Why design is essential to effective communication

“In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers.”
– Steve Jobs

I re-read this several times in the Steve Jobs biography to fully absorb it. I even trimmed it down a bit to this:

“Design is not the veneer but the soul of a creation, expressed in successive outer layers.”

In other words, most dismiss design as the icing of a core object or idea. A sweet but inessential finish. As the biography points out, in most other companies, engineering drives design. Those who make the product determine what the product will do first, then base its design on its features. They employ an outside-in approach. The result, for those old enough to remember, is beige.

Even in the early days at Apple, Jobs built the box first, not last, then made his engineers conform to it. In some ways this sounds ridiculous and counter-intuitive. You, the reader, might scoff at this idea. Most other companies do, reasonably assuming that you have to know the basics of the product before you can begin to design it. Yet their products stink because of it. The latest Wired magazine has a hilarious flowchart answering the question, “Which tablet should I buy?” All arrows point to the iPad.

True design is inside-out.

It starts with the soul of the thing, be it the company, the product, or the message. If the design expresses the soul of the thing correctly, it appears right in any variety of forms, because each expression aligns with the core idea. If the design is not aligned with the core, if it is chosen after rather than during, it derails the idea, and the whole thing crashes and burns, or best case scenario reaches a mediocre end. Design requires integration. In order to make something that works, you must identify the soul of the idea and integrate its design from the outset. Form and function are inseparable.


The presence of screens in worship forces this question on preachers and planners.

Every preacher I’ve ever consulted has had to discover this truth on his own or her own. In the beginning of the screen’s presence in the sanctuary, the pastor often delegates the visual task to another person, or picks an image at the end, after the sermon is finished. Some eventually get the connection, and learn to exegete the image along with the text. Midnight Oil Productions, the company I co-founded and operated for nine years, has a seminar where we would tell the story of a pastor who had agreed to be the preacher for a specially designed teaching service to a group of creative worship students. For the service we used John 14:9-15 for the text and had chosen the metaphor of a ripple to communicate God’s love, given to Jesus, passed on to the disciples and the early church, down through us to the world. Initially the pastor loved the team-identified metaphor, but later found himself, in his private sermon preparation, unable to marry the image to the text. He stopped his usual exegetical process and Googled ripples. As he pored over the results with the same prayerful eyes, he had an epiphany. The sites explaining the physics of energy transfer gave him new insight into God’s love for us. He learned to juxatpose, to contrast – to exegete the image next to the text. The design element of rippling water became the visual expression of his core idea.

Others, locked into literary training, never discover the power of design. Another pastor I worked with had a decades long habit of beginning a sermon with the phrase, “Open your Bibles.” As our worship design team became more adept at communicating visually we began to create video transitions into the sermon. Some were quite powerful and effective in setting up his core idea, yet he found it impossible to shed his ingrained opening. A powerful short film followed by a didactic command fell flat every time. Even as he focused on the logos, or reason, of the story, he ignored the pathos, or its persuasion.

In the mid-90s, while Jobs was away from the company, Apple was still a company with a strong ethos or brand. People generally trusted their products. Most agreed they made a really good computer. Yet in spite of their brand and the quality of their products, few bought an Apple product. The company almost died.

The major achievement of Jobs’ return was his use of design. It became the persuasive key that linked good products and brand credibility.

Steve Jobs intuitively understood the rhetoric of design. Logos is the thing itself. It is to a computer company the product and to a preacher the message. Ethos is the necessary, foundational credibility that attracts receivers. Each is necessary, yet alone incomplete. Pathos is the persuasive glue that compellingly presents the two as one, inviting the receiver to take action. Design is the pathos that marries logos and ethos.

Design is inside-out.


About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).