an ongoing concern — the relationship of graphic design and faith.
The Chesapeake Van, March 2009, photo by Kenneth FitzGerald
It’s because of my devotion to graphic design that I’ve always enjoyed encountering these vehicles. They’ve also been a constant of sorts as I’ve bounced around the country. Each is a refreshing, individualized visual delight roaming the streets. Just a bit of typographic whimsy amongst a flat-hued and airbrush-detailed monotony of cars. They’re folk art on wheels!
Actually reading the texts can sometimes put a bit of a damper on the gratification. Damnation declarations can weigh on the mind, no matter the state of one’s conscience or current karmic burden. As genre artifacts, these vans are rather muted. None display the special eccentricity or wild invention of a Howard Finster. However, such appraisal seems silly under the circumstances — even though there exists a considerable financial market that makes such distinctions.
But this isn’t another claim that designers should appreciate the graphic naïve. For those who’d regard these vans — or any application of such “design” — as an eyesore, I’m not here to argue otherwise. Unless you’re stuck behind or beside one in a traffic jam, you can let it roll out of sight and mind.
In the classroom, the expression of religious belief in design is something I’ve always encountered. As a teacher, I’m regularly presented student work with explicit religious content. In addition, many students cite their faith as inspiration and motivation for their designing.
I know that my evangelical students are representative of a significant demographic in the professional graphic design community. The statistics on belief in the population overall tells us it’s not a minority position. However, I can’t recall ever running across anything but a furtive mention of faith within some other design discussion. Admittedly, I’m no longer the most diligent reader of the design press. Perhaps the discussions are happening out of my sight, as I’m worldly-minded.
Just as there seems a more vocal left-leaning population of designers, is it that the secularists hold sway here too? Is there an underground of “devout” designers? Or are there no discussions because there’s really nothing much to say? Does calling it out do the subject — and the affected designers — a disservice?
The same might be said of investigating the influence of sexual orientation upon and within design. Certainly bringing plain ol’ sex into the debate (i.e. is there a feminine design?) will reliably roil the design community. If there isn’t a distinctive formality to faith-based design, what’s to talk about?
Historically, graphic design has found plenty of room for the ineffable in its theories. Not to demean either religious belief or Modernist principles but many of the historic (and contemporary) rationales for graphic design activity have been based more in faith than evidence. Gestalt principles are still unencumbered by objective verification, to name just one. Graphic design’s traditional emphasis on rationality and neutrality immediately seems to portend a conflict with a sensibility that highlights transcendence. Of course, rationalism has resided in cooperation faith for centuries, despite events in the recent past.
I count it as no surprise that my experience critiquing religious content in student work has gone without contention or awkwardness. Students do question my ability to evaluate their work at times but never due to my personal spirituality or lack thereof (that I simply possess a contrary taste is far and away the leading complaint). If anything, I’ve been regarded as a fellow congregant as I’ve addressed the content with the same verve I do all material.
With eight years of nun-directed Catholic grammar school in my past, I’m quite conversant with the themes of Christianity, so I have a leg up there. However, I’m just as ready to take on — and welcome for my own education — design work based in other faiths. If I’ve articulated a common critique it’s that a student’s work isn’t passionate enough. That appraisal pretty much goes across the board for student (and professional) work. Most graphic design suffers from an impersonality and detachment that resists audience interaction. For religious work, such an approach is distressingly mortal (bring back the Latin Mass!).
Overall, I’m not expecting any special insight about graphic design and faith. In practical terms as a teacher, I seem to have it covered. But I wonder sometimes about the absence of public discussion about the topic, no more or less than any other intangible but heartfelt influence upon creativity. And never mind about touching someone’s heart with graphic design — what about their soul? Is anyone making the attempt?
Meanwhile, when my local Bible van pulled in a few houses down, I walked over and asked if I might document it. As I photographed its hood, I suggested to the owner he write his message backwards so as to read right in rear view mirrors. At first, he was mystified by my advice, until I referred to ambulances. He allowed that was a good idea. And so design is revealed.
Kenneth FitzGerald teaches at Old Dominion University in Norfolk Virginia, and writes about design at his blog Ephemeral States. He is at work on an essay collection, Volume: writings on graphic design, art, music and culture, to be published by Princeton Architectural Press.