Orders of Service: Design Strategies

Design for liturgy shares certain principles and methods whether the object of the design is a building, vestment, or some typographic expression of prayers and songs. In the past year I had the opportunity to design worship aids for my local parish, and I want to share them here as an example of the kind of thought that goes into design from liturgy (and a bit of what I mean by that phrase). I hope this will also aid others tasked with the design of worship aids. The first book is for the Triduum—the sequence of celebrations beginning with Good (Maundy) Thursday, continuing through Good Friday, and culminating in the great solemnity of solemnities that is the Easter Vigil—and is a full bilingual order of worship for the various services.


The second is a supplemental music booklet for the season of Advent.


This first part examined the Liturgical Principles guiding the design. This second part will look at the Design Strategies used and some of the specific decisions made to bring those principles to fruition.

Good design requires development over time and trial and error, so it is not something easily taught in this format. And I only claim to have started down that road. But I would like to share some of the strategies that guided this work in the hope that they will help others tasked with similar designs, especially those without a design background.

The most important step is to establish the guiding principles behind the design that will be the ultimate criteria for every decision along the way. Failure to do this leads only to haphazard, uncoordinated designs based solely on the whims of taste. A few of the strategies we will explore are extreme users & universal design, good typography, flow & hierarchy, consistency, and sustainability.

We have described at length the liturgical principles that must be the basis of design. From these, especially the accessibility of the liturgical texts for full and active/actual participation, follows what is the most important consideration of design generally: the use and experience of the end user. IDEO calls this "Human-Centered Design," and their free Design Kit is an incredible resource for learning and implementing creative solutions to any problem. Theirs is just one way to describe this approach; their methods and mindsets are similar to the toolkit I use in my participatory pre-design process of strategic planning for the built environment, Stewardship of Place.

To that end, I designed these booklets while keeping in mind a few hypothetical extreme users. For the Triduum booklet, my first extreme user was a grandmother named Gloria. Gloria hasn't been to church in about ten years, for unknown reasons, but is considering coming back. Her eyesight is beginning to weaken, is hard of hearing, and English is not her first language. Others included visitors who had never been to a mass before, and a self-centered regularly-attending family who are put off by long services with "extra" rites and who think they know everything. For every design decision to be made, from paper size to punctuation, I considered the implications for these users in light of achieving the liturgical principles from their perspective.

For the Catholic church, the method of considering extreme users meshes well with our "preferential option for the poor and vulnerable." The preferential option may give cause for alternate versions, but what works for well for the the elderly or less-sighted—from the readability of the text to the ease of manipulating the form factor—will also benefit the more conventionally-abled. Hence "Universal Design" reaffirms the unity of the assembly. Multilingual booklets are a similar consideration, where one common version of the will reinforce the unity of the celebration.


The perennial problem with worship aids is text size. No matter what you do, someone will complain that the text is too small (while your pastor complains that it's too long and expensive and can you squeeze it down a bit). The real answer is not "larger" but "more readable." For clarification, legibility is the ability to distinguish letter forms, which depends on both the form and its spacing; whereas readability is the ability to distinguish words as well as lines or blocks of words for the purpose of comprehension. Legibility changes as the size changes (which is why really good fonts change at different sizes, too), and the size of the letter forms is only one element of readability. Legibility is your font designer's job. Readability is your job, and that requires the entire discipline of good typography.

What constitutes good typography? The balance of technical factors—including typeface selection, point size, line spacing and length, kerning, and proper punctuation—that puts the logic and content of the text above its appearance. For a primer, I highly recommend that you start with Butterick’s Practical Typography. This e-book is covers in accessible depth the key rules of typography. It is intended to help lawyers look decent and professional. While this is a rather different use than designing worship aids, the principles and techniques he clearly lays out are also a perfect resource for someone who is not a typographer but who is still concerned with producing quality documents. This makes it perfect for church office staff and ministry leaders well. Among the basics, I want to highlight the importance of whitespace for clarity and for drawing attention to sequence and structure.

A few notes on typeface selection. For this type of booklet where the primary use is reading responses, I look for larger x-heights compared to overall height and then compensate for the density with more generous line heights. This tends to result in greater clarity and impart gravity and dignity to the text.

The first question you'll probably face is serif or sans. Sans serif fonts are usually assumed to be more legible and contribute to better readability. This is generally true for body text, but only means that if you use a sans serif font for large blocks of text, make sure it is optimized for legibility. Of course a crisp humanist sans will be easier to read than an overly dramatic serif (like Didone or Romantic). If you can find a "superfamily" that includes both serif and sans-serif fonts it can greatly help in achieving a variety for different types of information while maintaining a visual continuity. With the titles, texts, rubrics, and references all contained in a tight area, the ability to differentiate makes a huge difference.


Fonts cost money. Don't resent this fact. It will be worthwhile to pick on a solid and flexible font and stick with it for years.

Reliable stalwarts that I recommend considering for this application include Garamond, Sabon, Palatino, Quadraat, and Minion (even through Butterick recommends against using it). Note that there are multiple versions of some of these, especially Garamond, which is more of a historical class of typefaces than a particular font. FF More is a large serif family, which includes a nice condensed version. A solid condensed version is a powerful tool when setting lots of text. Sumner Stone has a fascinating set of fonts that I would love to see used in this context. Basalt, which has a great architectural character, and Munc, which is a clean uncial that could bring a bit of medieval character, would make for nice titles. Similarly, the work of Hans Eduard Meier has a stately character from a strong basis in historical craft (writing and carving) combined with a minimalist aesthetic. This is just a starting point.

A few font interdicts. Never use Papyrus under any circumstances whatsoever. It contains every fault a typeface can possibly have. It draws attention to itself, is massively overused, and represents precisely the kind of vague sentimental spirituality which is anathema to the liturgy. Unfortunately that means it gets used often for religious purposes, which is why I bother mentioning it specifically. Its legibility is miserable, and nothing can be done to make it readable as body text. Its faux grunge is too mechanical to have any meaning. In general, avoid novelty fonts and instead ask for dignity. It doesn't hurt to consider what designers consider to be terrible and avoid some pet peeves.

Also avoid Times New Roman, except as comparison for x-height size. At a minimum, set a more readable font such that the x-height matches 12 pt Times New Roman as a standard for what “normal” people are “used to.” But its familiarity connotes apathy, and its origin in newspapers emphasizes fitting characters on a line above readability. Here's more in Practical Typography and some alternatives.

I am personally partial to typefaces designed by architects and people who get architecture. It is not that I have sought these out; in most cases, I have discovered the architectural connection after appreciating the face. This includes the fonts in use on this website (Herb, Lapiture, and Facit by Tim Ahrens, which I found looking for legible modern blackletters), the digitization of van der Laan's stonecutting face, Goodhue's Cheltenham, and of course Eric Gill's designs, especially his lesser-known serif faces. Gill's An Essay on Typography remains a seminal work on the subject.

The Advent booklet uses Garamond Premier Pro, mostly because it is used in the Simple English Propers that constituted the majority of the booklet. Body text is 12pt with 15.75pt line height; explanatory texts were set in 11pt italic with a 14.5pt line height. Body text is minimal in this book, replaced instead with musical notation. When setting additional music, I matched the style of the Simple English Propers and reset hymn texts in Garamond for consistency. The result is only two formats of music, one for neumes and one for modern notation. Each has a consistent size, weight, and set of glyphs throughout the book, despite the hymns coming from different sources. This required a good bit of manual adjustments, which I was not able to do for the Triduum booklet due to schedule and its sheer size, but makes a huge difference in the the continuity of the whole. The Triduum booklet benefits from the body text providing the continuity. It would also be possible to use a consistent style in Finale or Sibelius or similar, but this would require setting every piece of music. In general, I was able to make the music in the booklet larger and significantly more readable than the hymnal we use, a clear benchmark that should minimize complaints.


From a typesetting standpoint, Gregorian notation is so far superior to modern notation. The way the notation, like the music, emphasizes the text itself is beautiful. Modern notation is like a straitjacket, constricting the text, just as conforming the translation of the text to rigidly formulaic music leads to some awkward and unfortunate phrasing. For what it's worth, I advocated for Missa XVII, which is the Ordinary setting specified for Sundays in Advent and Lent in the Gradule; XVIII is for weekdays in Advent

The title lines are a complex block above each piece of music created by nested GREP styles in inDesign. This technique uses the automatic application of text styles depending on rules that look for tabs, line endings, etc to specify which styles are used for each bit of text. 20pt Medium Italic gives the title of the music; 13pt Bold Caption gives the music's type in all caps; 13pt Medium Caption gives the date of its usage; 10pt Medium Caption in small caps gives the text source, hymn tune, or other supplemental information.

Thus this text (with hidden characters shown):




and prints as:




The numbers are the Great Primer Uncials from Hoefler's Historical Allsorts, which also provide the drop caps for each section:


To accompany the booklets, we also made letter As (in the same Uncials used on the cover) for use on the hymn boards in the church:


The Triduum booklet uses a suite of typefaces from Hoefler&Co. including: 11pt Hoefler Text Roman for the body at 15.75 pt line height, with 10pt / 13.5pt line height for readings; Hoefler Text Black for the people's responses; Hoefler Text Regular Italic in gray for explanatory texts; 10pt Hoefler Text Black Small Caps for musical designations; 14pt Hoefler Text Regular Italic for in-line titles; and 16pt Hoefler Black Italic (with Swash alternative capitals) for major section titles. The scheme is relatively simple for the complexity of the texts.

For the remaining distinction between parts I relied on the page layout and a few special design elements as banners for each day and each set of rites. These use a combination of Fell Type and Great Primer Uncials from Hoefler's Historical Allsorts, including some of its punctuation and symbols, and different combinations of Italic Hoefler Text according to the hierarchy of the rites. Each day has a consistent layout with the day on top and the celebration below. Each section has an appropriate emblem and its title in one of two formats (one for sections with special Latin names and one for the remainder). The symmetry of the composition relates directly to the two column layout for the two languages.


The imagery used throughout both books comes from a collection of digitizations of engravings provided by Corpus Christi Watershed. I used them primarily because they are published under a Creative Commons license (so are free to use), are a single source of a wide range of imagery in a consistent style, and are provided as vector files. They were originally produced for black and white printing and digitized for modern publishing, so they are well suited for the type of printing used in creating these booklets in as cost-effective manner as possible. The visual vocabulary of the imagery informed the choice of the Historical Allsorts for titles, which are themselves an impeccable digitization from similar sources.

The traditional language of the images nicely elevates the overall composition, but is not necessarily better than another language. The selection came down to what I had available that was of sufficient quality.

To incorporate the images into the page layouts, I offset the images on the covers and the major section divisions in a way that activates the contrasting negative and positive space inherent in woodcuts. It would have been nice to do more of the same on the section header blocks, but it clearly marks each day with the focus of its celebration. Note that in both these and the section header blocks, the multilingual titles are not afterthoughts; they are integral parts of the composition.


For the Advent cover, I extracted some angels from the prints and simply replaced the text with the names of the O Antiphons. The visual symbolism for Advent (and Lent, for that matter) is not as rich as the Triduum and Easter. Which really is not surprising, since the liturgies of the Triduum and Easter rely so heavily on material symbols while abstinence from the material characterizes the penitential seasons.


The page layouts used are based on the hierarchy & flow of the rites. A common size for these booklets is a legal sheet folded in half, giving a squat 7″ × 8.5″ page. One problem with this format is that the line lengths become too long, making it difficult to read multi-line text. Hymns also tend to have a taller proportion, which means that they either need to be reset in a wider format or a majority of the extra surface area is lost to blank space that does not contribute meaningfully to the layout. Using a folded letter sheet, with a 5.5″× 8.5″ requires small margins to prevent the shortening of line lengths. But the length of the page means that little else will fit with a hymn, and leads to frequent page breaks or splitting up prayers (widows and orphans) and similarly wasted space at the bottom of pages.

For the Triduum book, I wanted to emphasize the integration of the chants and hymns in the rites. Using a longer page meant that more of the musical settings would be to remain with their preceding text. In cases where multiple hymns follow each other, the length allowed them to be on the same page while keeping them at the size of our pew hymnal. I kept the 5.5″ width (a folded 11″ sheet width) and tried a number of different lengths for the fit of different critical pages, like the Exsultet, litanies, and multiple hymns in a row. I also physically tested prototypes of the lengths for balance and ease of use. The form factor also provided a nice stiffness and balance when held in one hand and a lit candle in the other. Wider sheets would tend to flop sideways awkwardly, making it more difficult to turn the pages. Igniting the booklet is not a huge danger, but fumbling to turn pages will lead to singed hair. The finished size of the Triduum booklets was 5.5″× 12″ created by trimming a tabloid size sheet. The extra length saved a number of sheets.


The line lengths were set by the Exsultet, which I set as two facing pages, English on the left page and Spanish on the right, in order to highlight its importance. Most of the rest of the pages were set in two columns, English and Spanish. This meant that the line lengths were shorter than ideal and the longer lines in the prayers had to be broken. In almost all cases, the phrases of the texts were already clearly separated, so the meaning was not impacted. The Exsultet was an exception and benefited from stretching out a bit more. I would have liked to have done more with these pages, harkening back to the medieval Exsultet Scrolls. Maybe next time.

Whenever possible, I prefer to keep the psalm lines unbroken and prayers consistent to the line breaks in the Missal. To test the page layout, I extracted some of the longest lines in the Missal to see what would fit. The longest line is 71 characters ("come to the aid of these our brothers and sisters in their blessed hope"), which incidentally is one of the very few lines broken in my Liturgical Press Roman Missal Chapel Edition, which I thought was the best designed of the new editions in 2011. The longest line in the Ordinary of the Mass is 65 characters ("you are seated at the right hand of the Father, have mercy on us"). Another one to look out for is "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, ✠ and of the Holy Spirit." This can obviously be broken into multiple, but that would take up more vertical space. It also points out that your font needs to have a maltese cross, or you will need to borrow one from another complimentary font. On that note, symbols versicle (℣) and response (℟) will be very helpful.

But back to line lengths, the following block of text is a good sample to use as a lorem ipsum while test page layouts.

for whenever the memorial of this sacrifice is celebrated
and in communion with those whose memory we venerate
and command that we be delivered from eternal damnation
O God, who by the Passion of Christ your Son, our Lord,
may persevere with steadfast faith in confession your name.
may keep him safe and unharmed for the Lord’s holy Church,
they may be added to the number of your adopted children.
Let us also pray for all our brothers and sisters who believe in Christ,
who bestowed your promises on Abraham and his descendants,
listening to his word and celebrating his mysteries,
bestowed upon the faithful the fire of our glory
Who for our sake paid Adam’s debt to the eternal Father
drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.
when the things of heaven are wed to those of earth,
who are wonderful in ordering all of your works,
look with favor on the wondrous mystery of the whole Church
come to the aid of these our brothers and sisters in their blessed hope
so that from the mystery of one and the same element of water
in the name of the Father and of the Son ✠ and of the Holy Spirit,”
Now that the days of the Lord’s Passion have drawn to a close,

Lines with this length (70 characters) will not only give an ideal length for reading and comprehension, it will also reduce the need for indentation on broken lines that give an inconsistent edge and increase the vertical efficiency of page use. Space between paragraphs can then be more effectively used to reveal the structure of the components of the celebrations.

Consistency is a theme throughout these strategies: consistent fonts, formats, layouts, source of imagery, etc. Keeping the base format consistent will go a long way to creating documents that are clear and dignified. Consistency is an important component of the best expressions of simplicity. The same type of information in the same format every time, such as a regular title format, helps the user navigate and use the order. With enough fabric of a consistent flow, a rare break from the format becomes a powerful tool for emphasis.

That said, consistency and simplicity are particularly important because these booklets are not themselves objects of the liturgy. They can add beauty and truth to the celebration of the liturgy, but they can also obscure what is actually going on if they draw too much attention to themselves. Undue attention can come whether it is good or bad from a purely graphic design perspective.


To close, here a few considerations for producing the books. We intended these booklets to be reused in future years. This meant not printing specific dates and the like, but it had a bigger impact on planning for the music ministry. This means committing to a repertoire for future years. And for Advent this included licensing the Introit Hymns. This was also in the interest of maintaining the sustainability of the material, cost, and effort.

Printing one-time use documents is not trivial. If you're going to use the material, use it with dignity, make it worthy of reuse. We've also found that when they are useful, informative, inspiring, they tend to walk off. This is a great problem to have! It means they are having a second life beyond their seasonal use and that they are bearing fruit in the personal devotion of parishioners. Someone actually told me they took some to give to friends who were asking what was going on at the church over Easter. Liturgy as evangelism; what more could you hope for? So we may need to reprint a few additional each year to replace the shrink. And babies chewing on them (at least, I hope those teeth marks were from babies...).

How much did these booklets cost? Printing is not the only expense involved. Licenses for texts, music, artwork, and fonts need to be considered. Creative Commons and public domain content can be an excellent resource. Quality is a concern with free material, but fortunately there are people who publish under a Creative Commons license for the good of the church. (Chant Cafe has excellent commentary on copyright issues related to liturgy and music.) The printing costs for the Triduum booklets came out to about $2.00 each; the Advent booklets were about $0.62. It is possible to produce some of these in house, but a professional printer is a worthwhile investment for trimming and assembly, print quality, and paper quality. But that is the commitment necessary when access to the liturgical texts and active/actual participation are important.

Design is work; graphic design is the labor of a specialized technical craft. It is valuable in many measures, not the least of which is a means for providing for the life of the designer. To quote the Catechism:

CCC 2428. In work, the person exercises and fulfills in part the potential inscribed in his nature. The primordial value of labor stems from man himself, its author and its beneficiary. Work is for man, not man for work (Cf. CA 32; 34). Everyone should be able to draw from work the means of providing for his life and that of his family, and of serving the human community.

Based on average billing rates, the fee for design work for the Triduum was at least $5,900 (note that this is more than 5x the cost of printing considered as a unit cost). The Advent booklet was smaller and built on the work for the Triduum booklet, so it would have been about $1,200. I say "would have been" because both were done pro-bono. These numbers are based on average fees and generously billed hours (the actual time spent was more than what was recorded).

St Albert the Great | Easter Vigil
St Albert the Great | Easter Vigil

The design of worship aids should be well thought-out with dignity, not slapped together with whatever default formatting and clip art could be had at the last minute. These versions are not perfect, but hopefully they illustrate the liturgical principles and design strategies intended to illuminate the Truth and Beauty of Christian worship.