Design intervention

Churches are turning to identity designers in an attempt to appear more relevant and engaging. But modernisation is not without its problems

You’d think that Christianity would have something to teach the world of branding, rather than the other way around. Before business caught up and overtook it, the Christian faiths had the best corporate iconography, stories and soundbites, impossible-to-miss architecture, an unbeatable brand promise (eternal life) and headline-grabbing examinations of brand loyalty (feedings to lions, flayings, burnings at the stake etc).

In 2012 Britain, it’s Christianity itself that requires some righteous flogging. Church attendances continue their slow decline and younger people are less interested than ever in institutions that seem to have nothing to say to them. JESUS DIED 4 U! on a day-glo billboard isn’t going to pull them in. Atheism, by contrast, is on the up as an active, coherent movement, driven on by figures such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens.

In January, Alain de Botton’s latest book, Religion for Atheists, advanced the debate about faith by suggesting that non-believers build their own, contemporary temples, dedicated to their shared humanist values (love, friendship etc). The prospect of an anti-church, with its own rituals, architecture and regular assemblies, scooping up a significant part of the population, must scare the established church to death. What can the Church of England do, short of a modern reformation to resolve the jaw-dropping debates over female bishops and gay marriages, the ritual Sunday services, the ecclesiastical garb and crumbling architecture?

Given the less-than-contemporary, introspective image of the church as a whole, a few individual churches have gone it alone in attempting to appear more outward-looking and relevant. The traditional, unengaging symbology of crosses, fishes, rainbows, suns and smiles has been set aside in the effort to develop a fresh identity – usually one that reflects the unique physical, social or spiritual context of the church concerned.

St Mary-le-Bow on Cheapside, for example, adopted a strikingly modern, stacked Helvetica logotype by Untitled when it recognised that its Wren-designed church was losing the battle for City workers’ attention to retailers and restaurants. Its stationery includes mentions of Wren, the Bow Bells, and Dick Whittington, all part of the church’s fascinating history.

City Church in Belfast had no such heritage to draw on. But it did have a mission. Based in the city’s university area, it grew out of bible study groups and fellowship meetings in the 1970s. Its condensed lowercase logotype, designed by Sort Design to coincide with a makeover of the church building’s exterior, expresses the church’s particular aim of bringing the community closer together.

Marksteen Adamson’s studio, ArthurSteenHorne­Adamson, has designed a number of identities for churches and faith-based organisations. The problem with marketing most churches, he says, is the “internal perspective”; a failure to identify with their audience. “So in most cases, it’s a box-ticking exercise that at best becomes an awareness campaign. You’re left feeling that you don’t really know what they are for, and how it could ever be relevant for you.”

Adamson’s identity for St Kea in Cornwall, which turned the wider church’s reputation as a humour-free zone on its head by reclaiming over-used blasphemies and profanities, won plaudits and national publicity. “I want to take back what is ours, to be a church with a purpose and relevance in our community,” said the Rev Adrian Hallett, vicar of St Kea.

What happened next encapsulates one of the principal obstacles in modernising the image of the church. “St Kea got overwhelmingly more than they asked for,” says Adamson, “and in the end, the parochial church council killed it due to too much attention. They weren’t ready for it. The people who end up in positions on church committees are not really interested in making a big statement that puts them in the spotlight. To be in the spotlight and be relevant, you need to be honest and real. That’s a tall order for many.”  

Michael Evamy is the author of LOGO (Laurence King).

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