Passion as a Designer and Teacher


Both of my parents are artists. This led to a kind of different childhood – they brought us to museums and art galleries and symphonies. We sometimes got to watch as our mother created illustrations using ink washes – it was magical. However, I never thought about becoming an artist myself, even though I took art classes through high school. When I was in college, I was perhaps most passionate about playing volleyball. And, like other students, not quite sure what I was going to do with my life. I was preparing to become a high school teacher and to coach volleyball. But, my senior year, I got a campus job where we made marketing materials and I “discovered” design for the first time. I suddenly uncovered what God really wanted me to do. I felt – and knew – I was called by God to become a designer. Many of my friends left college in love with the person they were to marry – I left college in love with what became my career.

Martin Luther was one of the first theologians to identify that a calling (or “vocation” in Latin) included other professions than the call to ministry. Gene Edward Veith says: “the purpose of one’s [calling], whatever it might be, is serving others. It has to do with fulfilling Christ’s injunction to love one’s neighbor”. What I like about this is the importance he suggests about serving others. When you are what you are called to be, it does not seem like “work” or a problem … it seems like you are simply doing what you were always meant to; how you can best serve God is by being what it is you’re called to be. I also like it because, while design is intimately tied into the commercial marketplace, if you are truly called, you are answering God’s call on your life and serving not only those who might be clients, but also God.

This also implies a word of caution – if you are serving God, you need to develop an ethical understanding of what you’re doing, what you’re contributing to. If God fills you with passion and curiosity to become a designer, there is also a responsibility to God to act in ways that build others up. Indeed, if you are also acting as a servant, the concern is for others, and not yourself. I found that a litmus test was to try to make sure I was telling the truth and not trying to invent anything about particular products. I remember one time becoming fed up with using only photos of happy, smiling people in marketing materials. I pointed out that not everyone in all these particular settings would even be pretending to be smiling.

For me, the idea of passion is also expressed in the idea of being gifted with certain abilities. These are not the kind of gifts where a transaction occurs. As Lewis Hyde explains in The Gift (p.29), “gifts that remain gifts can support an affluence of satisfaction, even without numerical abundance.” What I think this means is that regardless of the accumulation of “money,” the gifted person is satisfied most simply by using the gift in support of others – the sharing of the gift is enough. While we are paid money for doing design, the real satisfaction is not the amount of money received, but is found in the doing of one’s calling. This becomes the difference between just having a job to pay the bills and actually doing and being who God has designed you to be.

These two things – the idea of being called to being a designer and the integration of how a gift is used – are the things that continue to drive my interest in design. Becoming a design educator took some time. It was not a natural fit for me – teaching – I was always terrifically nervous and fearful of talking in front of people. Once again, however, God saw to it that I accomplish this calling by reminding me of my silly sense of humor. Once I realized being funny was a legitimate approach to teaching, I was able to relax. I also recognized that my gift involved being with students, not being “above” them. My real satisfaction comes in watching, first as students and then as professionals – people find their relationship to design – whether as a designer or some other form of creative expression – and watching them flourish. Once again, satisfaction comes from seeing others grow, not from accolades that might be attributed to me. I’m the conduit that is used to encourage fledgling designers to find their way and help identify both the circumstances God has called them to and how they can use creative gifts in those circumstances.

This idea is somewhat new for me. These days, in our self-centered culture where we are trained from an early age to think about what makes me happy – the idea of looking also at the circumstances of your life is a slightly different tack. It isn’t just about me, after all. God has led and guided us, indeed giving us passions that drive us. God though, has also created the circumstances in which we live – be they good or bad. Victor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, decided God had indeed placed him in those horrific surroundings and decided he wanted to make the best of it. Indeed, he was an inspiration to fellow prisoners. Most of us will not be faced with those kinds of circumstances. But, whatever or wherever we find ourselves, first look at the gifts God has given and then figure out how to make the best of them. This also colors my approach to working with the many different kinds of students who come through the graphic design major. They all have something to offer – they are all made in the image of God.

I’ve sometimes thought the word passion was sort of scary sounding. I think it can be but when you discover the unique ways God has gifted you – regardless of what it might be – it takes on a different kind of meaning. And the great thing is that that passion might go through different stages of discovery. Nowadays, I have discovered a new direction for my passion – that of the importance of giving voice to designers – and also, the need to learn to listen to other voices. Perhaps I’ll get a chance to discuss this in a future post.