March 7, 2011

Thoughts on designing a typeface for the Bible

Written by 

When designing a Bible typeface, what considerations come to mind? Legibility, character count, beauty? What's most important?

This article references Lucerna, the font designed for the New Living Translation Bible. The answers are in response to one student's questions about typeface design for Bibles.  In 2006, the typeface Lucerna first appeared in the New Living Translation Bible, Second Edition.  it has since been used in the Life Application Bible featuring the NLTse, the New King James Version, and the New International Version Bible (NIV).In fact, readers say

"I find this Bible easy to read without straining the eyes, with large clear print."

Lucerna bible font ps139

Considerations for designing a typeface for a specific application such as a Bible have to take into account legibility, character count and beauty, but I don't think one is necessarily more important than the other.  They all work together to solve a problem.

There are different Bible layouts: single column and multi-column.  A typeface that will work well for multi-column won't work as well in a single column.  Lucerna and Veritas are reduced and narrow width fonts (respectively), designed to solve specific problems.  For maximum readability, shorter line lengths benefit from a reduced-width font, but not necessarily a narrow font.  The reduced width characters will allow for a word or two more per line, enhancing the reader's ability to read the text without having to stumble through only a few words before the eye has to return to the beginning of the next line (a struggle for poor readers, from my observations).  A narrow font enhances the verticality of the strokes, which leads the eye to move up and down, rather than horizontally.

Lucerna emphasizes the top of the x-height, to enhance the horizontality of the typeface, in an attempt to lead the eye horizontally along the line rather than vertically.

Does the psychology of typefaces play a role?

Do some typefaces give you a headache after reading them for a long time? Do typefaces influence a reader's behavior?  Can a typeface make the text more difficult or easier to read?  If so, what are the qualities that make it more legible, more readable?

The psychology of typefaces plays a role in the designer’s mind.  By the time the Bible is complete, so many other choices have been made that the typeface selection either enhances or diminishes the reader’s experience.

Shouldn’t the life-changing power of God’s word be as accessible to all level of readers as possible?  Would a bible typeset in Comic Sans be easy to read, and could you take it seriously?  (Although, I would like to see a bible typeset in ITC Coventry.

Should a Bible typeface be "invisible" to the reader?

It shouldn’t be invisible, but it shouldn’t distract the reader from the message, but at the same time the typeface is a work of art that is an expression of whomever created it and seeks to be honoring to God. That is my particular opinion. I have designed the two typeface families (Veritas/Lucerna) with the goal that the Bible would be typeset in them.  With that consideration, the typeface should not distract the reader from the text and should make it easier to read. It should make the Word seem familiar and inviting.  It should have a distinctive visual character in and of itself, because when it’s bigger on a page it needs to be beautiful as a work of art, but also needs to be appropriate to the message.

If there are at least some psychological effects, should we try to match the "mood" of the typeface with the message?

In a long text, what would it accomplish?  The Bauhaus style of expressive/emotive typography is best for headlines and short passages.  Have you ever seen Tim Bott’s work?  (www.timbotts.com)  The use of expressive typography or calligraphy can enhance a short passage, clarify the meaning, enhance the meaning or illuminate it to a reader.  But can you imaging reading en entire Bible like this?  It would be very tiring and tedious.  The words need to be more important than the typeface.

Is there any room to use more than one typeface (or layout) in a Bible - different fonts for different types of passages (poetry, law, epistles, etc.)?

There are historical guidelines and precedent for the use of type and professional-looking typography, as well as standards that book publishers follow.  Using different typefaces for different sections would look chaotic and disrupt any continuity for the serious reader of scripture.  Continuity in book publishing (which is what a Bible is after all) is of the utmost importance.  Publishers have tried using layout variations thinking that a more dynamic design will make the Bible more appealing to attention-deprived individuals (ie teenagers and children), but it’s more marketing than anything else.  An attention-deprived culture needs color and variation in order to retain its attention and engage it.

Contemporary Bible design in some instances is like trying to teach a pig to dance.  It’s a waste of the teacher’s time and it irritates the pig.  Nobody comes to a saving knowledge of Christ because of the color of ink or the page layout – but by being able to read, hear and understand God’s Word without distraction.  Changing type, especially in a text passage, diminishes readability.

Did it take you longer to read that passage?  Ultimately, readability is what's important.

More in this category: Low light and small type »

Three Steps to Transform your Organization

Join the Movement

Grow with design, marketing, and business insights.

Measure Brand Clarity

Six Brand Clarity questions reveal where your brand needs help.

Hire us to Guide You

Everyone needs a guide. Schedule a call to discuss your needs.