Fathom Mag

Designing and Being Designed

An interview with Chris Lee

Published on:
November 7, 2016
Read time:
5 min.
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Chris Lee’s website caught my eye with an N. T. Wright quote. Finding a quote like that on a designer’s website is very unusual, much less a designer who works at a high level. I had to reach out. And it turns out that Chris has a keen awareness of how design and theology intersect. 

Chris works as an interaction designer at Google, mainly focusing on Google Chrome and its user experience. (It should be noted that the ideas expressed here are Chris’s alone and not those of his employer.) 

Below is an emailed interview with him. We hope to see more of his work in the digital pages of Fathom. —Brandon Giella

Do you have a theology of design? It could be informal, of course, but do you think about how humans are created to enjoy design, and you therefore create products to tap into that?

God made us in his “image”: a phrase I understand as not just a description but a commission. We’re purposed with enjoying his creation (as the designed) and extending the creative act (as designers). As a technology designer, I’m particularly concerned with the way technology is changing the way we interact with the world, one another, and God. Technology design that properly extends God’s creative act must be aware of his natural design for us.

Website designed by Chris Lee

First, God made us with bodies to enjoy his creation. He called his creation—that is, nature and people—good. Because he “so loved the world” (John 3:16), he even entered the world as one of us, taking on a bodily form. In the creation and incarnation, God declares that human civilization matters.

Technology has played such a critical role in civilization, helping us get things done, establish relationships, and explore the world. But technology is moving toward more immersive virtual simulations of reality. This is really exciting from a technical and creative perspective, but it’s something to approach cautiously as a Christian. I don’t want to replace reality but to complement it in a way that honors God’s natural design.

Second, God made us with spirits to enjoy communion with him. While we’re made to participate in this world, we’re also citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20) who are to “desire a better country” (Hebrews 11:16). We are to “not love the world” (1 John 2:15) and “not lay up treasures here on earth” (Matthew 6:19).

Cultivating this yearning for God and the right amount of detachment from the world is a role of the Christian and the church. While there aren’t as many opportunities for this in the public forum, I’ve sought after opportunities to use my design abilities among Christian ministries to cultivate spiritual life.

What has influenced your design on a philosophical level? Why do you design the way you do, and who has shaped that thinking? It could be Christians, theologians, non-Christians, or schools and principles (e.g., Bauhaus, Scandinavian typography, Massimo Vignelli, etc.).

Lately, I’ve been influenced by the philosophy behind user-centered design. I was first introduced to this approach toward design in university, but putting it into practice has been one of the greatest career challenges for me. Designers like myself are tempted to think that we have some special level of vision. There’s a certain hubris in this, like we’re descending from the mountain holding stone tablets of truth. While design certainly requires intuition and taste, user-centered design offers a necessary counterbalance of empathy and humility. 

While design certainly requires intuition and taste, user-centered design offers a necessary counterbalance of empathy and humility.
Chris Lee

User-centered design basically says, “Wait a second. You don’t know it all. You’re not your user. Maybe you don’t really understand them. Maybe you should try talking to some of them first, observing how they live their lives. Maybe you should see what data’s out there. Maybe you should see how other designers have approached this problem. Maybe you should ask your users what they think about your ideas before you totally commit to them.”

I work on products like Google Chrome that service over a billion people around the world. People with different stories, goals, professions, ages, and beliefs than mine. And yet they’re all sharing a common humanity made in the image of God.

As I’ve traveled around the world, I see people using software like this for all sorts of things I never would have expected—some that are really business-critical or even life-critical. So I feel a real responsibility to make well-informed, deliberate design decisions.

How do you feel about Bible design? If you were given a million dollars to design the world’s greatest Bible—in digital or print—what would you create?

The demand for humility that I feel for typical design projects applies even further when talking about Christian practice.
Chris Lee

The demand for humility that I feel for typical design projects applies even further when talking about Christian practice. User-centered design is not enough: God has certain revealed designs for how we are to live. So I’m cautious with trying to apply Silicon Valley innovation techniques to “disrupt” the Bible. This is a book with God’s inspiration and two thousand years of human interaction behind it, and any attempt to making a “better Bible” needs to start humbly.

That said, I do think there’s room for intentional, humble exploration of applying design thinking to the Bible. Some of the challenges I personally experience with the Bible are these:

How do we interpret it? How can we form a less individualistic approach toward scripture, aware of how the church throughout time and space understood it?

How do we develop a regular discipline of scripture reading in an increasingly distracting world?

How do we maintain a right view of scripture’s sacredness despite our temptations to academize it?

The written book, footnotes, and commentaries are all examples of technological developments that benefitted Bible readers. Maybe someone will discover something that can continue this lineage of time-tested, helpful innovations.

What do you hope to achieve creatively in your lifetime?

I hope to touch many lives broadly through technology innovation and a few lives deeply through relationships, service, and community. Both can be acts of creation and resurrection.

A daily prayer app
App concept by Chris Lee

How has design influenced your Christian practice? Do you read or do things differently because you are a designer who happens to be a Christian that other Christians might consider adopting into their own practices?

For one, my appreciation of beauty is growing.

As a designer coming from an engineering background, naturally I believe that “form follows function.” Design is not just about making things look pretty; it’s about making things that are useful.

But I’ve gradually learned the importance of beauty and emotion, especially through my more art-minded colleagues. Two software interfaces that do the same thing but look different can have different emotional effects. And because we are not simply rational creatures, different emotions can mean different actual usage.

As I’ve volunteered my design skills to various non-profits and ministries, I’ve noticed how fundraising is largely an emotional challenge, not a functional one: how can we communicate the reality of a need in a way that seizes the imagination of a viewer in a completely different context? In design, beauty is critical.

Beauty is critical.
Chris Lee

I’ve also been learning how much I underappreciated beauty in the church. I’ve journeyed over the past few years from an evangelical background into a liturgical Anglican community. I still maintain personal faith and scripture as primary, but I’m seeing how cathedrals, icons, stained glass, vestments, and liturgical practices all powerfully communicate the holiness of God.

They remind us every time we gather to worship that what we’re doing is set apart. It’s not just another twenty-first-century American activity like going to a bar or a pop concert. Worship is a little glimpse of the kingdom of heaven manifesting in the present world.

As the multisensory, emotional beings God made us, we can better envision that truth when the form of our worship communicates it. In other words, “The medium is the message.”

Chris Lee
Chris Lee is a designer at Google, focusing on interaction design with Google Chrome. He volunteers his skills for nonprofits and ministries around the world. You can see more of his work on his website, Twitter, and Dribbble.

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