On Making the Mainline Visually Appealing

We in the Mainline need to be aware that we are absolutely getting our butts kicked by Nondenominational, Pentecostal, and conservative Evangelical churches when it comes to public visual identity. Now, I certainly think that often these groups allow the need to be hip and stylish guide the direction of their theology and liturgical style in unhelpful ways, but that doesn't mean all desires to move beyond poorly designed comic sans, clipart newsletters and busy, outdated websites is a bad thing. We want streamlined, aesthetically pleasing visual identities that both show who our congregations are and prove attractive to people we want to bring in. Good design (or better design) won't do much to make up for lack of theological substance or intentional formation, but it may make the difference between whether a person comes in your door or not. In that spirit, I've put together Ten Commandments that most any congregation can easily implement, as well as my top ten books on design that congregations can use to improve their visual identity.

Ten Commandments of Design/Communication for Congregations 

I. Thou shalt not use the default fonts on thy word processor.

The default font for headings (big words that identify sections) and body text (the majority of words that you read) for Microsoft Word is now some form of Calibri. It used to be Times New Roman. These are fine fonts, but they are used so often and are so identified with Microsoft Word that they will not stand out and they will communicate that you just go with defaults. Even people who don't know design will instinctively identify these fonts with Microsoft Word. To make your documents stand out, pick two different fonts for your headings and body text. First, learn these words related to fonts (and know that when we say "font" we usually mean "typeface"): font, typeface, serif, sans serif, blackletter. Then, go to either this or this website to help you figure out a good typeface pairing. For Episcopal Churches, you'll never go wrong with Gill Sans/Garamond, which is what the denominational-level Church uses for their visual identity.
P.S. It's really important to know what various typefaces are associated with. Gill Sans is more or less the font used for the London Underground and Penguin Book covers. Brandon Grotesque meets you in the opening title of The Good Place. The Obama campaign made lots of use of Gotham. It's important to know who else uses your desired typefaces because people will associate your visual identity with those brands/ products/ organizations. Here is a website with various fonts used for famous brands.

II. Thou shalt not squander thy free social media resources. 

You have no excuse for not having a web presence for your local Church. Everyone uses social media. My grandparents use social media. 90 year old women in my congregation use social media. And when it comes to using social media, the absolutely, unquestionably necessary platform is Facebook. You need a Facebook page. If people are going to have just one social media presence, it needs to be a Facebook page because this will reach the widest range of demographics. However, as you branch out from there, you should think about what demographics you want to reach. Twitter tends to be older Millennials and GenXers. Instagram is going to reach younger Millennials and GenY. Figure out what the people in your area use: its better to have one or two really active accounts than four or five that are infrequently updated. For instance, in the Diocese of South Dakota, Facebook and Instagram are how we communicate with people in our Diocese and Twitter is how we reach people outside it. Know the social media practices of the people in your parish (broadly conceived) (for more info on how to learn this, look to IX). And remember: all of these platforms are free. Even if you really can't afford a website, you can have a Facebook page.

III. Thou shalt not make excuses based on limited material resources.

Even in congregations with few people or limited capital, you should be able to implement most or all of these suggestions. And don't feel like the rector/pastor has to implement them all themselves. Look for people who are active on social media already and see if they would be willing to run your social media pages (two tips here: don't assume that the "young people" will automatically be more savvy here and absolutely make sure you have some content guidelines and best practices that people abide by; Jacob Turner offers great info in this direction). This may be a great opportunity for people who are not as able to engage in physical activity to be involved in the service of the congregation.

IV. Thou shalt have a website.

There is no reason to not have a website in this day and age. Gone are the days when you had to pay a developer thousands of dollars to write all the code for you. I'm a big fan of Squarespace because in about two hours you can put together a really slick homepage and calendar. Plus, with Squarespace, you have e-commerce built in, so you can sell things online if your congregation does fundraisers. Plus, the templates look really good, so you don't have to know much about design to have an aesthetically pleasing website. Second plus, you can get this all for about $300 a year (which includes a custom domain name). As to your custom domain name, make it something memorable and aim for a .org ending. In fact, for about $20 extra dollars a year, you can buy both the .org and .com of your name (say AllAngelsSpringfield.com and AllAngelsSpringfield.org) so that you increase your chances of people stumbling on your website.

V. Thou shalt declutter thy website.

I get it. Everything your Church does is important and you're going to want to put it all on the homepage. Don't. Once you've cut down what you need on the homepage to the bare essentials, cut it in half again. Think like a web user in this context. What are you looking for when you go to a congregational website: probably not choir rehearsal times most often. So, the most important things to have on your homepage are who you are, where you are, and what time your worship is. Don't put much more than that. For more information on decluttering and streamlining your website, look to Don't Make Me Think in the books below. Its invaluable.

VI. Thou shalt remember mobile viewing platforms. 

So you've got a slick new website and it looks great on your desktop. Well guess what? You're only reaching about 50-55% of your potential viewers. In the Diocese of South Dakota, roughly 50% of all people visiting our website use a tablet or mobile phone. You have to pay attention to what your website looks like and how it responds on mobile devices. This is particularly important when you're dealing with impoverished communities or young adults/youth who are much more likely to consume most of their internet via non-computer interfaces. Ideally, you will have versions of your website specifically designed for mobile/table viewing in addition to desktop access (and, not to plug Squarespace too much, but they do this for your automatically).

VII. Thou shalt procure a logo. 

This will probably be the single largest monetary investment in putting together a solid visual identity for your congregation, but it's worth it. You want to get a graphic designer who can incorporate elements of your community identity in a simple, memorable, and visually appealing way. Your logo may be font driven or it may be icon driven, but it needs to be easily scalable and rendered in black and white/grayscale. Plus, while it's an investment, it shouldn't be more than $500-1000 (and this only once). A good logo will make your visual identity so much more memorable. Here are some logos I've done that I think really highlight the features I've talked about (and yes, I'll do a logo for you; email me at chris@episcopalchurchsd.org). Oh, and just a tip: make sure you get a specific version of your logo for your social media accounts. Here are some more examples of good church logos.

VIII. Thou shalt develop a consistent visual identity.

So you've got a logo and you've got your typefaces. You're off to a good start, but you want to consolidate your visual identity even more (I prefer using the term "visual identity" more than "brand" because of the latter's consumerist overtones). It matters little how nice some of your communications look if most or all of the official communications from your congregation do not send the same message. Put together a visual identity guide that specifies what fonts to use, how to use the logo, etc. for various communications. It does not have to be as in-depth as the Episcopal Church's visual identity guide, but this gives you a good sense of what to strive for. You want everything you put out—bulletins, newsletters, website, etc.—to have the same visual identity. By the way, consistent visual identity is an important reason to use fonts that are easily accessed for free on regular word processing software. This way you can allow parishioners to follow the identity guide themselves when they draft communications for the congregation.

IX. Thou shalt understand how thy people communicate. 

Don't make assumptions about how the people in your care communicate with each other and consume media—do some research. It's not helpful to assume that particular age groups use or don't use certain media or communication forms. I've got a survey that I used for the Diocese of South Dakota that can be an example for you. Take the survey to see what we used to find out about communications preferences from our Diocese and adapt this kind of survey to your context. As an extra tip, ask people from demographics you're particularly interested in reaching to fill out the survey and get their peers to do it too.

X. Thou shalt take time to learn Adobe.

At the very least, learn to use at a basic level Illustrator, InDesign, Photoshop, Spark, and Acrobat. Stop using Publisher. The $50 or so a month that a subscription to the full Adobe Creative Cloud offers is more than worth it for adding an extra level of professionalism to your congregation. Everyone in the graphic design world knows these programs and using them even at a basic level will take your visual identity to the next level. All told, between Adobe, a Squarespace website, and a (one-time) logo design, you're still only looking at $1200 a year to really increase the visual profile of your community. That's only the tithe of one person with a $12,000 a year salary (What's that? People in your church don't give the full tithe? Well we'll have to talk about that later I guess...)

Ten Design Books You Need to Be Using 

Good Websites