Looks Matter: Why Good Bible Design Is Essential
By Ruthanne Jenkins
Bible Design

Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published in December 2022. 

Take a moment and think about something tangible that you love or enjoy — whether in your home, your favorite museum, or around your neighborhood. It is probably an item or place that is, in some sense, beautiful. It draws you into an experience of comfort, delight, or joy, and is an experience you want to repeat.  

Now, think about the Bible sitting on your coffee table or on the back seat of your car. Does it evoke the same emotions? For some of us, maybe. And, in recent years, many publishers and individuals have worked to make reading the Bible both a spiritual encounter (as it has always been), and an aesthetically pleasing experience. 

We don’t often think about the effort that goes into creating and publishing a book: everything from the margin size, font and script, type of paper, the spine and cover design, to how it looks (and feels) when flipping through multiple chapters at a time. Bible design is the same: It requires an attention to detail and thoughtfulness as God’s Word that other books, say, your favorite novel, do not require. And in the past decade, thoughtful design has grown more in Bible publishing spheres, whether we realize it or not. 

A Man With a Mission

If you sit down with Mark Bertrand, author, PCA pastor, and teacher, he will explain not only the progression of Bible design history, but why it is essential for pastors and congregants as they study Scripture both individually and within the church. 

 While his name may be unfamiliar to you, Bertrand’s background in creative writing, worldview and theology, teaching, and pastoring spans the past 20 years. After working as a typesetter following his graduation from college, he began writing about Bible design in the early 2000s. While he grew up knowing, loving, and reading the Bible, he recalled in a recent interview with byFaith how that job sparked something new for him. 

“It dawned on me that the Bible is a book and people design Bibles, but there was also a problem with that because, at the time, design had grown stagnant. There wasn’t much design or innovation, so I started writing about it.” 

He explored Bible design and shared his research and experience for many years, both online and in meetings with publishers. He continued to write about it and in 2007, when he published “Rethinking Worldview: Learning to Think, Live, and Speak in This World,” he transferred all his articles about Bible design to a new platform, Lectio, giving the work a new, unexpected life. People began to engage with the content, and it ignited more conversations around beautiful Bibles or, in Bertrand’s words, “books meant to be read.” 

He continued to engage with publishers, congregants, and others about Bible design for several years, writing and speaking about it when given the opportunity. In 2014, the industry began to change. Bertrand noted how pastors and publishers realized congregants weren’t engaging with their Bibles as effectively, often due to poor design. Pages of Scripture felt messy due to poor — or inadequate — design, which in his words equates to a book that looks, feels, and reads more like a reference guide or dictionary than a book you want to hold and read a little longer than most. 

Publishers slowly began to do something about it. 

They began producing products such as the journaling Bibles, readers’ Bibles, and Bibles with more aesthetically pleasing design (think fewer cross-references and more script, spacing, and attention to paper, typography, and readability). This gave readers, and the general public, an opportunity to read the Bible in a new way. 

“Biblical literacy and congregations actually being in the Word is a key concern for pastors,” Bertrand noted. “For a long time, if people weren’t reading their Bibles, the answer was ‘Well, it just needs to be retranslated.’ Design like this makes every translation relatable, accessible, readable. And people’s experience of the Bible is going to be affected by it.”

The Word Made Tangible

For Bertrand, pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and many others like him, tangibility is key to good design and publishing. The ability to hold and feel a book or Bible reveals something about the technological age in which we live, move, and have our being, individually and corporately. Technology offers readers access to tools such as audio Bibles, quick reference guides, and easy access to different sections of Scripture. But, as we read in John 1, Jesus was the “Word made flesh” — and the Incarnation tells us something about the physical nature of life, and why it’s important. Jesus’ incarnation points to why a physical Bible, while not an absolute necessity, is an important element of experiencing God’s Word. 

And, in Bertrand’s words, “Good design invites the reader into the text to experience it,” not merely see it.   

The invitation of readers into Scripture as a story more than a resource is what the Society of Bible Craftsmanship, a new endeavor of the Museum of the Bible, hopes to accomplish through various means. The SoBC, which launched in September 2022, will provide independent publishers and designers the opportunity to submit projects and designs for awards and recognition, as well as provide a community that receives exposure to the broader public through the museum. According to the description, “The society’s mission is to nurture and highlight excellence in the industry and to help the general reader discover and appreciate all that goes into the finest examples of Bible craftsmanship — in all languages, in all media.”   

This will include awards and displays, as well as connecting people to new industry trends, explorations, and hopes for the future of Bible design and publishing. 

Bertrand, who serves on the society’s steering committee, hopes the work and exposure of diverse Bible design will promote more engagement with Scripture both for churches and those who come in contact with the museum. 

The next time you open your Bible, think about how it looks, feels, and reads, and know there are men and women around the country working to make that experience one that is tangible and beautiful, leading to a deeper appreciation for and understanding of God’s Word. 

For more information, visit lectio.org.

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