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Re-illuminating the sacred

Exterior of Light of the World Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA. Elizabeth Tunstall, CC BY-NC

The church bulletin lists a call for volunteers for a new ministry: Design for the Light. As explained by the Light of the World Christian Church’s reverend, Dr. David A. Hampton:

This ministry will focus on using design to better communicate the message of God and to help beautify the church. Amen.

Being trained within academic traditions of secular post-Enlightenment humanism, I am ambivalent about this call for design to serve the church. On one hand, the words of Daniel Kantor from his book, Graphic Design and Religion, echo in my thoughts:

Commercial design often projects illusions through selective or idealized truths. Design for religion must be concerned with shattering illusions and revealing truths. Design, in the end, is about beauty, which is ultimately about honesty, about God, and our response to the divine.

My two weeks re-exposure to African American Christian culture reminds me how Christianity remains a source of strength, compassion for others, and a catalyst for social justice in America’s black communities. It is a source so strong that according to black demographics 87% of African Americans are Christian.

Yet the other hand, I consider all the times when practitioners of religion have failed in its truths. Christians have used God to justify the enslavement and genocide of African and Indigenous peoples in the past. Today, God has been evoked to justify the demonising of Muslims, homosexuals, transsexuals, and women who choose to terminate their pregnancies.

Wanting to avoid binaries of good/bad Christianity, I recognise the hypocrisy in my ambivalence about design and the Christian religion. I have praised the design for the faiths of Aboriginal Dreaming, Indian Hinduism (in spite of the problematic cultural nationalism of Hindutva) and Islam, and Chinese Buddhism.

Perhaps my lack of religious intimacy with them enables me associate these beliefs more with sacredness, of which I am more accepting, than with religion, of which I am sceptical.

Jama Masjid in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India. Elizabeth Tunstall

I deeply believe that design will meet its true promise when designers engage in design for the sacred.

American religion and politics scholar, Matthew Francis, makes a case for distinguishing between religion and sacredness in the study of terrorism:

Unlike common usages of religion, often used unquestioningly as an essential quality of people or things, it is the process of setting things apart that makes actions, beliefs, or values sacred, not the things in and of themselves. So, a piece of bread might be deemed to be sacred because of the belief that it is the transubstantiated body of Christ and therefore has symbolic (and for some people actual) properties which mark it out as separate from normal bread. It is the beliefs of the social network that make communion bread sacred, nothing else. Likewise, whilst for some freedom of speech is a sacred right, for others it is just another ideal, no less subject to criticism than others, much like the right of one person one vote.

His argument that things are made sacred resonates with the project of design, or more specifically design anthropology. My seventh principle of design anthropology states:

The ultimate criteria for success of any Design Anthropology engagements are the recognized creation of conditions of compassion among the participants in project and in harmony with their wider environments.

These conditions of compassion and harmony are achieved by endowing people and the environments with sacredness. Beyond our churches, mosques, temples, and sacred groves, how can we expand the sense of interconnections among all things by expanding the realm of the sacred?

Reframing Daniel Kantor’s project of design for religion, we can adapt his ten principles for the design for the sacred and apply them to that which we consider to be profane:

  • Leave room for mystery.

  • Be concerned with shattering illusions and revealing truths.

  • Prepare the viewer for prayer, self-discovery, and reflection and encourage the viewer to make internal shifts.

  • Consider the needs of the community and encourage communal consideration and common beliefs.

  • Strive to open up symbols and deepen their meaning.

  • Encourage pause and reflection.

  • Be an expression of hospitality and thus willing to offer things that may not be necessary or practical.

  • Be concerned with giving beauty, truth, mystery, and hospitality.

  • Draw upon timeless traditions so as to echo the timelessness of the sacred and divine.

  • Be prepared to open our eyes to an authentic reality that is both immanent and transcendent, genuine and attainable.
Below are some examples of design works that I think meet those principles.

In advertising, the 2014 TVC Thai Life Insurance commercial, Unsung Hero, hits all ten principles for design for the sacred.

Unsung Hero, a 2014 Thai Life Insurance advertisement.

In architecture, the Living Root bridges of Meghalaya, India achieve a sense of timelessness, mystery, reflection, and communal consideration.

Double living root bridge in East Khasi, Meghalaya, India. Arshiya Urveeja Bose/Wikimedia

In Australian architecture, I would mention again the fit-out of the Koorie Heritage Trust as meeting the principles.

Koorie Heritage Trust gathering table. Elizabeth Tunstall

In graphic design, Norway’s new banknotes leave room for mystery, prepare the viewer for reflection on boundaries, open up and deepen the meaning of Norwegian sea coasts, encourage pause and reflection, are concerned with beauty, truth, mystery, and hospitality; and echo timelessness.

Snøhetta’s 2014 Norwegian banknotes. Snøhetta

What other designs have you seen in which the profane has been made sacred by meeting Kantor’s principles?

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