Monday, June 3, 2013

Thirsting for God

My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. - Psalm 42:2 
Recently I was asked by one of the pastors of my church in New Haven, Trinity Baptist, to design the website graphic for the upcoming summer sermon series. The series, which begins next week, will focus on selections from Book Two of the Psalms (Psalms 42-72). The title of the series is Thirsting for God.

Almost immediately I began to picture the image of a cup--a chalice--representing our "Thirst" for God. I envisioned the icon of a cup nesting within itself and tessellating across the page, functioning as a wallpaper-like background for text which would provide details about the series.

I discussed the concept and sketch with my pastor. He pointed out that, alongside the thirsting metaphor in the Psalms, was the recurring theme of God's kingship. We discussed the idea that perhaps the cup could morph into a crown to represent God as King.

In the spirit of M.C. Escher, I had hoped to transition the individual cups into individual crowns. But try as I did, I could not come up with a crown tessellation which worked well as the end point for the cup-to-crown transition, much less figure out how one would become the other!

The beauty of the cup tessellation, I felt, was that it was a single form that nested perfectly within itself. I could nest a crown with an upside down crown. Or a crown with some other shapes to make up the difference. But this did not seem as elegant as nesting the cup with itself over and over again.

As my brain still spun, hoping to work out a solution, I further developed the details of the cup pattern in AutoCAD and Illustrator. Even though I knew that I would produce the final graphic in Illustrator and InDesign, I tend to work faster in AutoCAD for vector-based line work, so that is generally where I start for producing precise geometries before importing the line work into the Adobe products.

In the mean time, I dove into the Psalms with the hope of prompting some further inspiration. Though other royal symbols are mentioned--a scepter (45:6), a throne (45:6, 47:8, 55:19), a palace (45:8,15)--they are more obscure as symbols of kingship and would be more difficult to render in a simple iconic form than the more-recognizable crown--which, incidentally, is not mentioned in Psalms 42 through 72. Creating an icon for other, but more abstract, kingly attributes mentioned in the Psalms--majesty (45:4), righteousness (45:4,7, 48:10, 50:6, 51:14)--would have been an even more obscure and daunting task.

As I read through the Psalms, however, the cup metaphor continued to hold water--if you will pardon the pun. There are numerous references to thirsting, to water, to the sea, to cleansing.

As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God. - Psalm 42:1

Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls;
all your breakers and your waves have gone over me. - Psalm 42:7

My heart overflows with a pleasing theme. - Psalm 45:1

Grace is poured upon your lips. - Psalm 45:2

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
though the mountains be moved into the hear of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High. - Psalm 46:1-4

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity
and cleans me from my sin! - Psalm 51:2

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. - Psalm 63:1

Save me, O God!
For the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying out;
my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
with waiting for my God. - Psalm 69:1-3

May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass,
like showers that water the earth! - Psalm 72:6

I went to bed with the Psalms and the cup tessellation swimming around in my head, and--I kid you not--the key to the solution to the cup/crown dilemma ultimately came to me while I was dreaming. I dreamed about the pattern transitioning across the page, with pieces of the tessellation dropping out to reveal a crown formed by turning several cups very subtly into the prongs of a crown.

As with most ideas that come in the middle of the night, there were some gaps, and the idea still took some development and editing beyond my subconscious designer. (The bright purple and green paintbrush strokes that overpowered the image, for instance, never saw the light of day.) The big break-through, however, was the idea of transitioning many cups into one crown. 

Also an overnight breakthrough was the realization that the pattern would drop away to reveal something else rather than be one consistent wallpaper across the page. The changing patterns of negative space worked to provide visual interest and slowly reveal the crown.

There are four colors used in the graphic. The three blues are from Trinity Baptist Church's logo (a riff on the traditional ecclesiastical trefoil pattern symbolizing the Trinity), and the gold is a Pantone mix I found online. Working in Illustrator, I tried a couple of patterns of blues and gold, and ultimately realized that a small white outline helped to define the cup by keeping the colors from running into each other.

Once I had the extents of the wallpaper pattern, which in the full graphic cuts off mid-cup in order to insinuate the pattern extending off the page, I started to drop away the cups to reveal negative space. To my mind, the major trick to patterns is finding some way to change them in a regular way that has enough variation to still be interesting. It is incredibly daunting to create something "random" that appears well-thought-out and visually pleasing. Defining "rules" for myself is always a good bet.

The page moves from lower left to upper right where density decreases and all that is left is the golden cups and the newly-revealed crown. The crown is set apart from the cups with a slightly larger white line than is typical, and the base of the crown provides space for the text description of the sermon series. For better or worse, there are seven prongs on the crown, seven being a significant Biblical number.

Typeface selection is always tricky and will invariably please some people while offending others. Working with a severely limited palette of decent options currently installed on my computer, I selected Trajan (1989, Carol Twombly) for the title and subtitle and Palatino Italic (1948, Hermann Zapf) for the Bible verse. Though Trajan has a reputation as an overused "movie font," its roots in the letterforms used on Roman inscriptions seemed appropriately authoritarian and royal. Palatino is a delicate font which I am usually drawn to because I love the upper case P in its Roman form. However, in Italic form it seemed to play particularly well with Trajan, which does not have lowercase letterforms (it uses small-caps instead).

Following some of the typographic conventions I learned last fall at a seminar with the University Printer of Yale University, I cleaned up the text. Some of the refinements include increased tracking for the small Italic text to aid in legibility and use of old-style numerals for the year and the Bible verse citation. The vector-based line work of the pattern was produced in Illustrator, which was then linked into InDesign for setting of the typography prior to exporting the final PDF and JPG files.

The finished graphic looks like this on the homepage. Clicking on the image takes one to the sermon list and sermon audio.

I really enjoyed this project and was honored to have been asked to work on it. Good graphic design can help draw people in to engage with deeper content, and I hope that this particular graphic serves that purpose.

However, I acknowledge that I submit this work to the public eye humbly and do not write this now as a "look at me, look at me" post. Rather, I mostly wanted to describe some of the thinking and work that went into the design process.

And it is a process. Design is at one time rewarding and frustrating; thinking and feeling; inspiration and execution. It is taking an idea far enough. It is not taking an idea too far. It is deciding when to quit because further work risks muddying the concept or the execution.

My hope is that the cup-to-crown imagery is subtle, that it may take some time to decipher, but that it is visually pleasing enough to look at long enough to think about some of this deeper symbology.

As I continue to reflect even now on the symbolism of the cup and crown in anticipation of the upcoming sermon series, I am reminded of Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well from the Gospel of John. In the encounter, the woman has come to draw water from the well to quench a very real physical thirst. But Jesus--the King--turns that thirst into a metaphor for our spiritual thirst, as is so poetically described in the Psalms.
Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life. - John 4:13-14