ESV Reader’s Bible, Six-Volume Set — Part 2: Layout & Typography


This is Part 2 of Bible Design Blog’s look at the ESV Reader’s Bible, Six-Volume Set. This part focuses on typography and page layout for an index of the complete series, scroll to the bottom of the post.

Most Bibles make sacrifices on the page for the sake of the book. They set fine print text in two columns, packing cross references into a third, jamming as much information as possible onto each and every page. This makes each page a little (or a lot) less readable, but results in a handy book that’s easy to carry around. I first wrote about this tug-of-war between the page and book back in 2008, and everything I wrote then remains true … except in this case.

The ESV Reader’s Bible, Six-Volume Set doesn’t make sacrifices on the page. Because it divides Scripture into six volumes instead of one, the set doesn’t have to make sacrifices to the book, either. Publishing the set in six volumes cuts the Gordian knot of Bible design, freeing the page to be as readable as possible without condemning the book to unusable proportions.


Publishing the Bible in six volumes removes the pressure to fit more information on the page than it can comfortably accommodate.

The Layout of the Reader’s Bible

Along with review copies, the publisher provided me with unbound examples of the 48-page signatures. (If this is a new term, check out my post explaining how books are made: “Inside a Book Block.”) I’m going to use these signatures in the photos rather than a bound book because they’re easier to photograph flat and you get a slightly better sense of the page proportions. Another advantage to having unbound signatures is that I can devote a future post to the paper itself (including some somewhat … destructive testing) without damaging a finished book.

Let’s look at the proportions of a single page. The unbound page measures 7.75 inches tall and 5.5 inches wide. The outer margin is 0.5 inches, while the inner margin allows around an eighth of an inch more to accommodate the binding. The text column is a shade under 3.75 inches wide, and about 5.75 inches tall. The upper margin is roughly 0.75 inches from the top of the sheet to the top of the text column, while the bottom margin affords a bit more room, approximately 1.125 inches.


Page numbers are centered in the bottom margin, and a running section header floats at the top right margin. The top left margin tells you which book you’re in, as you can see in this spread:


Section Breaks with Titles

Apart from the headers and page numbers, the text flows uninterrupted page after page with the exception of occasional section break. Here, the titles are printed in red ink, as are the drop cap letters that begin the sections. The title in the photo above — “Covenant Requirements” — illustrates the technique. The section titles are attractively set and relatively unobtrusive.

How frequent are these breaks? In the three unbound signatures I have, running from p. 377 through p. 484 in the first volume, Pentateuch, there are no breaks at all in the first signature (pp. 377-412), two in the second (pp. 413-448) — though, in fairness, one of them is the start of Deuteronomy, so it’s introducing rather than breaking into the reading — and one in the third (pp. 449-484).

The rationale for the breaks is to give the reader a broad sense of context within the flow of the text. Deciding where to break and title the text was a judgment call. According to Crossway, they inserted these titles wherever it seemed helpful. If you’re one of those people who was hoping for no breaks at all in the text, don’t get too disappointed. These additions are relatively infrequent, and at least in my experience, they are not distracting.



In Part 1 of the series, I alluded to The Gospels, an earlier volume published by Crossway which, like the ESV Reader’s Bible, Six-Volume Set, was printed and bound by L.E.G.O. in Italy. Looking back, it’s clear that The Gospels served as a harbinger of things to come. That book is set in the same typeface as the Reader’s Bible and follows the same layout conventions — the running headers, the occasional section breaks with titles. If you compare the two, it becomes clear that the typeset is not exactly the same. The spacing is different, the pages break at different points in the text. Although the paper specification appears to be identical from the colophons, it isn’t (as I will explain in the post dedicated to paper). Yet in most respects the Reader’s Bible represents a refinement of the format launched earlier in The Gospels.

The Trinité No. 2 type is set at 12 points, with 15 points of leading. On a full page without any section breaks or spacing to set off poetry, there are 28 lines of text. By comparison, The Gospels, also set in 12 pt. Trinité No. 2, is more generously leaded — which might explain why, despite the numbers, my eyes refuse to believe that the type is the same size in these two editions. A page in The Gospels holds 26 lines of text, two less than in the Reader’s Bible.


The typography of the Reader’s Bible conveys a sense of timelessness. There are no ruled lines in the header, no sans serif fonts for contrast. Nothing happens on the page that couldn’t have happened a generation ago. Nothing happens that couldn’t have happened in the era of lead type. Some designers might see the choice of classic proportions and type as rigid and formal. Most readers, however, won’t see them at all. Unlike a lot of modern Bible typography, this approach doesn’t scream that it’s a product of the twenty-first century. The Reader’s Bible might have been published fifty years ago looking like it does, or for that matter fifty years from now. To me, that is a good goal to shoot for in a publishing project of this nature.


In addition to giving a sense of how the book looks in the hand, this illustrates the strength of my eyeglass prescription and hints at the reasons why I haven’t pursued a career in modeling.

Reading Experience

The Bible like this does not, of course, capture what it must have been like when the church at Ephesus unspooled their letter fresh from the Apostle Paul. Nobody had printed Bibles back then, any more than they read English. Whatever it was like that day, we can never recapture the moment. That isn’t the goal of a reader-friendly Bible, anyway. The point of a Bible like this one is to provide a less mediated experience that supports longer, deeper reads. In old fashioned design parlance, the formatting just gets out of the way of the reading material.

I’m a voracious reader of all kinds of books, good and bad. Thanks to my knowledge of design and typography, I can’t put up with as many sins in those areas as an uninitiated reader might. Still, I relied for years on Bibles whose design and typography was, frankly, bad. While I do not miss those days, it’s not as if I stared uncomprehendingly at the pages of those old fashioned reference Bibles, unable to glean any meaning because of the small type and intrusive apparatus. When I say that the Reader’s Bible is much more, well, readable, I only mean that compared to all those bad examples, this one puts much, much less in the way. As a result, my reading flows more easily. I comprehend more. I make intertextual connections I might otherwise have missed.

The sad thing, from a typographical standpoint, is that the best work goes unnoticed by design. A lot of effort went into the layout and typography of the ESV Reader’s Bible, Six-Volume Set, only it doesn’t look like it. In the best possible way. You will spend hours reading from one of its volumes, and afterward you will remember what you read, not what you saw on the page.

The ESV Reader’s Bible, Six-Volume Set Complete Series

Part 1: Simply Beautiful

Part 2: Layout & Typography

Part 3: Paper Performance

“Reverent Joy”: Crossway Launches, Releases Video

More to come!

20 Comments on “ESV Reader’s Bible, Six-Volume Set — Part 2: Layout & Typography

  1. Ugh, I think the section breaks with titles are a deal breaker for me. I don’t understand why crossway feels the need to handhold readers like we’ll get lost in the scriptures and feel angry about it.

    I took issue with the kindle readers bible they have because it still has chapter numbers. When I messaged them about it they said they were afraid people would have trouble keeping their place. In an electronic book with limitless bookmarks and a search function!

    Maybe Biblioteca will actually manage to give us the text as plain and simple as possible.

    • I’ve been reading through Genesis since yesterday morning when I recieved the Readers set. The headings are very unobtrusive and in my opinion were the right call. If you skip this wonderful set over section headings, you are truely missing out. With Genesis spanning page 3-124, having 7 section breaks in it is very marginal.

      • I counted only nine section headings, including the one at the beginning of the book, in the book of Matthew– “The Arrival in History of Jesus the Messiah,” “The Sermon on the Mount,” “The Authority of Jesus the Messiah,” “Opposition to the Messiah,” “Parables of the Kingdom,” etc. In my other ESV Bibles, there are twelve headings, counting those at the beginnings of chapters, in the first four chapters of Matthew alone.

        I counted only four in the book of Mark, including the beginning one. I also noticed that the text of the last four paragraphs is preceded by “[Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include 16: 9-20.],” printed in black, and is bracketed just as in other ESV editions, but without any section headings.

        The Acts have four section headings– “The Witness in Jerusalem,” “The Witness Beyond Jerusalem,” “The Witness to the Ends of the Earth,” and “The Witness in Rome.”

        There are far fewer section headings in the readers edition than in the other editions of the ESV. For the ones I’ve checked in the gospels, they are the same headings as are in the readers edition of The Gospels. They aren’t very obtrusive, and I like them.

        I have to agree with Andrew and Michael. These readers editions offer such a new and better experience when reading longer passages that to forego them simply because of the relatively few section headings would be like throwing the baby out with the bath water, imho. This is an excellent ESV for extended reading.

  2. I also wish they didn’t put any section breaks in there. But it’s not a deal breaker for me and I was expecting it, and I have the cowhide set on pre-order. I’m also a backer of the Bibliotheca set, which would be nice if it didn’t have section breaks.

    Besides the section breaks, I think Crossway knocked it out of the park with this set.

    Can’t wait for the next 4 parts of this review!

  3. Layout similar to the reader’s Gospels = happy me. 🙂

    I pulled The Gospels out again last night to revisit and “read a few pages” in anticipation of receiving my set. I found I’d read about a third of Matthew before I stopped. This set should be a true blessing to those who love to read the Bible.

    The very few section headings are not a problem for me at all. They don’t affect the readability of the text in any way.

  4. Re: section headings, I’m really hopeful that we are approaching an time when it becomes possible for us to wrestle with these calls ourselves. I have the Crossway ESV Gospels and my own preference would be to remove the section breaks. To me it feels like a loss of nerve, like Crossway goes 95% of the way there but is too afraid to go the last mile. But I’m also sympathetic to their situation. They need to design for everyone, not just for a few readers. On a call like this it might be better for 60% of readers to include the section breaks. They probably made the right call and I might make the same call too if I were in their shoes. But if I could design for myself I’d remove them.

    And that’s the point I want to make. We can design for ourselves. For the last two years I’ve been working on my own design of the New Testament and I’m having fun confronting all of the same issues. I get to make sure there are no section breaks. But then there are a few cases when section breaks make sense! For example, I’ve never seen a bible that breaks up the Gospel of John into the “Book of Signs” and the “Book of Glory” even though there is widespread scholarly consensus that there are real discernible “parts” to the Gospel of John. In that case articulating the Gospel reveals something about the Gospel. So in the one I’m working on just for myself I’ve decided to give this section devision a try. None of the other Gospels will get them, however.

    Since I’m designing only for me, I’ve come to the conclusion that whenever there is a direct quotation in the text I would find it useful to include a small footnote with a citation of where the quote comes from. It’s a rather minimal intervention, but it’s also the way I’ve been trained to read books. Still, to a different reader, it will look like I’ve gone 95% of the way to making a clear “reader’s bible” but lost my nerve in going the last 5% by including a few footnotes.

  5. Thanks for the reviews Mark. Two quick questions if you happen to see this: 1. Regarding paragraphing, does the ESV translation have set paragraphing that Crossway uses in all their ESV bibles or was the paragraphing re-done at all for this version? Might not be a question you know, but thought I’d ask. 2. In your review on the paper coming up could you let us know how the pages handle ink underlines / notes to the side? I’m thinking the thicker paper will make it so that an underline or note to the side won’t be noticeable on the other side of the page.

    • David, Mark has answered your second question in his paper review.

      Re the paragraphing, I just checked the first five chapters of Matthew, the first few chapters in Acts, and the first few in Joshua, and the paragraphing is the same as in my ESV 2011 Bibles.

  6. I would like to respond to those expressing disappointment that Crossway didn’t just make these books plain text with no breaks of any kind by sharing a different perspective that I think is valid.

    The first thought is that I think making a Bible with only text was not at all their goal. I think their goal was to make the Bible just like modern books, which are a joy to read because of the formatting of the page, and all modern books I know of have some breaks, whether chapters or headers, to allow for natural places to start and stop reading.

    The second thought is that even with a ribbon, having a 200+ page novel with no natural places to start and stop reading would be a terrible reading experience for the great majority of people, and I think many of those advocating for it would grow to agree because randomly picking a place to stop in the middle of never ending text would confusing. Even with the ribbon, when you opened the book again, would it not be very difficult to remember exactly where you were on the page?

    I realize some will continue to disagree, and that’s completely fine. I’m personally very glad they chose to have breaks in the text here and there because I think having them accomplishes the goal of a pleasant reading experience just like a normal book, which I think will allow the series to be much more of a success commercially than it would have otherwise.

      • Good to know. Slightly disappointed, but not enough to take this off my “Someday, maybe” wishlist.

  7. It’s my understanding as well that it’s the 2016 minor revision (52 changes?) of the ESV. Crossway has (wisely imo) reversed themselves on their initial statement that the ESV will never ever again be revised or updated in any way. (Never say “never.”) Presumably, any future revisions will be few and far between, though.

    While I’m posting, Ryan Smith, you make excellent points in your post of 10/11/16. I’ve looked at the headings in the reader’s Gospels, and none of them seem controversial or any big deal to me. I wonder if they are the same in the new reader’s sets? Your post got me to thinking, and I can’t recall any regular book of any kind that doesn’t have some kind of break in the text somewhere. Judging from my experience with the reader’s Gospels’ flowing text and the advance reviews of the new reader’s six-volume sets, I think anyone who passes these up solely because of the few infrequent headings is missing an excellent reading experience of the Bible.

  8. I’m still confused why they did not use a ragged-right margin. To me, that just reads better. If it weren’t for that, I would have skipped Bibliotheca, but they got that correct.

  9. First of all, thanks for the review. Enjoying the photos and, as usual, the prose.
    Does each volume have a ‘chapter’ page number reference at the end of the volume for each biblical book like the Reader’s Gospels?

    Although I do like the uninterrupted text, chapter page numbers it is a useful reference for my daily reading plan. Some of us (while still being non-legalistic) like to check off our boxes with relative precision. Now, with the reader’s gospels I do usually read much longer than my daily chapter. And I’m looking forward to this same experience with my non-gospel readings when I get this series!

    Go Crossway!

    • Hello Adam,

      Yes, there are chapter indexes at the end of each volume. When I got my set and found that, it made it easy to find where I was in my other Bible and start there in devos.

      Have a great day! -Ryan

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