The Effect of Reader-Friendly Design Choices

“I’ve read what you said about Bibles being designed like dictionaries,” writes Bradford Taliaferro. “Now that I have this Bible — I get it! Reading the Bible doesn’t seem like work anymore.”

Bradford’s reaction echoes sentiments I hear all the time. People accustomed to the old dictionary-style layout of Scripture are surprised what a big difference seemingly minor changes like paragraphed text and a single-column layout make to the reading experience. The Bible that revolutionized Bradford’s reading wasn’t the radically sparse ESV Reader’s Bible. No, it was the Cambridge Clarion NASB. The Clarion is still a reference edition with chapter-and-verse numbers and cross references, and while the proportions are elegantly balanced, no one is going to mistake it for a large print Bible. Still, the single-column, paragraphed design transformed the experience: Reading the Bible doesn’t seem like work anymore.

Mark Strobel shared a similar story with me. His eleven-year-old son Max started using a single column Crossway Legacy ESV in his Christian Studies class. One night, with the Legacy still at school, Max had to do some reading in a double column thinline. Without any prompting from Dad, he volunteered these observations: “I like my new Bible [the Legacy] because it’s more like reading a book and there’s nothing that gets in the way of what I’m reading. I also like the paper better than this one. It’s thicker.”

“For Max, this is all about reader intuition,” Mark explained. “We haven’t had any conversations about book design and, as far as I know, he isn’t reading your blog under his pillow at night.”


The debate is far from new, as these mid-20th century examples show. The Oxford NEB (left) is a single-column, paragraphed edition, while the Eyre & Spottiswoode Royal Sovereign KJV is as old school as its name suggests.

Of course, for all the benefits of reader-friendly design, the fact is, there people who end up preferring the traditional two-column approach. Jason Engel, whose kindness facilitated our glimpse at the St. John’s Bible, was surprised when his time with the ESV Reader’s Bible didn’t end as expected:

I was really excited to try the ESV Readers Edition, and committed to a month to give it a work-out. About 2 weeks in, I wanted to give up on it, but felt constrained by my personal commitment. At the end of the month, I put it away and haven’t touched it since. It felt really uncomfortable reading from it. I was so relieved to get back into a double-column Bible with chapter/verse numbers and footnotes. Honestly, that response really surprised me.

Jason wasn’t skeptical about reader-friendly design. He was excited to try it. Unlike Bradford and Max, though, the experience didn’t pan out.

The thing is, reader-friendly design doesn’t begin and end with setting text in a single column. Setting text in one column doesn’t automatically make it reader-friendly, and choosing two columns doesn’t ensure unreadability, either. Two-column settings can be reader friendly. Just look at the Schuyler Quentel: by moving the cross-references to the bottom of the page and working hard to find a good ratio between column width and the number of words per line, the team at 2K/Denmark has delivered a very readable two-column reference edition. The text setting of the NIV Proclamation Bible (which I’ll be writing about soon), a favorite layout of mine over the years executed by Blue Heron Bookcraft, is a little more traditional but still congenial for reading. I wouldn’t describe either of these as “reader’s editions” in the purest sense, but they balance the twin objectives of reading and reference in a way that prevents the latter from undermining the former.

Design is a complex process where many different variables must be balanced. There is as much art to it as there is science, and with art you can break all the rules and succeed, just as you can keep them all and fail. At the simplest level, I believe that by designing Bibles to look like the kind of books we read rather than the ones we look things up in, the net effect will be a better reading experience. The intuitive response of readers like Max convinces me this is so. That’s why I’m passionate about the need for pure reader’s editions. We have only scratched the surface where such Bibles are concerned.

But reading isn’t a specialist pursuit. Every book must be as readable as possible, which means traditional reference Bibles can become much more conducive to immersive reading without sacrificing their reference function. The point is, if you’re looking for encouraging signs on the readability front, you can’t limit yourself only to novel-like text editions (as much as I love them). We are actually seeing gains in a variety of formats, single and double column, and while we have a long way to go before the prevailing culture shifts, the effect of reader-friendly design choices is being felt across the board.

4 Comments on “The Effect of Reader-Friendly Design Choices

  1. I am with Jason on this. The ESV reader, and ESV Legacy Heirloom, just didn’t work for me. The columns were too wide for my eyes and made it hard to pick up on the next line, among other things. The Clarion works for me. But my go to Bibles are still my Allan ESV NC1 and Quentel ESV and NASB. They just work better for me.

  2. For me, a leather-bound NKJV single column Bible is a reader’s experience. It still the chapters and verses but what I like about are the chapter headings which let the reader what’s coming. And it ribbon markers – two of them – to help easily locate a reading.

    It preserves the literary quality of the KJV but in a modern and up to date translation. Moreover, its affordable and its just makes for a Bible that’s easy to follow. A description:

    The New King James Bible – Single Column Text……………………. Beautiful Dark Brown Bonded Leather over Hardcover, with gold foil stamping on Cover and Spine……………………….. 6 Raised ornamental horizontal lines on the spine Gold gilded page edges, Antique Cover Design, Fabric Inside Covers – A Beautiful Crafted Bible………………….. 2 Brown Ribbon Markers Brand New – Only a few left in stock…………… Thomas Nelson Publishers – 2011 The NKJV Bible is a single-column text, for easy reading – contemporary type face, about a size 9 font, bold and clear……………….. Bible Reading Plan Concordance for the New King James Version……….. Elegantly bound with old-world quality craftsmanship, this is the perfect edition of the New King James Version in Single Column Format for sheer enjoyment………………….. Features include Reading Plan 2 Ribbon Markers High Quality Binding Clearer Type

  3. I realised this morning some reader-friendly decisions that could improve ‘reference’ style Bibles like the Clarion, Personal Reference Bible, or even the ESV Heritage / Legacy. Posting them here in the hope that you might be able to advocate for them.

    The goal: a text that’s as free from distractions as possible.

    Step 1: Delete the superscripted letters that mark cross-references.
    I’ve been reading the ESV Clarion, and keep tripping up over the superscript letters in the text (the ones that indicate cross-references in the margins). What would be lost if the page layout remained identical but these in-text superscripts were simply deleted?

    If I’m reading Mark 13:3, and want to see the cross-references, I could look to the margin, and I see “13:3” followed by the cross-references. The same function is achieved, without intrusive extra letters floating through the text.

    What would be lost? There would be a very minor compromise: we would lose the precision of linking of a particular phrase with particular references. But:
    a) It’s a small price to pay, especially since the cross-refs are already narrowed down to a single verse.
    b) The reader who wants to see the connections can simply flip to each passage and consider the connections for themselves…

    Step 2: The same could be done with the textual footnotes.
    Most pages of most Bibles have footnotes. “1 Greek ‘his brother'”. These are almost always marked in the passage with a superscript numeral.
    I think this could be achieved without any in-text markers. The reader has the page in front of them. They know there are footnotes at the bottom. The reader who simply wants to read can ignore them. The reader who is interested can glance down each page and see what information is provided.
    Therefore, why not simply mark them by the verse they relate to. So, Mark 12:19 has a superscript numeral after “the man”. The corresponding footnote says “1 Greek his brother”.
    Wouldn’t it work just as well to have no superscript, and instead have the footnote read:
    “12:19 ‘the man’ Greek: ‘his brother'”

    If Step 1 and Step 2 were applied, I don’t see why any Bible should have anything else in the text apart from the text itself and chapter/verse numbers.

    Step 3: Move section headings to the margin
    Self explanatory. Admittedly some editions wouldn’t be able to do this, but it is possible in anything the size of the ESV Personal Reference, or Cambridge Clarion, or ESV Heritage. (I’ve written more on that here:

    Step 4: Move page numbers to the bottom.
    Why these are at the top in so many editions is a mystery to me. Seems to put one of the least-used features in the most prominent spots… always a distraction to my eyes!

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