7 spiritual lessons from graphic design

7 spiritual lessons from graphic design

In Growth, Spirituality by Ken1 Comment

My graphic design career began in the late 80’s when design tastes were very…well, graphic. Fascinated with computers, digital images and advertising, I would spend hours laying out newsletters and direct mail postcards using WordPerfect and a borrowed IBM PC. Primitive, yes, but I was loving it. When I needed a break from the computer, I’d relax with a book on typography.

Later I would scrape together my savings and max out a credit card to buy my first desktop computer and a copy of Aldus PageMaker (on state-of-the-art 3.5” diskettes). Sure, that $3,000 investment amounted to nearly 15% of my annual income, but I was convinced it would be worth it, in sheer joy of creative expression if nothing else.

A couple of years later, after maxing out a second credit card to buy a Hewlett-Packard LaserJet III printer, I felt I had reached design heaven with no remaining limits to my capabilities (except color — but come on, it was the early 90’s). I began honing my skills doing freelance work for ad agencies, churches, nonprofits and friends. The earnings were meager but the more I worked, the more work I got and the more satisfying it was.

Fast forward a couple of decades and those early efforts have grown into a rewarding career in marketing, branding, communications, public relations, writing and, of course, design. The technology of design has evolved as well and I now have access to amazing tools and resources I couldn’t even have dreamed of when I was starting out.

What hasn’t changed, though, are the fundamentals of great design.

As humans, we’re social creatures, born to communicate. We spend our lives sharing words, images and ideas. When a designer is able to take those basic elements of communication, inject them with a spark of inspiration and creativity, and share them visually, suddenly you have a human connection. Suddenly you have great graphic design.

As I worked to develop my spiritual practice over the last couple of years, I began to notice something surprising. There’s a fundamental similarity between what makes great graphic design and what makes a spiritually satisfying life.

Let’s take a look, courtesy of some of the greatest album covers of all time…

1) Balance

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In graphic design, all elements have visual weight. Larger, darker items can dominate a visual space, making it feel unstable if they are not counterbalanced. All the components need to work together to form a unified, balanced whole that is both easily understood and pleasing to the eye. Without proper balance, a design can feel confusing or unfinished.

For anyone with spiritual goals, balance is (in my opinion) the most important of all spiritual principles. A life without balance is like a ship that leans to one side. Without equilibrium, it’s not only unstable, it’s dangerous. Even a little more weight on the wrong side can lead to disaster.

One of the biggest “aha” moments of my spiritual growth came when I noticed how out of balance my life had become. So I decided to become more mindful of where my attention and efforts were focused (and wasted). One change I made was to turn off the television. No more cable news, cold turkey. I was amazed at how much brighter my outlook became almost immediately.

Getting my life in better balance has been critical for my growth. I’ve become mindful of the things I allow to take up my time and attention, which gives me more freedom to focus on the things that bring fulfillment.

2) Simplicity

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Our minds instinctively avoid chaos and disorder. Given the choice, we gravitate toward clear, simple design that focuses primarily on the elements most important for communication. White space is our friend, allowing the eye easily to settle on the important elements of the message. The designer must trim away clutter and extraneous elements to allow meaning to shine through.

Similarly, a focus on spirituality requires that we clear away the clutter and confusion in our lives. We seem to have an innate drive to amass stuff: clothes, apps, cars, furniture, toys, hobbies, social media “friends,” you name it. It’s as if we believe the more we have, the more we are. But our urge to collect belongings is born of our fears. And ironically, carrying the weight of all those possessions increases our stress and fear.

The more I practice mindfulness, the more I realize that my possessions are not my friends. Rather than making me feel secure, they increase my stress. I’m slowly purging our home of anything that doesn’t have immediate usefulness or significant meaning. It’s been very freeing.

3) Contrast

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One of the most important functions of good design is helping the viewer quickly distinguish the most important concepts and information. Designers create contrast by manipulating size, color, proportion, proximity, and negative space. This builds a hierarchy of importance that separates focal points from less relevant information. With too little contrast, a design not only fails to elicit an emotional reaction but ends up confusing the audience.

In life, we make daily decisions about what’s important and what’s not. Depending on what we choose, we may be led toward spiritual growth or pushed backward into negativity. If we fail to choose, we may get stuck in a directionless rut. It’s important to develop our skills of discernment so we can clearly see the contrast between our options.

For my own spiritual growth, noticing the contrast means trying to see things as they really are, not as I want them to be. All things may have some good qualities, but not all things are good for my life. It’s my challenge to discern what can be helpful to my growth.

4) Alignment

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Designers create feelings of harmony and balance by keeping related elements aligned together via an invisible line or grid. Without alignment, the audience feels a sense of disorder that creates tension or confusion. By keeping elements in alignment, a designer can express clear ideas that flow together naturally and are understood quickly.

In terms of spiritual growth, alignment is important as well. Are your actions in alignment with your beliefs? Are you seeking ways to be more open and compassionate, or has your daily life remained self-focused?

For me, becoming more aligned has meant giving up some things and taking on others. I’ve reduced my spending and started meditating. I’ve cut my television time and added many more books. I try to help more and complain less. I practice being less judgmental and more accepting of everyone. I remind myself a lot that, at their core, every other person is just another facet of myself.

5) Repetition

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The use of repetition creates visual consistency in a design. Consistent typefaces, images, colors or layouts help viewers spot visual cues as their attention moves through a design. In long-format pieces like magazines and websites, repetition is especially important to create a feeling of uniformity and flow. Readers can naturally recognize repeating headlines, subheads and captions to help them quickly find information that’s important to them.

In any spiritual endeavor, practice is necessary to ingrain positive habits. It’s called a spiritual “practice” because without repeating it regularly, it never becomes a part of our lifestyle. Lots of people take up meditation for a week or two, then decide it doesn’t work and give it up. But mindfulness, meditation, prayer and other spiritual practices take patience, attention and, most importantly, repetition in order to make an impact.

Since I’ve integrated Transcendental Meditation (TM) into my life, it’s become a daily practice. Research on TM has shown that it takes about four months for many of the benefits to become noticeable. The key is repetition. I can attest that after practicing TM for a couple of months, it became a natural habit, and missing a meditation session is now rare for me.

6) Rhythm

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Beautiful design has an inherent ebb and flow. To avoid monotony, designers introduce variations in text, graphics and color, but they must ensure the variations fit within a consistent overall pattern. The pace should be irregular enough to maintain interest but not so unpredictable as to feel random. A design’s rhythm should create a feeling of movement that helps viewers progress through the flow of information.

Depending on your viewpoint, the rhythm of life may seem like a beautiful gift or a cruel joke. Its unpredictable twists and turns may bring us joy one moment and misery the next. Our spiritual challenge is to let the changes rise and fall like waves around us while our true self rests in the eternity of the present moment.

Working on my own spiritual practice, I’ve begun to recognize my thoughts and emotions as temporary responses to the eternal flow of experience. When I step back to see the larger rhythm of life at play, it reminds me of a jazz composition.  The notes are sometimes harmonious, often dissonant, nearly always improvised. And underlying it all is a structure of rhythm that is creative and beautiful.

7) Unity

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In a good design, all the visual elements work together to form a single relationship. There is a sense of unity and oneness that creates meaning. This is achieved by using common colors, size, weight or graphic styles that complement each other. When a design is unified, everything works together to eliminate feelings of division, separation or confusion.

I believe unity is one of the most important concepts of spirituality, but also one of the most difficult to grasp. We instinctively judge every part of our world as right or wrong, good or bad, black or white, positive or negative, loved or hated. But our challenge is to accept that the universe is not as our limited senses perceive it. It is one indivisible creation of infinite complexity and potential, that is whole and complete, and without the need for our judgement.

When we start to see beyond our judging, ego-based selves, we can grasp the concept of a unified, non-dual universe based on infinite love. We can rest in the knowledge that our role in it is to seek out what’s beautiful and meaningful, and help it continue to evolve — just as it should be.

My career in marketing and design has brought me some incredible experiences. Some of my work has been great and some not so great, but all of it was rewarding. I’ve had designs featured on billboards, websites, television and in magazines. I’ve met celebrities, driven race cars, traveled to amazing cities and learned from inspiring people, some of whom were generous enough to become my mentors. It all started with a passion for design.

The concepts of design are a powerful way to interpret our world and our place in it. Maybe we can learn something from the parallels between great design and spiritual growth. Maybe in that synchronicity we can sense a deeper meaning that’s directing us all toward perfecting a beautiful design.


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