“I only say that even if the use of images contained nothing evil, it still has no value for teaching.” — John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, 1.11.12
Reformed Christians throughout history may have taken John Calvin’s words a bit too far, professor Frank Speyers said.
Their anxiety about visual imagery in the church, coupled with the advent of the printing press, spawned a tradition of general iconoclasm that has spanned half a millenium—particularly in the university. “We’ve been textually bound for 500 years,” Speyers noted.
But in the era of MTV, beer-shilling amphibians and the World Wide Web, Calvin—the college, that is—is putting a redemptive spin on visual communication.
“We’re not hiding our TV antennas any more,” Speyers said gleefully.
Over the last few years, Speyers has been developing a visual communication curriculum that he hopes will teach students to reclaim for Christ the communication tools popular culture has debased.
“Both popular and high culture have come full circle,” Speyers said. “They now use ‘pre-Reformational’ visual rhetoric as the main way of disseminating information.”
While “the word still is more powerful than the image,” Speyers said, “an image captivates imaginations and emotions in ways that text doesn’t. And because its message resonates different parts of the brain, long-term memory is engaged.”
Scripture is full of instances in which God used visual imagery, Speyers noted. God used a burning bush to get Moses’ attention and lit a sopping-wet altar on Mount Carmel to demonstrate his authenticity. Even Jonah’s message of destruction for Ninevah was more compelling because of the prophet’s appearance. “Can you imagine what this guy may have looked like after three days in the belly of a fish?” Speyers marveled.
Grand Rapids native Scott Zahn, a Calvin senior hoping to find a job in visual communication, discovered its power first-hand. As a computer science major, he recalls, “I took the introductory art class just to fill a core requirement. I thought I would hate it (because, after all, I was a computer scientist and art was therefore stupid!). I was so wrong—I loved it! It was like no class I had ever taken before. I never really thought that I was a visual person before, but after that class it seemed like a really natural way to study and work. The only bane of that class was that it opened my eyes and showed me how dreary studying in a completely textual environment really is.”
Zahn proved his point with—of course—a computer analogy: “At first therewere text-based computer operating systems like DOS and UNIX. They were very primitive and not very user-friendly. Then Apple came along and changed everything with the Macintosh. People didn’t have to type out arcane commands that they couldn’t remember. Instead they manipulated icons and images in a much more natural, intuitive way.”
Speyers has been helping students become literate in image-based software to create their own images.
The most common application of images is advertising—a disreputable endeavor in the minds of both Christians and the general public. But Speyers teaches that manipulating images doesn’t have to mean manipulating people.
“Students use the tools of common culture that, unfortunately, Madison Avenue has singularly used to commodify everything from sex to soup,” he explained. “But because we have a different Lord, we take these tools to a different place. We’re turning the language of culture on its ear. This is no different than Old Testament prophecy or Jesus’ parables, which demonstrate that the ‘back door’ often is more effective than the front.
“I teach my students to be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves so that they will be useful to God for his holy purposes,” Speyers continued. “(At a previous teaching job at a secular college), most students felt that subliminal manipulation was alright as long as you got what you wanted. If it gave them an edge, they would embrace it in a heartbeat. They felt little or no social responsibility toward their fellow citizens.
“At Calvin, however, I feel free to begin the visual communication classes with the Biblical description of the way God communicated with Adam as a paradigm for ways we ought to communicate with one another. He created Adam a free moral agent, and He appealed to his cognitive abilities to make real moral choices.”
In fact, Speyers added, some of the best uses of current visual communication boost viewers’ mental ego by letting them “figure out” the message. Using a familiar image in a humorous or surprising way, for example, effectively drives home even a serious message. “The jester is the brother of the sage,” Speyers said.
The interim course Speyers dubbed “The Trojan Iguana”—a reference to the lizards in recent Budweiser commercials—celebrated this marketing tool.
Senior Becki Van Bruggen, of Durham N.C., for example, designed an advertisement showing the power of laptop computers—but without a single syllable of copy. Using the famous images from Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, Van Bruggen shows God reaching his hand toward his Powerbook (his computer, that is), where Adam’s finger appeared on the screen. Below, Adam touches God’s virtual finger through his own laptop.
Van Bruggen also designed a series of print ads for Pregnancy Resource Center. Each ad featured a road sign and such taglines as “Nowhere to turn? You can turn to us” or “At a crossroads in your life? We can point you in the right direction.”
After such dry runs in the classroom, Speyers has his students get some “real-world” experience. Last year, one group spent the semester creating an “image campaign” for Goodwill Industries.
“Most people know Goodwill by its stores only,” said Calvin alumna Linda Vanderbaan ‘69, former director of retail marketing for Goodwill’s local chapter. “It’s a well-kept secret we happen to be the largest employment and training operation for people with barriers to employment in the world.”
To counteract the thrift-store stereotype, students designed a t-shirt with a bright-yellow construction sign reading Goodwill @ Work imprinted over the wearer’s heart. On the back, another road sign said People Working.
“We got a lot of attention for those t-shirts,” Vanderbaan said. Not only did they engender morale among Goodwill staff who thought they were ‘cool’; they also offer publicity each time they’re worn—long after a traditional advertisement would have run its course.
Students also created invitations and postcards for a Goodwill fundraising ball and a postcard advertising an open house. Some of their work even was featured in Goodwill’s national newsletter.
Another project included designing the menus for Tinseltown, a local restaurant.
This year, groups of senior visual communications students are doing similar pro bono marketing work for four Grand Rapids nonprofits—Mel Trotter Ministries, Jubilee Jobs, Degage Ministries and Baxter Community Center.
“I want students to embrace a vision wherein they will apply visual communication design principles to causes other than the selling of ‘stuff,’” Speyers explained. “I want them to feel the joy of learning to see Christ through service in arenas they might normally never enter as a result of learning these skills.”
Each student team works to solve its client’s most pressing communication problem. For Degage Ministries, which helps to provide homeless people with basic needs, the problem is a lack of visual promotional material to help garner corporate support.
Senior Mike Richison, of Marion, Ind., and his team interviewed Degage’s executive director to learn more about the target audience. At a St. Patrick’s Day party at the ministry center, client sponsors told the students why supporting Degage is good for business.
“Employees appreciate it when businesses get involved,” said Richison, who also creates coupon display ads as an intern at Butterball Farms. “It shows them their employers are accessible, they care, and they practice what they preach.”
While they hadn’t yet finished the project, Richison’s team planned on taking the direct route: simply telling the stories of Degage clients and showing their pictures. The images will show up on direct-mail cards, church bulletin inserts and posters to accompany in-person presentations.
Van Bruggen hopes to make a career out of elevating the common or needy with technology. After she completes an internship creating a web page for a local kitchen supply store, she’ll be starting a job this year helping to design web pages for a computer network company. But she hopes that the experience in the for-profit world—the “enemy camp,” Van Bruggen jokes—will allow her later to serve nonprofits in the same way.
For Speyers, who constantly refers to his students as “heroes,” nothing could be more thrilling.
“I encourage students to align themselves with God’s way of doing things in order to demonstrate to a watching world that they have something greater than the power of Madison Avenue, namely, the power of the Holy Spirit,” Speyers said forcefully. “It may mean to approach culture subversively—upside down, inside out, and backwards.”