Mixed Message: Design Lessons from The Message Remix

Message_4I have mixed feelings about The Message Remix. If my own experience is anything to judge by, Eugene Peterson's paraphrase of Scripture is enjoying popular success. I see it everywhere. The Message Remix seems to be the Bible most likely to be seen in the hands of students and coffeeshop dwellers. I can understand the appeal. The hand-sized hardback edition pictured here is approaching the status of "design classic," if such a label can be applied to Bibles.

As far as I'm concerned, the designers made a series of excellent choices that make The Message Remix the best inexpensive hardback Bible on the market. What I hope to do in this article is outline some of the "lessons" other publishers can learn from this example.

In spite of my admiration for the design, though, I still have misgivings about the paraphrase. To be honest, I am conflicted over the issue of paraphrases in general, so my problems with The Message aren't confined to The Message. They apply just as much to the New Living Translation (NLT), another version that has done some trailblazing design. Translations used to be divided into two camps: formal equivalence, where translators attempt to communicate the words of Scripture, and dynamic equivalence, where translators attempt to communicate the thoughts or ideas. Dynamic equivalence was justified on the grounds that it took into account the abilities of the reader, accommodating the text to the reader's understanding. While advocates of formal equivalence may think of this as "dumbing down" the text, everyone agrees that a translation should communicate its meaning to the audience, and that requires a certain amount of accommodation. When I was growing up, the New International Version was the premier example of dynamic equivalance. Now, though, there is a lot of competition for the title, and I have even noticed online pundits describing the NIV as too literal, which shows how subjective these concepts can be. Will translators justify projects thirty years from now on the basis of how literal and difficult-to-read The Message or the NLT are?

If I had to choose sides, I'd be in the formal equivalence camp. (Fortunately, it's not an either/or proposition.) I find it much easier to study and interpret Scripture with such translations than I do with the looser dynamic equivalence translations. Still, I believe there is a place for both. Comparing several translations of a disputed passage can help the interpreter arrive at a nuanced understanding of the text. My concern is that, as more traditional dynamic translations like the NIV come to be seen as "literal," and paraphrastic editions like The Message take their place, the average reader will be taken farther and farther away from what the text actually says. The key to reading a paraphrase like The Message, in my opinion, is (a) to avoid "close" reading, since the word or phrase you scrutize is as likely to be Peterson's as, say, Paul's, and (b) to keep a more literal translation handy for comparison.

Messageopen_2What this ought to make clear is that my admiration for the design of The Message Remix is coupled with a desire to see publishers of more useful translations like the English Standard Version do likewise. So, what are the lessons we can learn from the design of The Message Remix?

(1) Cheap Bibles don't have to look cheap. The traditional approach to manufacturing an inexpensive Bible is to print the same layout on cheaper paper, slap imitation leather on it, and apply to cheap gilding around the edges of the page. As a result, cheap Bibles look very cheap, and they don't hold up very well to regular use. Personally, I am not convinced that there is any role for "bonded leather" in Bible publishing. I feel the same way about bonded leather Bibles that Ayn Rand's Howard Roark felt about fluting on columns -- it is a sad imitation of the real thing, dictated more by tradition than a thoughtful appreciation of what the design object is intended to do. The Message Remix is available in nasty bonded leather editions, and I'm sure they sell a few, but I have never seen one in use. The attractive, modern hardback is the Bible of choice for the users I've observed.

(2) Design with readers in mind. One of my pet peeves about Bible publishing is that, more often than not, the preferences of readers are not taken into consideration. The Message Remix bucks this trend in several ways. First, consider the size. The designers settled on measurements somewhere in between the familiar trade paperback and mass market paperback sizes. The Bible, in spite of its width, can be held comfortably in one hand. Second, consider the binding. Not all hardbacks are created equal. Most of them, including the vast majority of fiction hardbacks I purchase at the store, do not lay flat when opened. Readers are forced to bend the binding back to make the book stay open, which is why you see so many hardbacks with cracked spines in the used bookstores. The Message Remix, though, lays perfectly flat, as the photograph above illustrates. I can open mine to Genesis 1 and it will stay open on the table without any effort on my part.

(3) Typography matters. The vast majority of Bibles are just plain hard on the eyes. Type is archaic. It is set in narrow columns and littered with notations. In some translations -- the KJV and NASB come to mine -- a new paragraph begins with each verse, so that sentence and paragraph structure is difficult to discern. There is no excuse for any Bible published today, no matter what translation is used, not to feature paragraphed text. In addition, every Bible published today should use modern, readable type. The Message Remix makes excellent choices in this regard. The text is set in an attractive serif font -- it looks a lot like Adobe Garamond to me -- with titles and headings in bold, sans serif. The text is paragraphed, dialogue is punctuated appropriately, and verse numbers are set in the margin.

(3a) Single column text. The fact that The Message Remix is layed out in single columns deserves a point all its own. This is what readers are accustomed to, and it makes more visual sense than the traditional double column layout. I don't know why so many publishers are committed to double columns. The practice creates all sorts of problems. For example, the ESV's narrow columns force unintentional line breaks on passages set in verse. The problem is solved in the standalone edition of the Psalms, which is set in a single column. But for some reason, the single column format that works so well in the ESV standalone editions of the Psalms and the Gospel of John is not available in a complete edition of the Bible. Designers take note: single-column formatting makes a world of difference in terms of the reader's experience.

(4) Design choices add value without adding cost. For months, I admired the design of The Message Remix, but I didn't buy one on principle. I didn't plan on reading it. Sure, I've bought Bibles I don't plan on reading in the past, just to study their design choices up close (why I don't know), but for some reason I was able to resist the urge for quite a while. When I finally broke down and bought a copy of The Message Remix, Singlecolumn_2I was surprised to find that it isn't really a "nice" publication at all. The paper is not particuarly good. I had to hunt through a half dozen copies to find a cover that had not been notched by shelf wear, which suggests that the cover quality is nothing special. The last page actually has text printed on it -- Revelation 22 -- and that's rather strange. Still, none of these flaws detract from the whole. The design choices are so good that the fact corners were cut in the production doesn't really matter. Placed beside a comparably priced hardback of another translation, I don't think anyone in the world would say that the rival matched The Message Remix in terms of beauty, utility and quality. In fact, I suspect there are a host of more expensive Bibles that would suffer in comparison. The lesson here is that good design can make up for the need to produce an affordable edition.

I used to teach a group of college students on a weekly basis from the Authorized Version. Although some of them had grown up with it, most had difficulty with the seventeenth century translation. But I discovered that if I took the original text and re-formatted it in accord with modern typographic conventions -- clean type, single column, contemporary paragraphs and punctuation -- the students comprehension of what they read increased dramatically. In spite of all the lip service paid to publishing Bibles that are accessible to modern readers, I am surprised at how conventional and traditional the design of Bibles remains. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I suspect that improvements to design would do more to aid comprehension than the yearly re-translations that are now the fashion. If advocates of literal -- or "essentially literal" -- translation would apply as much effort to design as the popular paraphases now do, I think a generation of readers might discover how accessible a rigorous, literal translation can be.

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