ICM 502 – Information Design Common to Biblical Texts
Biblical texts are fascinating, as are their designs.
What we today might consider to be problematic designs were much more typical years ago, particularly in the area of holy texts. That’s not so surprising when you consider that bibles were in far wider circulation before the printing press (scribes knew their buyer persona) and that, even after it was invented, there was still a great deal of illiteracy.
The two factors created a condition whereby a lot of prayer books and the like would be lettered or printed, and there would be a lot of illustration so as to help the illiterate faithful follow along.
Modern Design Issues
Design requirements are different now. For one thing, only maybe 14 percent of the US population is illiterate. While that figure is higher than most of us would like, it’s a lot better than it was after the Roman Empire fell, and literacy was a feature of no more than maybe 30 – 40 percent of the populace.
Because we don’t need so many pictures to help us along, Rebecca Hagen and Kim Golombisky, in White Space is Not Your Enemy, offer a list of layout sins on pages 31 – 42:
13 Amateur Layout Errors
- Things that blink. Incessantly.
- Warped photos.
- Naked photos (e. g. they need a border).
- Bulky borders and boxes (use hairlines).
- Cheated margins.
- Centering everything.
- Corners and clutter – don’t fill the corners! Instead, group similar visual information together.
- Trapped negative space – keep the negative space at the edges.
- Busy backgrounds.
- Tacky type emphasis – reversing, stroking, using all caps, and underlining.
- Reversing – white copy on a dark background
- Stroking – outline characters
- All caps
- Bad bullets – use real bullets, not just asterisks or emoticons, and align them.
- Widows and orphans.
Justified rivers – don’t use fully justified (both sides) blocks of type. Help eliminate this by increasing column width or reducing font point size, or both. Or just don’t do it!
Biblical Text Designs
When it comes to biblical texts, violations of sins 4, 7, 8, and 9, seem to be common. I chose images outside of the readings as these designs seem to be ubiquitous for older religious texts.
In this image from a Gutenberg bible (Genesis 1: 1) currently housed at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, a lot of these sins come to the fore.
The border, though lovely and possibly unique, is also bulky (#4) and busy (#9), and clutters the corner space (#7). Negative space is trapped within the border (#8).
Furthermore, the lack of paragraph or verse breaks makes the columns look uniform but uninviting to read. The text feels unapproachable and forbidding.
There’s another bulky border in this image. It’s from a Koran which is currently in the David Collection at the Park Museer NE in Copenhagen, Denmark. This one has a lot of white space, with no visible spacings between sentences, except for the gold circles. The border feels imperfectly drawn although not freehand. Perhaps it was traced.
At least there’s no corner clutter, and the border is relatively simple and not busy, but the design still commits the sin of bulky borders (#4). The large amount of margin space also appears strange. Because this is a holy text, it probably wasn’t meant for taking notes or annotating the text. So why is so much of the space being wasted? Contrast that with what’s inside the borders, where the text is cramped and takes up nearly all of the real estate.
The Gutenberg bible seems to be saying with its design is that illiterate parishioners can follow along, as can young children. The Koran, in contrast, is instead telling its reader to focus on reading and not view any graven images.