Bobby Martin’s Religious Design Experience


Bobby Martin, design director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, got personal with another client of his, the Abyssinian Baptist Church, as he told the audience today at Cause/Effect. He even moved to an apartment a block away from the Harlem church. As his thesis project at SVA, Martin embarked on an incredible journey in bringing the church’s 200 year old message to the community.

Inspired by Calvin Butts, a reverend who painted over cigarette and alcohol ads in Harlem–Butts called it “peddling their poison”–the church started buying billboards up to replace them with positive imagery, but they didn’t have a whole lot of money to do it. Martin applied for the Sappi Ideas That Matter grant and got $30,000. (See kids? Grants work.)


Hundreds of impeccably-dressed men from the church paraded 200 handmade signs throughout Harlem in a march. Then he transformed the signs and the images from the march into the ads, a campaign named “Word on the Street.” You can also check out a cool animated history of the church using that beautiful logo here.

“Freedom is a strong seed, planted in a great need,” he quoted Langston Hughes as he closed, summoning the oratory skills of some other great preachers we admire. We have to admit we teared up a little.