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Interview

Joshua Blankenship

April 04, 2011

Tell us about your background. How did you get started and arrive to your current position as Design Director for NewSpring Church?

I began volunteering for NewSpring in 2002, while taking a semester off from college. At the time I was mainly focused on songwriting (and somewhat less so on my studies as a Religion/English major at Florida State) and my knowledge of computers consisted of writing term papers and checking email. I offered to help the church with some print pieces, and began coming into the office at night and started learning my way around the only graphics app the church owned, CorelDraw. It wasn’t pretty, but it was a step up from Microsoft Word and clip art.

I was hired a few months later, part-time at first, then eventually full-time and worked at NewSpring until mid-2005. During that time we grew from around 300 to more than 3000 attenders, and I tried to keep up with the growing needs of a growing church (branding, collateral, websites, mail campaigns, signage, wayfinding systems, capital campaigns, etc.).

Between mid-2005 and late-2007 I lived in three cities, met and married my wife, learned to build websites (kind of), freelanced to mixed results, took short-term contract gigs, worked at a big ad agency and a bootstrapped startup, and continued learning what I could from anyone who would share it with me. Ryan Sims, Jeremy Cowart, Aaron Martin, Noah Stokes, and Derek Nelson bore the brunt of my relentless question asking and thirst for design/development knowledge.

I was asked to return to NewSpring at the beginning of 2008. We implemented a complete rebrand and new web strategy in six months, and since have continued to build our team as the church changes. We currently have five campuses in South Carolina with 14,000+ in attendance and growing each weekend, plus a large online audience.

I’m completely indebted to to the leadership of NewSpring for taking a chance on me so early and giving me room to grow as a designer. I doubt I would have become a designer if not for my church, which is a rare and wonderful thing to be able to say.

In looking at your recent work, it’s obvious NewSpring is getting a major return on their initial investment. We’ve noticed the wide variety of things you’re designing & producing. What are some of your favorite projects from the past year?

Three projects stand out: a slight visual & copy refresh of the NewSpring homepage, the conference identity & collateral for this year’s Unleash, and directing a Junior Designer.

1) The NewSpring homepage had been relatively the same since then-developer Adam Spooner and I launched the current version of the site in July 2010. It was a standard hero image slider with three smaller ad units. The slider used the familiar (to web savvy folks at least) visual language of dots for navigation indicators.

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I have a metric ton of design autonomy and trust at NewSpring, so when the rare direct request from a supervisor happens, it is always with good reason. And when it’s a web-related request, I pay special attention because it’s indicative of our typical users, not designer/developer types, who can veer toward insulated opinions.

A request made its way to me to “do something different than the dots” for navigation, the assumption being that they weren’t clear enough. I initially pushed back, but as I sketched 15 or so different navigation schemes, I was won over—the clarity wasn’t there in the original design. The sketches were presented (no reason to waste hours and pixels when a Sharpie sketch clearly communicates a user interface) and we agreed on ditching the dots in favor of short, descriptive phrases that added context prior to a click.

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I also took the opportunity to rethink the page as a whole—rather than just tackling the navigation aspect of it—and made a go at increased clarity and simplicity with the bottom ad units as well, incorporating larger, more-compelling imagery, concise copy, fitting one more ad unit in the same general pixel space, and refining text sizes and relationships, as well as white space.

2) Every March we host Unleash, a one-day conference to challenge, encourage, and equip 2500+ church leaders from all over the country (and a few from outside the U.S. as well). The conference doesn’t have a set visual identity, so each year I get the opportunity to change it up and have a little fun. This was the fifth annual Unleash so I wanted to capture a sense of throwback nostalgia with the visual language in printed materials, signage, and other conference collateral.

It began with logo (a heavily-customized Allan Gothic Condensed) and type choices (various weights of Futura and United, with a sprinkling of Raleigh Gothic, Ziggurat, redrawn blackletter, and some custom letterforms) and ended up playing out in repeating patterns for print work....

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...and physical materials like hand-painted plywood wayfinding signs (taking a page from Ben Barry’s F8 playbook) that covered the campus...

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Unleash 2011 was the most visually dense project my team worked on in the last year, and the most fun for me as a designer and typography lover.

3) For the last six months, one of my primary tasks has been directing our excellent (and excelling) Junior Designer Chandler Van De Water. I knew Chan through mutual friends and saw a ton of promise and potential in his work, attention-to-detail, curiosity, and his general attitude on Dribbble.

Letting go of design control is an acutely difficult, but necessary part of growing in leadership with a team and being freed up to do as much design thinking as design tasks. Leading and directing in this way—trying to hold fast to the Miles Davis school of telling his musicians what not to play, but avoiding telling them what to play—is a definitely a project unto itself. But it’s paying off, and it’s a joy to see a team member rising to the occasion and producing great work.

What is your favorite & least favorite part of the design process? What area(s) are you working to improve your skill-set?

I hate the nagging feeling that there’s a better idea (or execution of an idea) to solve a design problem, but I don’t have enough time to excavate and unpack it.

That said, working under deadline and seeing what happens is massively enjoyable. What can my brain produce in the given timeframe? What solutions are awaiting discovery? I love that moment in between the project brief and the first mark making. There’s an amazing tension in opening a blank canvas and forcing your brain to go to work. I never grow tired of it. I can’t believe I get paid to do this.

Improvement occurs through doing, through practice, through the day-to-day workflow. I don’t have anything intentional and structured in place, but working with people, articulating ideas, solving problems, complaining by making things, writing, writing, writing—all these things add up to being better over time.

Show up. Pay attention. Do good work. Get better.

Describe your work day (hours & rituals you keep) and your work environment (how your workstation is set up & what your office is like).

I’ve traditionally been a night owl. In January I shifted my schedule two hours earlier. It’s been refreshing and I’ve been far more productive ever since. I’m happy to have killed the all-nighter-as-badge-of-honor thing.

Our team works Monday–Thursday, with Sunday being an odd “work day” that involves equal parts tasks, volunteering in other areas of the church, traveling to other campuses, and actually attending a church service like a normal person.

These days my alarm goes off at 7. As I’ve adapted to the new schedule, I’m finding I wake up before my alarm more often than not. The early morning is full of reading/studying, eating, planning, spending time with my wife, occasionally exercising, and a short commute—you know, typical morning stuff.

I’m usually at the office by 9. I don’t have a set schedule or collection of rituals, mainly because the nature of our team and our staff is in constant flux. Change is a key word, so I tend to think more in seasons than workdays, being mindful of deadlines, momentum, and trying to build in time to think about and strategize problems in addition to actually designing solutions. I’m out of the office well before 6 most days.

So far this year I’ve been giving 10–15 hours a week to client work and my own projects, however it fits into the weekly schedule with other social engagements. There’s no ritual there, and honestly I’m still trying to get a better handle on how to do it well without detracting from my job and my homelife. Overlap is problematic.

My work environment at NewSpring is no frills. Our team sits in an open office at a grouping of 8 simple Ikea desks with individual Craftsman toolchests for storage (an idea I borrowed from BurnKit). This kind of open office environment—and the constant conversation and flow of information that comes with it—doesn’t work for some teams, but it’s vital for us. If I need more privacy than headphones provide, we have plenty of nooks to go hibernate in around campus.

In terms of setup, I’m either laptop lid-closed with a 30” Cinema Display, or roaming the office with my MacBook Pro. I hate wireless things. I love good speakers and loud headphones. I wish someone made a non-horrible dock for Mac laptops. I keep a stack of paper under my keyboard and lots of pens near by.

My work environment at home looks like wherever I land—the couch, the dining room table, the back deck, the bed, I’m not too picky. I spend as much time with pen and paper as I do on the computer, so it’s more about finding a quiet, relaxing spot than any particular setup or gear.

I intentionally don’t have an office at home. Apart from that 10–15 hour weekly time for client/personal work, I want to unplug and enjoy life with my wife. I want downtime to be as non-digital as possible, getting out in the yard, gardening, woodworking, traveling, etc. If I had an office I would feel the pull to retreat there; I spend enough time sitting in front of a screen already, I don’t want to make it any easier.

Show us an image of the most inspiring thing you’ve seen this week.

Oh, too many things, always. Can I cheat? I’m going to cheat...

The tones and textures in Joey L.’s photos make me want to make things. This Reggie Watts performance makes me want to break things. Jessica Hische’s new site is drop dead gorgeous. Cole Rise shot iPhone photos through his sweater that are crazy good. The Build Conference site made me grin—when was the last time a website prompted spontaneous uncontrollable grinning? (A: Khaaan.com) Oliver Munday’s Museum of Unnatural History identity work is brilliantly understated. I can do this all day...

Thank you Joshua for taking the time to chat with us, we appreciate it.

Thank you kindly, Method & Craft.

Joshua Blankenship's Work
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