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.”
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.