As designers in the church, is it our job to trick people’s eyes with beauty? Is that what we are – layout magicians?

“Federal agents don’t learn to spot counterfeit money by studying the counterfeits. They study genuine bills until they master the look of the real thing. Then when they see the bogus money they recognize it.” — John MacArthur from Reckless Faith.

I think I’ve heard that statement more than a dozen times. I read it in my head and think, “Neat — if I’m ever in a situation where my life depends on knowing whether or not a twenty dollar bill is real or fake, I’ve got a sporting chance.” However, when I get past that first (slow-kids-at-play) reaction, it becomes more clear what he’s trying to say about this niche occupation that – frankly – I didn’t know you could get paid for.

Discernment.

Discernment is a form of wisdom that we all need and want. We long to know what’s going to give us the biggest bang for our buck. We’re constantly plagued with questions like: Which of these should I get? Where should I buy it? Which one of these is best? Does this look good on me? Which job is the best fit? Do I need this? Does this look right to you?

Often the way we know any of that is by discernment; either of our own choosing, or by the majority of the Amazon.com star-ratings of others. But what does it look like if we’re tricked? I know I’m secretly terrified of getting less than I bargained for, for making the wrong choice, for buying the wrong one, or for not even realizing what could have been.

In the world of design and creative work, so many of our choices can feel very relative. We scour the internet searching for someone speaking with conviction and passion about a product to set our minds at ease with a decision. Existing in a world with such self-doubt-inducing differing opinions, how can you even begin to know a right choice from a wrong one? I believe that as John MacArthur observed, we need to be relentless students of good, so that we can be always more capable of weeding out what’s bad.

The bottom line is: like experts in counterfeit currency, a person who wishes to be discerning must focus more on what is genuine than what is counterfeit. The more we know about what good design is, the easier it will be to identify bad design. The more we understand what is right, the easier it is to identify when something is wrong. Design and creativity can start out as guessing, but like the counterfeit expert, our job is to know what makes something good, what makes it fake, and be able to articulate it.

The more we know about what good design is, the easier it will be to identify bad design.

How a design “feels” is important, but if you can’t discern why it feels that way, how will you be able to do it again? A designer must constantly be seeking to understand the thing behind the thing. Guessing won’t cut it. Don’t choose red because it feels right, choose red because it is right. You have to build a foundation upon which to play. Practicing design with purpose and principle allows a deeper understanding of what makes something work. It removes a level of guess work that allows for more focused experimenting. You can know how to evoke emotion in your design work and not merely hope that it does.

Don’t choose red because it feels right, choose red because it is right.

The Message us designers in the church need to communicate is too important to rely on guesswork. If you aim only to trick the eyes of your audience, you’re gambling away your chance at a genuine emotional connection. Our audience may not know why it’s better, but they definitely feel it’s better.

You’re a designer, which means you’ve chosen to be a lifetime student. Inspiration is all around us, let’s learn why we like it—let’s discover what makes great so great. Devour design principles, become a maven of color theory, strive to be a layout connoisseur, earn the coveted Master of typography title at your local nerd precinct (that’s probably not a real place). Learn to discern what separates good from bad—the real from the counterfeit. These design principles and theories are the foundational tools of our trade and learning them has never been more available to us than it is now. Always be discerning how to make more beautiful things that actually matter.