[Individual articles from the Fall 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]
Brands are most often recognized by their logos, but for most organizations a brand has more to do with expressing a shared ethos and value system. When it is working well, a brand’s visual language should support and reflect the intangible characteristics that define it. MCC’s brand is no exception. Beginning with photographs of famine in the post-World War I Soviet Union, MCC has relied on visual content to share stories of need, assistance and cross-cultural exchange. This emphasis on visual story-telling continued to guide the development of MCC’s brand identity in the 1970s and 1980s, as MCC worked to standardize a branding system that would be versatile enough to accommodate an expanding roster of programming. This article provides a brief overview of MCC’s visual brand, exploring some of the rationale behind design decisions that continue to influence MCC’s communications and fundraising work in the present.
Symbols and typography
Along with images that accompany stories, MCC’s visual identity is defined by the typefaces, colors and symbols that frame its content. In its nearly one hundred years, MCC has been represented by only two different logos. The first, designed by Arthur Sprunger in the 1940s, combined recognizable symbols and hand-rendered type into an emblem logo. Here, each component remains static and distinct, with a clear hierarchy in the arrangement of the symbols (see fig.1). The elements continue in the second mark, developed by Kenneth Hiebert, but they have undergone a radical transformation (see fig. 2). Drawing on Swiss design—a style based in simplicity, functionality and objectivity—Hiebert created an abstract logomark that has remained relatively unchanged since it was first used in 1970, the year of MCC’s fiftieth anniversary.
Upon adoption of Hiebert’s logomark, MCC’s style manual explained some of the thinking that guided its development: “An attempt has been made to create a symbol which utilizes the universal language of the visual. It was intentionally designed to require a moment of very active participation by the viewer to understand its content.” The mark was later paired with sans serif typefaces (first Univers and later Helvetica) for a signature, now commonly referred to as the “MCC logotype” (fig. 2). While Helvetica’s extreme legibility makes it appear more neutral and commonplace, the MCC mark’s unique fusion of symbols (cross and dove) invites scrutiny. Aesthetically, the two are well matched. They belong to the same strain of modern design, resulting from attempts to reduce complex sets of symbols to recognizable forms that are at once unified, concise and evocative.
MCC’s Graphic Standards Introduction from 1987 echoes this attempt to balance accessibility with engagement, particularly when it comes to creating promotional images. “The symbol and graphic standards set the tone for our publicity as being simple, honest and direct on the one hand and imaginative and participatory on the other. Graphics which both clearly inform and stimulate to new understanding and action are the goals of the publicity program.”
Photography as collaboration
Along with the graphic standards (including the mark, typography and a strong emphasis on grid-based layout), photography is a crucial part of MCC’s brand and has played a major part in helping MCC locate a middle ground between accessibility and meaningful engagement for its audience. Feeding the Hungry, the popular book by two of MCC’s founders, P.C. Hiebert and Orie O. Miller, combined more than a hundred haunting images with reports from MCC workers in Russia. As Robert S. Kreider and Rachel Waltner Goossen noted in their book, Hungry, Thirsty, a Stranger, these reports originally news releases sent from the early Scottdale, Pennsylvania, headquarters of MCC to editors of church papers—were the first iteration of MCC “information services,” now known as communications.
Over the years, photo-gathering for MCC has taken many forms. As cameras became more ubiquitous in the 1970s, so too did MCC’s reliance on its workers and alumni for visual, oral and written content that could be circulated among constituents. Through the eighties and nineties, Howard Zehr helped develop photo guidelines for MCC workers and regularly contributed a column to Intercom, MCC’s newsletter to MCC staff and alumni. These guidelines stressed the collaborative nature of photography: they encouraged photographers to work with their subjects and even suggested that MCC photographers invite those who are being represented to take ownership of the process.
Zehr’s columns, meanwhile, alerted MCCers in Canada and the U.S. to the ways in which photography can help build bridges, or just as easily establish cultural hierarchies and reify harmful stereotypes. With their images, wrote Zehr, MCC photographers should “seek to convey respect, not arouse pity, to humanize rather than depersonalize,” to instill a sense of partnership and inspire their audience to action.
From images to application
Photos have traditionally served as hooks for fundraising and advocacy initiatives or as anchors for reporting. As a field report from 1994 puts it, “Photographs are a good way of letting people see for themselves what is happening.” Although the straightforward objectivity of this statement appears naive, visual transparency remains the goal of MCC photography. MCC’s current photography guidelines describe it as a “documentary” approach, where “the photographer is unobtrusive and the subject is depicted as naturally as possible” so that photographs “communicate on an emotional level, bringing the viewer closer to what is portrayed.”
But the meaning of a photograph, not least the intention of a photographer, changes as soon as it is used in a design application. Every promotional piece that MCC produces decontextualizes and recontextualizes its subject matter in some way. For this reason, MCC’s photo guidelines stress the importance of captions and permissions (including location and names of those pictured, as well as connection to MCC’s work and the photo credit), stating that “use of MCC photographs should accurately represent the context in which they were taken” and that “MCC photographs must appear in a context connected to MCC.” These are important safeguards, but they can only go so far.
MCC increasingly produces promotional material (for entities such as Thrift shops, relief sale committees and more) where captions are regarded as inappropriate and clunky and are therefore simply left off. (See figure 3, designed by Barefoot Creative, and fig. 4.) These kinds of pieces focus on real participants in MCC’s work, but in these examples, their images are not being featured to fill out a story. Rather they are meant to be representative of people benefiting from MCC. To try and counteract this, MCC Thrift shops recently created shelfcards (fig. 5) to supplement poster designs (fig. 3) featuring the same individuals, with the original photo backgrounds left in and contextual information provided. However, it is hard to measure the success of initiatives like this, especially because shops have the option of whether or not to display these sorts of materials.
MCC could once take for granted that its primary audience would be the individuals and congregations of constituent churches. In that context, MCC was responsible for designing materials that would sometimes use images without accompanying captions, thus leaving out biographical and contextual information about the people represented. In many cases, this was done to challenge preconceived ideas about poverty, conflict and inequality (see figures 6 and 7). Today, as the reach of MCC’s brand grows, the use of images will likely continue as a foundation of MCC’s brand identity, but that identity will just as certainly continue to evolve with its audience.
MCC continues to promote high standards in photography, as is evident in the storytelling focus of publications like A Common Place, news articles on the MCC website and even in flagship promotional pieces like MCC’s annual calendar. Advertising and wide-ranging marketing initiatives require compelling images to broaden MCC’s audience and find new donors. But the tensions addressed in this article will continue to raise questions for MCC staff. How will MCC’s critical approach to representation and photography inform future communications and fundraising efforts? And how, in turn, will MCC’s shifting priorities influence the standards of its visual identity?
Jonathan Dyck, MCC Canada graphic designer, designed and illustrated Unsettling the Word: Biblical Experiments in Decolonization (Winnipeg: CommonWord, 2018).
Hiebert, Kenneth. Graphic Design Processes: Universal to Unique. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1992.
Hiebert, P.C. and Orie Miller. Feeding the Hungry: Russia Famine, 1919–1925 (Scottdale, PA: 1929).
Kreider, Robert S. and Rachel Waltner Goossen. “Reporting the MCC Experience: Images and Posters.” Hungry, Thirsty, a Stranger: The MCC Experience. 193–209. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1988.
Pater, Ruben. The Politics of Design: A (Not So) Global Manual for Visual Communication. Amsterdam:BIS Publishers, 2016.
Zehr, Howard. “The Photographic Metaphor.” Intercom (March 1991): 5.
—. “Photographing People of Color.” Intercom (May 1991): 6.