Conversatio Divina

Part 5 of 5

Jesus, Parables, & Graphic Design

Avo Adourian

01.  Introduction

I am a graphic designer by trade who utilizes principles of visual communication to help draw attention to goods, services, and physical environments. Graphic designers are curators and purveyors of information. Our work in the creative field entails studying an organization, its products, or services, and arranging images and words in order to make them accessible to specific audiences.

I learned from Dallas Willard that every one of us can learn from Jesus regarding best practices—not just religious things: “whether it is making ax handles or tacos, selling automobiles or teaching kindergarten . . . performing in the arts or teaching English as a second language.”Dallas Willard. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life In God, (New York: Harper, 1998) Christ is immensely interested in our line of work and has the best knowledge to assist us in performing our duties in unique and creative ways. Those of us who rely on Christ are at an advantage should we choose to learn from him. As a designer, I find myself at even a greater advantage. For, after a decade into my career, it dawned on me that Jesus was also a communications specialist. Without intention on my part, I find myself in the same field as the Man who was the best at the discipline.

Jesus was a carpenter by trade in his early life and a professional communicator in his later life. Not only is Jesus a masterful communicator—regularly joining together images and words to make information accessible to his audiences—but he is also an enthusiastic student of the practice of communication. He had worked out theories on the topic which he made available to those listening. He had strategies and ideas about how best to communicate the Kingdom of God, which he very clearly spells out in his addresses to the public. Since my line of work involves making information accessible to others in memorable ways, I can routinely refer to the New Testament accounts of Jesus not only expressing his ideas, but letting me see the innerworkings of his method of communication.

02.  The Parable

So, what made Jesus so effective in getting ideas across to people? What methods did he use to convey truth to his hearers?

Jesus’ primary mode of communication was parables. Jesus constructs his parables relying on multiple principles to make complex truths simple. An initial compilation of these principles includes indirect, veiled, and hidden communication, placing the old with the new, hierarchy, essentialism, comparison, symbolism, simplification, exaggeration, clarity as its own form of originality, and remembrance and discovery. This list is not exhaustive. Pages could be written on how Jesus masterfully marshalled these principles in his parables. Any competent graphic designer knows their potency. But in order to provide us with a sampling, I will focus on three foundational communication strategies of Jesus that we graphic designers also use: (1) Indirect Communication, (2) Simplicity, and (3) Combining Old and New.

03.  Indirect Communication

Jesus initiates his parabolic style of teaching with a parable about why parables are necessary—The Parable of the Sower (Matt 13:3-9). This parable is a treatise on the reception of a message. Jesus communicated parabolically, because he believed that truth directly spoken tends to have the inverse effect of what the speaker is intending. “Being confronted in a direct way often only strengthens a person’s resolve to resist a message and intensifies his or her resolve to continue unchanged.”Benson P. Fraser, Hide and Seek: The Sacred Art of Indirect Communication (Eugene: Cascade, 2020). Parables get past these strongholds of the mind by hiding deep truths within simple stories. Willard comments on this in a 1983 message about the parables, “We can’t argue with it. It’s so beautifully told. We can’t forget it. We just have to carry it around in our head. So, a parable is like a little spiritual time capsule . . . You take it, it goes down very easily because Jesus didn’t come on and assault your mind.”Dallas Willard, “Parable Teaching About Christ’s Kingdom by Christ Himself,” Conversatio Divina, Spring, 1983.

A visual example of this is the evolution of the map for the New York City Transit. Early, geographically accurate renditions of the map made the task of reaching one’s destination difficult. The detailed information, while accurate, was superfluous in serving its intended purpose. A New York Times article from 1972 refers to the subway lines as “confusing as a mass of spaghetti.” See figure A.

For this reason, contemporary map designers prioritized functionality over accuracy. They introduced a grid system, aligning metro lines at right angles to simplify navigation, dismissing unnecessary curves. Information about New York’s geography was similarly eliminated, as it did commuters little good. Massimo Vignelli, an Italian designer, epitomized this approach, focusing strictly on transit lines: “You want to go from Point A to Point B, period. The only thing you are interested in is the spaghetti.”“Vignelli.” New York Transit Museum, Accessed 12 October 2023. He and his firm, Unimark, produced a simplified map that sacrificed accuracy for functionality. Exactness is obscured for truth to be made plain. See figure B.

In the same way, Jesus did not say everything there was to be known about himself, God, reality, or morality. He instead hid the most essential moral knowledge within a carefully selected collection of parables—about 40 in all—some without a whiff of religion about them.

04.  Simplicity

Oliver Wendell Holmes, a US Supreme Court Justice who served in the early 1900’s is attributed as saying, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” On the surface, parables seem overly simplistic, maybe even childish. But every good communicator and designer knows that to distill a message down to its simplest form is painstakingly difficult. It is much easier to say everything. Paradoxically, in relaying ideas with as few words or images as possible we can still achieve the totality of that which we desire to communicate—often with significantly more impact. It is important to remember that great depth can be had in simplicity.

Years ago, a meme was circulating among designers that drove this point home in a comparative way. The following viral image (and video) humorously raised the question, “what if Microsoft had designed the iPod?” and placed their package alongside the Apple original. See figure C. The unspoken question was, “which of these is more effective?”

The parables of Jesus carry a layered simplicity that both resonate with children, and have volumes written about them by scholars.

05.  Combining Old and New

Immediately following his inaugural Parable of the Sower, Jesus rattles off six more parables and completes the series with a mini parable about himself. “Therefore, every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Matt 13:52). This sentence beautifully encapsulates what it is that a teacher or a communicator does when relaying a message.

It is also what I do as a graphic designer. So much of building a brand identity that communicates well is a teetering act between things old and things new; the familiar and the uncharted. The old grounds the audience in the story, while the novel builds expectancy, inviting new life into the narrative and setting the recipient’s sights on the horizon. Novelty is newness based in truth, and truth is very old. In this way, it is different than trendiness, which is newness based in the ephemeral.

Industrial and graphic designer, Raymond Loewy embraced this principle. Loewy designed some of the most iconic logos in the 20th century—a few of which are still in circulation today. He did so by walking the tightrope between things old and things new. Among many others, his portfolio includes the US Postal Service, Nabisco, Shell, Canada Dry, and Exxon. See Figure D. Loewy founded his designs on a principle that he developed and coined as MAYA: “Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable.”

06.  Conclusion

It is not enough to know what Jesus communicated; we must also come to grips with how he communicated. In this short reflection we have tried to do just that. In so doing, we hardly scratched the surface on what could be said regarding the genius of Jesus’ communication style. It should be clear that it is not only artists who can learn from Jesus’ communications strategies, but anyone with an audience. Jesus was the best at the medium and should be considered an authority on the subject matter by any serious student of the discipline. While Jesus did not come up with the parabolic genre, nor did he make up new truths, his stories are still in circulation. With indirection, simplicity, and combining old and new, he communicated ancient truths in ways that still powerfully resonate to this day.


Avo Adourian is a creative director and partner at Reform Studio. He is a graduate of the Renovaré Institue: London Cohort and a Martin Institute Cultura Fellow. His roles for include creative direction, branding, UI/UX, and content development.

Avo works and lives in Orange, California with his wife, Nathalie, daughter, Ella, and son, Paul.