The Parable of the Designer


“The art of simplicity is a puzzle of complexity.” – Douglas Horton

There are a lot of good stories in this world. There are also a lot of good storytellers. We all have that person – you know her or him, the grandma or uncle that always seems to have an amusing story up their sleeve (even if the facts are sometimes exaggerated!). Even if the story is not factually true, the story can and often still conveys many timeless and universal truths. This is the captivating genius of storytelling – a complex tale that doubles as a fable, folklore or fairy tale that culminate in a simple takeaway. 

Throughout the bible, these kinds of stories take the form of parables, presented as a prescription by a man with a long beard and a white robe as things we are meant to live by and used to illustrate moral or spiritual lessons. There is a lot that graphic designers can actually learn from parables… from storytelling. Believe it or not, designers are crafters of parables.

So what do we know about parables? Well, for one, they are timeless. They were originally told during the age of ancient Rome (for crying out loud), and yet the stories still speak truth to everyone and everywhere. While the simple lessons of parables ring true throughout the centuries, they are poetically woven in complexity. There is deeply rooted symbology throughout that oftentimes is needed to be explained to Jesus’ followers! Frankly, it is hard to understand all of the metaphorical language and symbology used within the first read of a parable. Even the followers who were physically there with Jesus had a hard time comprehending what he was saying. For example in a story called the “Parable of the Weeds”, Jesus is asked to explain it’s meaning. Jesus willingly explains (probably after a deep breath and an eye roll). You could almost say that the parables were designed to a perfect balance of simplicity within complexity.

This is the parable of the designer. The task of transforming complex information into the form of simple visualization. Graphic designers are visual communicators, or more appropriately, visual storytellers. No matter where you happen to work, it is the graphic designer’s responsibility to tell a brand’s story – from the smallest postcard to the largest billboard. Though not a graphic designer, Douglas Horton got something right when he brilliantly stated, “The art of simplicity is a puzzle of complexity.”

Typically, consumers will ask any given brand two simple questions: “Who are you?” and “Why should I care?”. Graphic design provides the opportunity to visually illustrate the obvious to answer these questions. Likewise, parables were frequently told in response to a silly question. Such as, “who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29) or “how do we pray?” (Luke 11:1). The parables were Jesus’ creative way of illustrating the obvious. The parables profoundly engage those who listen, and graphic designers have the alike ability to visually engage those who look.

Take, for example, Apple – a brand which is great to refer to on many levels. Not every company’s brand aesthetic should be as clean as Apple’s, but it is a perfect example of how to simplify a product that is terrifically complex. Unless you are an engineer, most people will never understand the ins and outs of how computers actually work. Although a laptop may be very complex, Apple does not sell you on the science of the product… Apple sells you on the simplicity of the product. Consumers don’t need to know how the product is made to understand that it is simply the best product on the market. If Apple’s sleek aesthetic and unembellished brand artifacts don’t convince you, then I don’t know what else will.

So, what if we treated our work as if a parable? If every line, color, and texture was symbolic? If every typeface, photo, and layout had a purpose? In regards to design, it is not enough to just create a pretty picture. We bring purpose to our work when we design thoughtfully, carefully, symbolically, deeply, and timelessly. To master the art of simplicity, we must take a different way of looking at something. Rather than trying to make sense of all the puzzle pieces in front of us, sometimes we have to flip it upside down and merely connect the dots.

The parable of the designer is not only to tell the story, but to live the story. God has given each of us different passions and talents that we are free to use and work hard at developing. Because God has made us all different, we are able to do God’s work within any sphere that we are in – even graphic design. When we do our work well, we are pointing to what it looks like to live in God’s Kingdom. How are you living a large story to tell a simple truth?

The parable of the designer is that we are meant to help the world see parables… to see simple underlying truths that point to a greater story.