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Meet PlainJoe

A design studio changes the equation for churches 1/08/2014 11:12 AM Eastern

Meet PlainJoe

Jan 8, 2014 4:12 PM, By Cynthia Wisehart • Photos by Edward McGowan

A design studio changes the equation for churches




Mariners Church

PlainJoe Studios understands mission. Most of the principals and staff are tightly involved in their churches as community members, leaders, and pastors. They also understand communication and how graphic design, websites, and environmental design work together to tell stories. They are experts at creating impressions, drawing audiences in, making them comfortable, and keeping them engaged.

The studio successfully does this for big clients including Infiniti, Nissan, high-end shopping malls and spas, as well as doing work for Hasbro and Fox, among others. At the same time, the client roster includes at least as many churches and ministries, who pay a fraction of what commercial clients pay. For that they get PlainJoe’s expertise—and heart.

Elevation Church in Matthews, N.C, describe its beliefs as “conservative” and its church as “anything but traditional.”

Elevation Church in Matthews, N.C, describe its beliefs as “conservative” and its church as “anything but traditional.”

This is important for two reasons. First, says co-founder and principal Peter McGowan, PlainJoe has balanced secular and sacred work from a business standpoint. It’s been sustainable. Beyond that, churches do not just need affordable websites and environmental design. They need communication that really works for their current congregation and their outreach goals. To do that, they need quality collateral and, from McGowan’s viewpoint, they need to take a risk on the elements of surprise and delight.

PlainJoe Studios operates largely out of a group of typical California houses on a spacious, upscale tract development in unincorporated Riverside County within the city of Corona, Calif. The headquarters look like a chic postproduction boutique or ad agency, themed around travel (PlainJoe believes in themes). The designers work in areas called “concourse” and “flight deck.” Just inside the front door in the common area, a tableful of design awards greets the visitor—as does every single staff member who passes through.

Eastside Christian Church

Eastside Christian Church

PlainJoe comes by its affection for theming honestly. Co-founder Mel McGowan (Peter’s brother) is ex-Walt Disney Imagineering (10 years) and many of PlainJoe’s designs exude theme park whimsy, rendered as high-end design. Brother Ed is a photographer with an edgy portfolio that recalls the great California landscape photographer Richard Misrach, high fashion and fine art.

Peter McGowan, who came from an IT and big corporate background (IBM and Johnson & Johnson) leads the studio with Blake Ryan, and a shared goal to serve causes and projects that have a socially positive impact.


Meet PlainJoe

Jan 8, 2014 4:12 PM, By Cynthia Wisehart • Photos by Edward McGowan

A design studio changes the equation for churches




First Christian Church

First Christian Church

Since PlainJoe started 12 years ago, the studio has done brand development, and website, print, and environmental design for dozens of churches and ministries at all budget levels including Indiana’s Granger Community Church; Hollywood’s Oasis Church; First Christian Church in Huntington Beach, Calif.; Renaissance Church in Summit, N.J.; Elevation Church in Matthews, N.C.; Canyon Ridge Christian Church in Las Vegas; Central Christian Church in Beloit, Wis.; and Crossroads Church in Corona (where Peter McGowan is an elder), among many others.

Many of these bold designs are intended to speak to young churchgoers, and to ministries that are trying to revolutionize communication and/or make people more welcome. Comfortable, engaging environments and bold wayfinding elements give these unique church designs a powerful sense of place. In one striking example, Manchester Christian Church in New Hampshire transformed from traditional forward-facing, straight-rows-of-chairs worship to a modern media lounge with conversation clusters, big video screens, mood lighting, and a warm complex color palette of rich burnt oranges, yellows, and moss green. Like many of the PlainJoe projects, Manchester Christian also features whimsical children’s spaces and graphics. “There are pastors who are willing to take a risk and get away from the corporate commodity church,” Peter McGowan says.

The children’s area at Renaissance Church in Summit, N.J.

The children’s area at Renaissance Church in Summit, N.J.

Shortly after starting PlainJoe, Peter’s brother Mel went on to found Visioneering Studios, applying his Disney background and his master’s degree in urban planning to large-scale secular projects throughout the world—and to transforming worship buildings. Visioneering was supported by the Provision Ministry Group, which provides financial resources, management and investment, church loans, new church planning, real estate services, construction consultation, master planning, and church site design. Provision wanted to see churches get better aesthetic results from money spent on new and redesigned buildings. In 11 years, Visioneering Studios has grown to be one of the most honored church architects in the country. The company’s architectural evangelism seeks to “peel away the traditional layers of church design that scare people away,” says Mel McGowan. The Visioneering designs reflect some of the same ethos seen in PlainJoe’s work—modern and inviting, whimsical, creative, and absolutely outside the box.

Meanwhile, back at PlainJoe, Environmental Design Director Michael Melilli is telling me that he plans to continue increasing the opportunity for AV in PlainJoe’s designs. At the moment he’s sharing his workspace with a couple of Dell short-throw projectors and a screen for a projection mapping mockup he’s working on. A former intern at The Jim Henson Company and a veteran of reality TV postproduction, Melilli likes the way AV allows a space to change without the mechanical process of refabricating scenic elements. For his colleagues in the graphic design department, moving graphics are becoming more important and the crossover into environmental design seems a natural evolution.

As it is now, PlainJoe will specify AV as part of an environmental design and then work with local integrators on the execution. Or a church may have PlainJoe do the environmental design and separately contract the AV. In some cases, PlainJoe has designed and fabricated elaborate themed finishes for AV elements. One thing is certain, whatever PlainJoe does with AV, they will do it with a twist.


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