In most cases, a light debate ensues online, hands are wrung, and all goes back to normal shortly thereafter. Such unsolicited redesigns are done in a safe bubble. The freelancer designer who remakes Craigslist’s website doesn’t have to deal with the complicated technology hurdles and huge user base. Any repercussions of the redesign are kept safety out of view.
Which is why Adam Lewis Greene’s story is instructive. Raised Christian, the 29-year-old Bay Area book designer believed the Bible needed a design makeover. But rather than just post the mockups he, well, actually did it. Funded by $1.4 million from a Kickstarter campaign, he and a small team are currently undertaking the editing, printing, manufacturing, and shipping processes. His intent is to make the Bible more reader friendly and fluid by breaking the brick-sized book up into four volumes, forgoing annotations and verse numbers, and replacing the thin, wispy sheets with thick paper from a 437-year-old Austrian mill.
As if that isn’t enough, he’s also adhering to a rigorous editorial process by translating the text from a 505-year-old version to make sense in the present day. “The Bible has a lot of words we don’t use anymore, or that mean different things,” explains Greene. “We don’t want to trip up the reader.” One key detail Greene didn’t think through? That his project would be a success.
He anticipated a small limited run of 500 orders via Kickstarter, but has received 20,000 and counting. As he sprints towards a spring publication date, we spoke with Greene about why he felt the Bible was in drastic need of design makeover, the blessings (and curse) of a successful Kickstarter campaign, the challenges of implementing his redesign ideas, and why not even the most iconic entity is exempt from a redesign.
From a design standpoint, what is your critique of the Bible?
The expected form of the Bible almost across the board for the last 200 years or so has not been conducive to appreciating biblical literature as literature. Rather, the Bible is designed to be an easily-navigated theological encyclopedia. There are all of these longstanding design traditions in type-setting, page layouts, and binding that the Bible seemed to somehow be exempt from. It’s not that a two-column Bible with chapter numbers, verse numbers, and cross references is a bad thing. It is certainly a useful thing. But it shouldn’t be the only way arguably the greatest book of literature in the western world is presented to its readers.
To what degree does the crowded design of the Bible you described impact its readability?
Ultimately, if you present something in a dense, encyclopedic way, you will begin to perceive it as something that is dense and encyclopedic.
What has been your approach in this project?
It comes down to eliminating distractions, like the acceptable length of a line and the most pleasing proportion of a page to a text block. What I’m doing isn’t original from a book design standpoint—it’s just that the Bible has been relegated for so long to this form that is contrary to the tradition of beautiful books. I was going for the purest form I could achieve. The approach to the design is restraint.
Of all the design elements, which has taken the most amount of time? Why?
I have spent thousands of hours sketching out the typeface. Several years ago I began teaching myself how to design a book typeface for this project—that is a huge undertaking. Everything from teaching myself to design a typeface to refining it over time. I keep trying to improve it. If I notice something after I’ve sat with it for a week or two, I have to go back in and mess with it to try and improve it. And it’s not as simple as creating the font and then tracing the letters in digitally. You have to build in the space between letters too. That is one of the biggest challenges in designing type.
At any point did you ever consider using something like Calibri 12, which still looks pretty good, and could save you a ton of time?
Never. I wanted to create an original typeface for this project. That was really important to me. Holy text has traditionally been written in a script that is unique to them. And I just love that idea so much. This typeface is not only original—it’s reserved solely for Bibliotheca.
How do you beat creative blocks?
I usually take my dog for a hike in the woods to clear my mind.
Why do you think no one has redesigned the Bible to this magnitude before? And what made you think you were the person to do it?
To be honest, I was a little baffled no one else had done it. I was waiting for someone else to beat me to the punch. I am a project guy, always trying to figure out some kind of project to work on, and I love the idea of having my hand in something from start to finish. I gravitate towards bigger projects. I have no idea why.
You set out to raise $37,500 to produce 500 books and you ended up with $1.4 million from 20,000 orders. Does that add pressure to the project?
Yes, and that pressure continues to mount. We had to push back our delivery date several times. It’s been a pretty big strain on me—it stresses me out. I am definitely responsible for the delays because I’ve added this more robust editorial approach with the updated translation. There are thousands and thousands of archaic sentences in the text, and we have to decide if each and every one of them should be modernized. That process has been overwhelming. I didn’t have a great idea about how long it would take, and I’ve been wrong about how long it will take. We try to get back to everyone who writes us within 24 hours. We understand it is frustrating, and we’re frustrated too. We’re asking what we can do to help: If they don’t want to wait anymore, that is fine.
What has the response been from people about you reimaging this iconic entity?
I have gotten pushback from individuals who believe it’s wrong to separate the Bible in volumes or take out verse numbers, as if that is the way the Bible has always been. But, if you know the history of the Bible, you know that isn’t true. In the Isaiah Scroll, one of the oldest versions of the Hebrew bible, we see the greatest inspiration for the page layout of Bibliotheca and there is just writing—no distractions. When something goes viral, everyone responds to it and I’ve gotten every kind of response that you can possibly imagine, from overwhelmingly positive to people who think I am the spawn of Satan.
By the time you do go to market with Bibliotheca in early 2016, you will have worked full-time on this project for almost two years. How have you sustained yourself financially?
I am taking a small owner’s draw—$1,000 every two weeks to help me pay my bills, and we’ve kept pre-orders going after the campaign. I just want to communicate to my backers that the priority here is to deliver a beautiful, valuable set of books. If that means that I walk away from this project with nothing left over to take as a salary, then so be it. Right now we do think that we will have some money leftover and most of that will go into seed money to become a new publisher and to fund a few new projects I have in mind.
What have you learned in the last 18 months that you wish you would have known when you started?
Think about what you would do if you asked someone for $37,000 to do something and they gave you $1.4 million. Would you do everything the same exact way? Probably not. In other words, come up with a scenario of what you’d do if you barely make your funding and a scenario of what you’d do if you far exceed your funding.
Give yourself more time than you think you need.