I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well. —Psalm 139:14
Coincidence is not an appropriate word to describe the workings of an omniscient God. He does not do things by “coincidence” but instead by “divine design.” —Neal A. Maxwell, “Brim with Joy,” BYU devotional address, 23 January 1996
Like all of us, David Nielson was designed “by committee”: his life is the result of experiences, choices, and the incalculable workings of God. But Nielson’s story forms an astonishingly coherent whole, as revealed in a series of interviews and in the Honored Alumni Lecture Nielson delivered during BYU Homecoming Week in 2023.
Throughout his life as a family man and designer of decades of groundbreaking media for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Nielson’s design philosophy is so principled and his principles so carefully designed that they’re impossible to separate.
And it all started at BYU—literally.
“I was born in BYU housing during the time my dad was getting his doctorate,” Nielson says. “I was a Wymount Terrace child.”
Nelson’s parents, Carol and Carl Nielson, are both educators. Carol earned a degree in elementary education from the McKay School, while Carl holds a PhD in education and was an institute director, primarily in California.
“We got the mix of secular and spiritual education, which was really formative for me,” Nielson says.
But deciding on a course of action isn’t always enough, Nielson said in his Homecoming lecture, recalling his work helping roll out the first-ever Church website. “You first need a ‘spiritual design.’ With the Church products being made at the time, there was kind of a mentality of ‘Let’s get a camera and start rolling.’ There wasn’t as much thinking about What are we trying to do? What are our learning objectives? How are we measuring success? and What’s our plan to make sure we can validate that success?”
That principle served Nielson well as a missionary in the West Indies. “That’s where I got my interest in this field,” he says. “It’s very tropical weather there. I kept thinking, ‘There’s got to be a better way to preach the gospel than walking around in the hot sun knocking on doors and mostly getting rejected.’”
Elder Nielson used local media to advertise Church-related events. These efforts got noticed, validating his ideas, and he returned to BYU to become a seminary teacher.
“But,” Nielson says, “it just didn’t feel like the right path. The Lord was saying, ‘I’ll let you teach, but not in this way.’” Nielson earned a bachelor’s degree in business and began working for BYU Continuing Education.
Nielson wrote coursework for the now-defunct BYU Travel Study program and then designed BYU Independent Study’s first-ever online course for the Doctrine and Covenants. “My job grew and grew until I was supervising about 100 people,” he says. “I could tell this was my way of educating. I could reach large numbers of people effectively and efficiently.”
Nielson’s supervisors encouraged him to work on his master’s and PhD degrees. “They said, ‘You’re great, but you need the credentials to open doors.’ They helped me adjust my hours so I could study.”
In the McKay School’s Instructional Psychology and Technology Department, Nielson gained skills he has used continually in the years since: asking the right questions, testing, refining, and then creating a final product. He says, “Those skills I was taught on how to do good educational design and good instructional design have improved everything I’ve done.”
Nielson’s work was noticed at Church headquarters, and he soon took a job in what was then the Audiovisual Department, crafting presentations for General Authorities. It was a huge step into the unknown, but it came with built-in mentors.
“Pretty early in my time at the Church Office Building, President Packer . . . sat me down and spent about 20 minutes teaching me,” Nielson said in his lecture. “I was taking notes. It was so helpful. He had this mentoring heart.
“One of the things he said that stuck with me was, ‘Dave, simple is hard. Do the hard work. If you’re going to help us, you’ve got to take complex concepts and boil them down into something that you can easily communicate. You might have to do your PowerPoint 20 times before it’s so simple that we can understand it without having to try and figure out what you’re trying to say.’ He was right. The key to influence is making things clear for decision-makers.”
Nielson started working at Church headquarters while finishing his PhD at the McKay School. The combination was potent, he says: “Things kept happening, and I felt, ‘Okay, this is what the Lord wants me to do.’”
But Nielson’s personal life was upended by tragedy when Shawna, his wife of 17 years, died suddenly in 2005, leaving him a single parent with five children aged three to 12.
Reeling from the loss, Nielson and his children moved in with his parents. During this time, two incidents helped steady his path. First, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland presided at Shawna’s funeral: “Elder Holland told me, ‘I was going to a meeting with the First Presidency, and they told me about your wife and dismissed me and told me to come here.’ He gave an amazing talk that was so hopeful for me and my kids.”
Second, as time passed, Nielson continues, “The Brethren said to me, ‘You can’t really do what the Lord needs you to do as a single father with five kids. You’ve got to find someone.’” Nielson found his second wife, Amy, in his own stake. Amy adopted Nielson’s children, and the couple added a sixth child to their family. This journey helped Nielson learn the value not just of God’s timing but of taking his own time to get things right.
“We came up with this line that is now used frequently in the Church Office Building: use ‘informed inspiration,’” Nielson said in his Homecoming lecture. “Didn’t Joseph Smith make it clear that part of the revelatory process is to first study it out in our own minds? Isn’t that the homework God expects us to do before He gives us the revelation we need? Informed inspiration is how we describe that ‘study-it-out-in-your-mind’ process that you go through before you seek that revelation from heaven.”
This approach helped Nielson—and the Church—while designing content for sites such as YouTube.com. One of the first videos the Church released was None Were with Him: An Apostle’s Easter Thoughts on Christ, featuring Elder Holland. In a short time, the video got560,000 views—an enormous number at the time—and became the number-one “viral video” on the internet.
“The Brethren asked me, ‘How much money does it cost to get that position on that page?’” Nielson said in his lecture. “I said, ‘There’s no amount of money that can buy that. It’s earned by views and shares.’”
And who drove those views? Members of the Church, of course, says Nielson, which taught him how powerful it is to work as one. “There are plenty of people—particularly in the Church network, good members—who are willing to participate, help, and assist,” he said in his lecture. “If you harness that, you’re a lot stronger than trying to do it yourself in the Church Office Building.”
However, that can’t be done effectively unless leaders have empathy, Nielson says. His most recent project—a rewrite of the Church’s General Handbook involving a cross-departmental team of several dozen people—started with simply talking to Church members, often including overworked bishops and their spouses.
“In my office I keep a life-size cardboard cutout of a bishop,” Nelson says. “We put Post-it notes on the cutout of everything we ask bishops to do in one month of communications, and the cardboard bishop is absolutely covered. He’s my empathy check. I’m always evangelizing this empathy for any audience. It’s not doing design in some black box; it’s being an advocate for people when their voice isn’t present.”
The result is a more simply written Handbook of Instruction rooted in the needs of real wards and branches rather than of some “ideal” congregation.
And that’s Nielson’s philosophy—of a life in design and of designing a life—in a nutshell: Start with the spiritual. Dig into the specifics. Study it out. Design for real life. And repeat.
“All through my life, doors have opened as I followed the Spirit,” he says. “You have to have the courage to walk through that first door and then keep walking through the next doors as they open. The whole path won’t be laid out for you. That was true with the death of my wife. I was like, ‘What do I do now? Where do I go from here?’ And answers came. It was just stepping out in the darkness and finding my path was lit, and that light stayed with me until I had at least a semi-normal life again. Trusting the Lord with the direction I’ll take has been vital for me in every part of my life.”
[06.Nielson Side Blurb]
David Nielson side blurb
David Nielson’s influence has helped shape Church messages and channels for decades. Here are just a few of those:
• The first Church website: lds.org
• The first website about the Church designed for non-Latter-day Saint audiences: mormon.org
• Gospel videos on YouTube
• The Mormon Channel, later the Latter-day Saint Channel, on SiriusXM
• Mormon Messages
• General conference broadcasts
• Church-created Bible videos
• Meet the Mormons, a full-length movie released theatrically and on streaming services
• The building of a reusable set in Goshen, Utah—originally for Bible videos—that has been used extensively for other productions since then, including for the non-Church-produced series The Chosen
• The recent rewrite of the Church’s General Handbook