Former Apple designer Kory Westerhold still remembers the messages that company executives preached from their Cupertino, California, pulpit—variations on “love your neighbor as yourself,” reframed in Silicon Valley’s terms.
“‘We’re so lucky to work for a company that releases products that literally change people’s lives. What we’ve done so far at Apple is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the number of things in this world that can be made better,’” senior vice president Eddy Cue said at one all-hands meeting, according to Westerhold. Then, Cue hinted at the Apple Watch, describing a product that would allow late-arriving, jet-lagged hotel guests to go straight to their rooms, bypassing the check-in desk. “‘There are millions of things around us that cause friction; you just have to be mindful of those things, and look for those things.’”
“That inspired me to look at my life in a different way,” Westerhold says. “For me, that friction was the Bible.”
Fast-forward to 2015, and Westerhold, now a product designer at Twitter, has teamed up with Aaron Martin, a design director at Yahoo and childhood friend. Today, after months of sketching and development, they released NeuBible, an elegant and radically simplified mobile app for the Bible.
Their goal, Westerhold says, was to “get rid of everything between you and scripture.”
That pursuit of “beautiful utility,” as designers like to say, stands in contrast to their less design-minded competitors. Papyrus scrolls, blazing crosses, clouds lit by divine beams of light—the App Store is chock-full of Bible apps with enough skeuomorphic, Christian-kitsch to give Jony Ive permanent nightmares. Even worse, many are riddled with design flaws, from feature-overload to poor navigation. But NeuBible stands apart, with a pared-down structure that puts the text front and center. The font choices are modern–no Italicized cursive, here–and the left-side navigation disappears from view while reading. Apart from verse numbers and chapter headings, the content is unadorned.
“After banging my head against a wall a few times, it hit me: This is just a reading experience,” Westerhold says. “I set the content aside for a while, and just tried to create the most beautiful reading experience that I could.”
Martin chimes in: “Our lack of features is an intentional feature.” Bookmarking and margin-style note-taking are in the works, but both designers are adamant about avoiding feature creep. “We’re not going back to Gutenberg,” Martin says, but they’re not importing your Facebook social graph, either.
Instead, they’ve devoted their time to perfecting features as deceptively simple as search. In NeuBible, users can bring up a search bar by double-tapping the screen. Previewed results appear below, as the user types. What’s more, it’s equally effective to search for “James 1:17” as it is to write out “Every good and perfect gift,” a phrase from the verse. The experience is fast and intuitive, a vast improvement over the cumbersome book-chapter-verse navigation that popular apps like YouVersion still rely on.
Pastors involved in beta testing have given NeuBible their endorsement. “The ability to turn phones into the word of God is a pretty wonderful thing,” says Nathan Clark, who leads online ministry at Northland, a Florida-based church. “The first printed Bible brought scripture out of the hands of the privileged and into the home,” with “so much attention paid to artistry and readability.” This current technology cycle, Clark says, has sometimes lacked that dedication to beauty and detail.
For the designers and cofounders, the project has required a leap of faith, given how few Christians work at leading technology companies. Those who do often choose to fly under the radar. “We work in this world where everyone is open-minded, but I think there’s an asterisk on that—’unless it has anything remotely to do with Christianity,’” Westerhold says. “You’ve spent years building your career as a designer, building relationships–I’ve definitely thought, are we making a mistake?”
But he found courage in the feedback from NeuBible’s test users—and from his bosses at Apple. “I showed versions of it in interviews at Apple, and interviews at Twitter. Of all the work I’ve done over the course of my career, those were the things that people wanted to talk about the most, which is insanity,” he says.
NeuBible’s iPhone app costs $1.99 and is available to download here. Android and iPad versions are coming soon.