Design with Humility / Design with Conviction

February 25th, 2009 in Web Design Worldview

by: Matthew Griffin

The Christian life is one of great paradox. We glory in the image of God stamped on our souls and yet weep at the thought of our sinful brokenness. We cling to life as God's most precious gift but are prepared to cast it away without hesitation. At once we laugh at the utter subjectiveness of the relativist and yet count our personal relationship with Christ our most prized possession. This is a unique characteristic of Christianity and, if we are honest, it is the very essence of life. There is one such paradox that is key to the design vocation: the paradox of humility and conviction.

The Wrong Humility

The Bible is filled with amazing acts of humility; Christ, of course, being the ultimate example. But the legitimate humility described in the Bible is often exchanged by fallen man for a false humility. I'm not speaking here of a humility that is a cover for pride; rather a humility that is humble about the wrong things. In his book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton described this false humility perfectly by saying:

It is impossible without humility to enjoy anything—even pride. But what we suffer from today is humility in the wrong places. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful of himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed.

And later:

We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.

Chesterton published these words for the first time in 1908 but I'm afraid his assertions were prophetic. This is exactly the situation in modern culture; even more startling, it is largely the situation in the modern church. We are the most humble about the foundational doctrines of our faith. It is now en vogue to be a non-doctrinal church—a title that would (and should) be bewildering to any committed historical Christian. We have confused a lack of doctrine with biblical humility just as we have confused "non-offensive" with "peace keeping."

As web designers, we see this spill over into our vocation in the form of an agnostic attitude towards the purpose of our work. For all our striving to grasp the minute knowledge of our job we are most timid and ignorant about its ultimate aim. Many of us can speak articulately about the superiority of standards based web design or best standards and practices in IA. But that's where our conviction stops. When it comes to the weightier matters of life, our good Christian humility kicks in and we start using phrases like, "I'm not an expert but I think...", and, "I just really feel like..." These are the trappings of the modern false humility.

Correcting Humility

As Chesterton explained, Christian humility rests on human ambition. We are humble because we are finite—because we are fallen. We have no hope if we trust in our own strength or personal plans. Christian humility in design is expressed in a hunger for learning and in a grace for accepting criticism. In a hunger for learning because the admission of ignorance is an admission of God's omniscience. In a grace for accepting criticism because our work is still being sanctified. It is flawed.

In Christian humility we find peace. A humble designer is not anxious about the future; not worried about what his fellow designer knows that he doesn't. Instead, a humble designer is excited about what's next. But most importantly, a humble designer does not confuse lack of conviction for humility.

Designing with Conviction

I've spent most of this article discussing wrongly placed humility. But a rightly placed humility is ineffectual without an equally fervent conviction. Conviction is the balance to the equation—the completion of the paradox. I would add to Chesterton's assertion about misplaced humility by saying that our modern culture has an equally misplaced conviction. Our conviction lies in generalities. Don't be evil. Believe in yourself. God is love. These are the slogans of our culture. We hold our heads high and say them with gusto—even scream the violently at those we perceive as opposition. But these slogans are nothing more than relative symbols.  What is evil? What is self? What is love? You see, conviction in generalities is really no conviction at all. It's the specifics that give a conviction its form. There would be no heroes of the faith without specifics. No man ever gave his life for love in general. No woman ever gave her life for the idea of children. It must be a specific love; it must be a specific child. Likewise, our convictions about the purpose of our vocation must be specific.

When asked, "What is the purpose of your work?" we are guilty of dealing in generalities when we answer "God's glory." This, of course, is the right answer. But if we stop there, we are only cowering behind the mystical ring of the word  "glory". We must continue. We must ask ourselves what exactly it means for a designer to bring God glory. What exactly does that look like? When we find the answer, we are obligated to pursue that image incessantly—to conform ourselves daily. That may be the reason we are afraid to seek an answer.



Posted By: Tanya on 02/25/09

Well spoken Matthew. Appreciate the article.

Posted By: Matthew Grffin on 02/25/09

Thanks, Tanya.

Posted By: Jared on 02/26/09

Great article! I've never really looked at it that way, so thanks for the illumination!!!

Posted By: Jon Zuck on 02/26/09

Great article. I loved the Chesterton quotes. I like the way you tie together the need for constant questing/questioning (the specifics, what does "God's glory" mean) within the conviction. That balance and blend is essential

Posted By: Matthew Griffin on 02/26/09

Thanks, Jared and Jon.

Posted By: DoctorJay on 02/26/09

Thought provoking. I especially like this: "A humble designer is not anxious about the future; not worried about what his fellow designer knows that he doesn't. Instead, a humble designer is excited about what's next." It's so easy to get caught up in trends, competition and jealousy. I remember going on a field trip in college with one of my illustration instructors. We went to an illustration exhibit in DC and when we got back he was sad and depressed. He said it was because he felt so inferior to the people who were in the show. He couldn't enjoy the work for what it was and he internalized their success as a negative reflection on him. It was sad that he couldn't see it as a source of inspiration and "be excited about what's next."

Posted By: Matthew Grffin on 02/26/09

Thanks, Jay. Good Illustration.

Posted By: Lady_Jaws on 04/04/09

Wow.. I never thought it that way. Well written article.

Posted By: Matthew Griffin on 04/06/09

Thanks, Lady_Jaws.

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