Heart to Hart: Chris Perry
Chris Perry is one of the most incredible designers I've ever had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing.
He hails from Sydney, Australia where he attended the Hills Christian Life Centre in the early 90s. When he joined that congregation I doubt he knew what the Lord had in store for him.
In 1994 he found himself as one of the first graphic designers for Hills CLC (a little-known congregation that would later become Hillsong Church). His design style and constant pursuit of challenging the status quo, pushed Hillsong and the world of praise and worship music forward into (what was then) uncharted territory.
Yes, he's the handwriting behind the Hillsong logo and the brains behind nearly 10 years of iconic Hillsong album covers, but you won't find him boasting his incredible legacy as Chris is an incredibly humble man of God - something that's granted him access to design for some of Australia's most loved and iconic brands.
Stephen: Chris! Tell me about the moment in your life when you first knew you were creative.
Chris: Well, when I was 11, I publicly received a school award for neat writing. I’m convinced that it laid a foundation for my love for calligraphy. At 16, my art class had a new fill-in teacher for the year, an American guy named John Gabert. Amongst all the usual painting and drawing exercises, there was this design component in which he explained the one-third, two-thirds ratio. It's like a switch went off in my head. I just knew what to do. I understood weight, balance and space relationships with line and shapes.
There was another guy in my class named John Bailey, who was also ‘got it’ (John went on to become an architect). Mr. Gabert regularly gloated over the work we did and encouraged us, saying, “Perry, you're my best student, and Bailey, your my second best" or maybe it was the other way ‘round. From then on, I had confidence in myself as an artist and it became an important part of my life.
Do you believe that as designers our job is to create art or to solve problems?
That's a good question.
I’m not sure about a ‘one-fits-all’ job description, but for me and the work I mostly do, I’ve always seen it as solving problems, resolving visual conundrums, interpreting dreams and fitting square pegs into round holes.
If you could say anything to a younger version of yourself, first starting out in your career, what would that be?
Learn to be a team player with your peers, not a competitor (although I recognize there are healthy aspects to competition).
I think this advice is fostered more these days under the term ‘collaboration’ which is great to see, but there weren’t that many designers in the church when I started out and given my personality that naturally gravitates toward isolation, I don’t think it was the best thing.
"A man who isolates himself seeks his own desire; He rages against all wise judgment." Proverbs 18:1 (NKJV)
As a creative, in your opinion, what's been your worst failure?
There have been many creative failures I regret. Most are the result of pretty much the same thing… failure to understand a client brief correctly or having spent too little time executing it. Unfortunately, each resulted in the loss of rewarding commercial clients.
What project / design are you most proud of in your life?
Thankfully, there are many to choose from!
Sapphire on the Esplanade, involved coordinating and implementing an entire branding and advertising campaign to sell a new development of 60 luxury apartment blocks to active retirees in Northern Queensland. It was the most complete project across varied media I’d been involved in.
I had design freedom in every facet of the project and I worked with researchers and an advertising strategist/copywriter. I traveled interstate to meetings with the client, traveled to the location, named the building, and produced all the ongoing collateral and direct mail campaigns.
We filmed footage from a helicopter and shot special panoramas, produced very large location and other road signs, directed architects in producing interior renderings and booked and produced newspaper and radio advertising for a number of publications and stations over an 18 month period. It was huge and it worked!
Wow! What an amazing project to be part of! Tell me Chris, who are the artists, designers, creatives that you admire/look up to?
I love Brett Whitely’s work. The only place I get to do anything close to his style are producing birthday cards for my family (Check out his gallery if you're ever in Sydney).
Okay, so this is something that I'm sure every Christian designer on the planet is dying to ask you...How did you design the incredible Hillsong logo?
I'll start by giving you some background.
Hillsong Church started out with the name Hills Christian Life Centre - it was a church plant of Sydney Christian Life Centre pastored by Frank Houston (Brian Houston's father). The term ‘Hills’ refers to an area in the north west of Sydney made up of suburbs with the word Hills in them eg. Baulkham Hills, Castle Hill, Winston Hills etc. It wasn’t long until we became known simply as ‘Hills’ which was to be the focus of a new logo with the words "Christian Life Centre" playing a secondary role.
The brief came through Mark Zschech (Darlene’s husband) who was the media manager of the church at the time, around 1993-94.
I initially provided several ideas to Mark and the senior pastor Brian Houston to review which were considered favourably but none were settled on. One of the ideas was a loose ribbon style lettering with a free flowing form which I felt encapsulated something of the freedom and vitality of the church.
I felt it was a path worth exploring further, so I started handwriting the word Hills many times on paper until satisfied I had one that had a nice overall form to it. A different word would have resulted in a different form altogether but the strong vertical characters dictated the approach.
In the days before scanners were common, I simply traced the word onto a piece of acetate (clear plastic film) with a felt tipped marker, taped it to my computer monitor and traced it in a programme called Freehand by placing points and dragging them using the pen tool.
With the basic lines in place, it was time to work on editing the flow of the lettering and tidying it all up. I settled on a thickness of line which seemed to suit the form and rounded the end points and corners which gave a sense of continuity.
The flow in and out of every point was critical and involved ongoing decisions about the size of the loops, the angle, curve and length of the vertical strokes, the fullness or tightness of the curves etc. Each character had to be considered individually and then in context with the preceding and following ones. Then it had to be weighed up as an entire form keeping in mind I wanted it to be loose, flowing and free. And most importantly, it had to be legible.
When completed it was unanimously accepted by all concerned!
The name of the church changed to Hillsong in the late 1990’s which resulted from our music publishing arm known as Hillsongs Music Australia gaining greater exposure than the church. As the church became increasingly known as Hillsongs, the name was changed to accommodate the trend.
The additional characters were added seamlessly to the existing style with care to ensure the rhythm and flow continued. The new letterform was underlined with long horizontal arc, a common device at the time symbolising a global dawning, and placed over a new, more dynamic rhomboid shape. Both these elements were eventually dropped to allow the simplicity of the lettering to stand on its own.
Not only did you design the famed Hillsong logo, you were also the main designer for all their highly successful worship albums from 1994-2001. What an incredible legacy you've left! Tell me a little about that time, what was it like to create those now iconic and much loved album covers - how did the journey change as the new millenium dawned?
I had just designed the Hillsong Conference ’94 brochure which was received favourably and was starting to do all the creative artwork for the church. The first album that I designed was People Just Like Us. It was done on a Mac 2SI and there was no brief. The cover just needed to be representative of the title.
We initially did a photoshoot at a commercial cyclorama with a range of about 20 very different looking people representing a cross section of humanity. For reasons I can’t remember it didn’t fit right. At that time, to our church a really influential photographer was famed Australian photographer Ken Duncan who was a Christian. He’d spoken at our church and conferences on creativity and was kind enough to let us use his photographs (which he called panographs) as part of the album artwork. Ken’s panograph style and the chosen image inspired the final look of the album artwork.
The next album I designed was Friends In High Places. As this also had no real brief I followed closely in the same Ken Duncan vein using one of his popular "sunrise over sea" images. I remember referencing the artist Joan Miro who arranged shapes on his canvas in a balanced way and Sidney Nolan.
Up next were the Simply Worship and Simply Worship 2 covers. These were directed by Asher Gregory, who ran Hillsong Music Australia at the time. The cover shots were her own which she had taken in grave yards on a recent European holiday.
God Is In The House broke new ground as an album. With a brief to feature key artists and the choir, I was supplied with a wide range of good quality photos to choose from. A mixture of strong colour theme and Photoshop combining of images produced a perfect visual formula for the quickly emerging brand. I remember Brian Houston acknowledging me and my team on a great job in church one night.
The die was cast for following albums including: All things are Possible, Hills Praise, Touching Heaven Changing Earth, Simply Worship 3, By Your Side, Overwhelmed, For This Cause, and You Are My World.
Through all these, Asher continued to have the say on what she liked however, for Touching Heaven Changing Earth the idea was something of a vision Bobbie Houston had. This was about the time she began directing artwork for the Colour Your World conference brochures. Many of these albums had backing and split tracks which required similar artwork packaging. For these we worked with the main album artwork and created duotone or tritone effects which were very effective.
Other albums we did included Youth Alive NSW’s Jump to the Jam and Chosen One which featured Marty Sampson on the cover. Compilation albums included Millennium and The Gold Collection which included some tricky print embellishments.
For the first three or four albums and the difficult compilation ones, I handled all the different iterations of the album covers which back in the 90's included a jewel case, physical disc, cassette, music book, and all subsequent promotional posters and merchandise.
Having spent a lot of your design career working for the church, why do you believe that creativity and constantly pushing the envelope is so vital within the church?
Because it’s vital to me.
God has given me this gift and I have to use it. The church should be contemporary and relevant because its people are. My appraisal of graphics of the Christian scene at the time fuelled my desire to try and do something about it. I agree with Ellis Potter who says that to not be creative is rebelling against God - because He is creative and we’re made in His image.
That's brilliant! So, speaking to the next generation of designers coming up alongside you, what advice would you give them?
a. Aim to be the best amidst the world, not just the church.
b. Don’t be afraid to copy great layouts. They all turn out a little different in every situation.
c. Your walk with God is more important than your gifting. This will sustain you when your work is rejected or you are replaced.
How do you stay inspired?
Usually a mixture of the fine art world and any design studios, individuals or organizations that are doing things really well. These include the Australian Graphic Design Association, Its Nice That and Semi-Permanent conferences. I mustn’t forget creation which shouts and whispers inspiration in infinite ways.
Outside of creativity...how do you connect with the Lord?
Life forces me to connect to God although I don’t always choose to. Either my own failings land me on the garbage heap where the only way is up, or God does so many nice things to show he’s on my case that I can’t help but thank Him. I nearly always get connected at my church and when in the wilderness.
The wilder the wilderness the better!
What's your favorite font?
I’m going to say Futura because I’ve been able to use the varying weights of this family on so many kinds of logos, package designs, and advertising. It's a classic typeface and has really stood the test of time. Someone should make a movie about it!
What's your thought on if people should study design/art at University or just teach themselves and go for it?
Very few people are amazing and do it themselves and I’m certainly not one of them. I’d encourage people to study the craft and get among peers and teachers over a period of time to give you a context and so you can see where you fit in.
What's on the horizon for Chris Perry!? What are you currently up to?
Learning new digital tricks whilst continuing to design branding for future clients. I’ll also continue doing some short-term in-house Government contracts. They’re not terribly exciting, but the environment is very grounding and the work has been significant for my city which is extremely rewarding!
If you could do anything, no fear of failing and no financial boundaries, what would you do?
I’d really like to develop my fine art style and take on selective projects where I can incorporate that into my designs. I’m also interested in starting a site or blog that champions and sets a standard for excellence in design for ministry and churches and is a resource to students.
You're an absolute legend in world of design Chris! Thanks for taking this time to chat and share your success, failings and wisdom from over 25 years in the industry! For any readers who want to get in touch and follow your work, what's the best way to get in touch?
Keep in touch through my email and website!