MW: When you say you were raised in the ‘backwoods of Kentucky’ what exactly do you mean? How backwoodsy?
JVD: Haha. The backwoodsiest, man. I’m talking waaaaay back. In the early ‘80’s, my folks picked up out of Atlanta and drove to Kentucky to get away from it all. I think they were tired of big cities and suburbs and wanted to live differently. So they bought a 45-acre forest in the middle of the Kentucky hills and built a house there. Our nearest neighbor was several miles away. And also, we had no electricity. A lot of folks ask if we were Amish when they hear that – haha. We weren’t. My Mom and Pops just didn’t want to be dependent on anyone for their well-being, and they took that idea pretty seriously. They were kind of like Old West pioneers, you know? Living off the land. It sounds weird to most folks that we didn’t have electricity, but it was really no big thing. Probably not much difference between my house and yours, but instead of watching TV, we read lots of books.
MW: Why did you go to the big city for school and not some small rural college?
JVD: For purely pragmatic reasons, I ended up at the University of Louisville – which was a big step for a small-town boy. I actually really wanted to go to Western Kentucky University because my girlfriend at the time was there. But, Louisville offered me a full academic scholarship, plus an art scholarship – basically a free ride and them some. I think I actually made money off the deal. No other school even came close to offering that, so U of L it was. Ended up being a good fit, so I guess the Lord knew what He was doing the whole time. Figures.
MW: What is it about graphic design that is so titillating?
JVD: Ugh. Well, definitely not the word “titillating.”
I majored in graphic design, again, for purely pragmatic reasons. I knew I wanted to be an art major, but the idea of being a “starving artist” was not appealing at all. Graphic design seemed to make the most sense at the time because it was the most practical – generally, there is more opportunity for steady work as a graphic designer than, say, a painter or sculptor. Plus, I am one of those guys who is decent but not great at a wide variety of mediums – drawing, painting, sculpting, photography – and graphic design really gives opportunity to put all those to work for you.
Nowadays, I am able to do design from a pastoral perspective. I really like to serve people, and to me, that is the essence of good graphic design: serving others. Much of what I do is take something in someone else’s head – a concept, an image, a message – and make it visual and (hopefully) more accessible. I love to design because it is a practical way to serve visionaries and leaders within the church and point others to the message of the Gospel. Graphic design is not usually just “art for art’s sake,” which can become narcissistic. Serving others through design helps keep my own tendency toward egocentricity at bay, because I can never take all the credit. So that is like a bonus.
MW: Do you think it is necessary for a church to hire a graphic designer? Why?
JVD: I’m tempted to say “yes,” but in all honesty, I would have to say “no.” So, in general, no. In most cases, I would probably consider a church-staffed designer a total luxury and not a necessity. I realize that probably sounds real odd coming from a guy who directs graphics & communications for a church. Before all you on-staff designers out there start spamming me with nasty comments, let me quantify that answer with some random thoughts on the matter:
If you are a church who can afford your own graphic designer or creative arts producer or whatever the heck you want to call it – by all means, hire away … as long as you are already doing basic pastoral ministry well. Don’t hire a designer at the expense of pastoral ministry.
Realize, though, I am speaking in very general terms because the answer to this question could depend entirely on your church’s size and situation. There could be a lot of factors involved. If you are a passionately missional North American church, good visual design can be a valuable draw depending on your location and culture. If you are a steadily growing church of hundreds or thousands and you think animated gifs and overhead projectors are the hotness … for practical communication reasons, you probably need to think about integrating some nice design.
On the other hand, if you are a church that is not well-staffed pastorally or not functioning with a competent admin staff (i.e. your teaching pastor is also the receptionist, janitor, and bake-sale organizer), your hiring philosophy should probably include addressing those issues first – you need to be doing basic ministry well before you start prettying things up. Otherwise you are, if I may borrow a phrase from one Matthew S. Wireman, “polishing a turd.”
As a side note, if you are going to hire a graphic designer, hire someone who is pastoral in their approach to design. Graphics can easily become overdone, manipulative or overbearing. Good design in the church should always always always ALWAYS point to and support the message, not overpower it and not become the message itself. But I digress…
Seriously, though, in the end, design is just another tool. Graphic designers in the church can be as valuable or invaluable as any other vessel. Design and art can be helpful or harmful depending on how wisely it is used. In the end, broken people need Jesus, not cool PowerPoint slides – so take that into consideration.
MW: Is there another position you see that would have primacy over a graphic designer?
JVD: I think I sort of addressed that in my last tirade. Don’t hire strictly creative arts guys over well-qualified pastoral guys. If you are trying to decide between a good pastor and a good visual arts producer – go for the good pastor. You can always outsource design. If you can find someone who is both wildly creative and qualified pastorally – hire them and double their salary (Hint, hint? Anyone?)
MW: If it were a choice between a puppet ministry and a graphic designer, which should a church hire?
JVD: Pshaw. That’s easy. Neither. If you’re operating at that level, your clear priority should be to find a solid Pastor of Mime Ministry.