What a graphic design conference taught me about preaching (without even knowing it)

Lance Marshall3Last month I attended a gathering called Circles Conference, a two-day event for graphic designers, art directors, and other creative design professionals. It was not, in any way, intended for preachers, which is exactly what I wanted. The event attracted me because, at its core, design and art seeks to move people, to inform them, and to help them feel. Good preaching accomplishes the same thing, so I went hoping I might learn a thing or two. Here’s what stuck out:

1. Think in terms of experiences

Among the many professionals that were at Circles Conference were a group of people who called themselves “Experience Architects.” These are the people who plan events — the kind of people who think about what colors the wall will be, what kinds of cups the coffee will be served in, and how big the gathering space at the front needs to be. These are the people who think about what it is like to experience this time and place, and they brainstorm ways to make it as meaningful as possible. 

Circles Conference was fantastically well-organized. From the vendor space layout to the visuals throughout the hall, everything supported an atmosphere of networking and creativity. What can the church learn from this? How can we make sure that once our new guests actually sit down in a seat they are prepared to sing and pray and listen? Church is about experiencing God, and I think we can do a lot to make sure that people are in the best headspace possible to make that happen.

2. Keep an entrepreneurial spirit

The people at Circles Conference were entrepreneurs. Whether they had started their own business or still work for other people, they were constantly thinking in terms of growth, of connecting, of taking on new challenges and doing new things. The people there were starters and doers. Every single one of them was interested in one day breaking out and doing their own thing, of following their great dream. Of not being scared of how but instead of focusing on what could be

I am inspired by people who are more driven by the possibility of massive success than the fear of failure. Every single one of them seemed to understand the people that they looked up to, at one point, and taking on something that seemed impossible, and they were inspired to try it themselves. This made me think about all the ways in which church is difficult, and how much you can hurt when you try something but it goes wrong. You have to have a bigger dream, a greater drive, a desire to do a new thing in order to power through those times when things are tough or don’t work out like you want them to. 

3. People yearn for reasonable work / life balance but dont know how to do it

It should not have been a surprise to me that the flip side of talking about entrepreneurial attitudes and drive was the acknowledgement that sometimes people push themselves too far. Sometimes they sacrifice their personal life, their family life, or their social life in order to pursue those dreams. Obviously, this is no surprise to the preacher; I hear these kinds of things all the time. One of the major things that I emphasize is that you keep focused on the most important things as much as possible

What this conference reminded me is that people are desperately searching for how to make that happen. Life comes at you fast, and people need to keep reminding themselves that, at the end of the day, success is not defined by the jobs you completed or the contract you won or how much money you made. People are desperate to acknowledge how hard it can be to balance everything. The church must lead in not only telling people that this is important, but modeling the ways in which we can navigate this very difficult territory. Think in terms of Jesus: nobody ever had a more important job to do, nobody ever had more on their plate. But at every turn, Jesus took time to step away. To pray. To be with his friends. To rest. Our God is the god of the Sabbath, the god that says it is a holy and good thing to rest. We are the proclaimers of that good news to a world that desperately needs to hear it.

4. Know that failure happens a lot

The speakers at Circles Conference were successful in their field. They had made iconic work and built very large, very successful creative firms. They were heroes to many of those gathered in the seats, and what the heroes wanted to talk about was failure. Every single speaker talked about failing over and over and over again. Each of them acknowledged that a great success was always preceded by setback after setback. Accomplishing anything is hard, and setting out to do new and interesting things means encountering obstacles that nobody has ever faced before. 

It’s unreasonable to expect that you will be the one person who goes through every opportunity and never makes a mistake. The problem isn’t failure — it’s the fear of failure that stops people from trying. Leaving the conference, I was encouraged by the idea that we can normalize failure, that we can take the sting out of it so that people who experienced failure don’t feel like they are unworthy or incapable. Instead, failure needs to be celebrated as an important part of the process of creating. Failure means that you are trying, and this conference showed that great success is only the result of that trying.

5. Teams are vital

Before attending this conference I imagined that graphic design and creative work was largely a solo experience. Imagine a graphic designer sitting alone at a desk, bent over pads with pens and pencils or working with pixels on Adobe Illustrator. I was shocked to hear speaker after speaker talk about the importance of teams in their work. People who had accomplished something remarkable had always seemed to do so with others by their side. Even those people who created brilliant ideas with ease needed other people to help them refine and improve upon what they had made. Great work wasn’t the result of one genius — it was the result of inspired people working with other inspired people. 

The conference made me look at my own tendency to do things by myself — not because I don’t want the input of others, but because working by yourself just seems easier sometimes. This conference reminded me that if I ever want to make a real difference, I have to learn how to recruit and share responsibilities with other people who are passionate about the same goal.

6. Don’t judge yourself against other people

The last main theme of this conference was that everybody needs to focus on cultivating their own style. Speaker after speaker remarked on how worthless it is to spend most of your time studying the portfolios and work of other people. Too often, they said, you tell yourself you’re doing that to gain research, but in reality you’re just silently judging yourself against the work of others. That’s not how a great work is made. Instead, great work is done by focusing on what it is that you’re doing, how you can improve, and having experiences that broaden your horizons and inspire you. Evaluating yourself against other people is a waste of time. It saps your energy, it dampens your spirits, it distracts you from your purpose, and it stunts the ultimate goal: that you turn into the creator that you are meant to be. You are meant to create your work, not somebody else’s. Learn from others, be inspired by others, but don’t compare yourself. They are them, you are you. Now get to work.




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