Designing the Indecipherable:
The Absolutely Unique Challenges of Publishing the Voynich Manuscript

This post was originally published on the Yale University Press Art and Architecture blog as part of theirFrom the Designer’s Deskseries. 

In 2015, Yale University Press approached Wordesign Services to edit, design, and produce a facsimile edition of the Voynich Manuscript, a very old, mysterious, beautifully illustrated text. The book would include the first full-size reproduction of the entire manuscript, along with a collection of essays that explore the manuscript from different perspectives.

Voynich MS design pagesOccasionally I find it difficult to understand the complex subject matter of a book that Wordesign has been commissioned to produce, so I took heart in learning that, for this particular project, I was not alone. The Voynich Manuscript contains more than 200 parchment pages filled with densely packed, beautiful calligraphy intertwined with brightly colored botanic illustrations; tiny, meandering human figures; and convoluted, symmetrical designs. A wealth of information is contained in this roughly six-by-nine-inch book, but apparently no one has ever figured out what it says. Neither its language (affectionately referred to as “Voynichese”) nor its enigmatic illustrations have ever been deciphered.

Scientific analysis of its physical properties date the manuscript’s creation to the late-15th century. Its point of origination is believed to be somewhere (probably a monastery) in northeastern Germany, the Netherlands, or southern England. Its history includes centuries of intrigue, subterfuge, political upheavals, and deception, which brought it to its namesake, Wilfrid Michael Voynich, a rare book dealer at the start of the 20th century. Unable—or unwilling—to sell the strange manuscript in his lifetime, it became part of his estate, later to be sold to another dealer, who ultimately gave it to Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in 1969.

The audience for this facsimile edition includes a world of professional and amateur historians as well as unsolved-
mystery lovers. The cryptography community is a particularly lively subset of the latter camp. I imagine legions of obsessed code-breakers crushed beneath centuries of rancor over discredited interpretations and convoluted conspiracy theories.

I have spent more than a year with these pages, each one a beautiful puzzle I have little desire to decode. I’ve come to imagine the botanical images as pieces in a very strange board game. Some of the symmetrical or patterned pages might be appropriate for contemplation, but their pictorial vocabulary is simply too animated to facilitate meditation.

Reading and Design
There is always a tension between editorial priorities and those of graphic design, perhaps nowhere more apparent than in illustrated-book design. Reading requires focus and concentration. Focus refers to leading the eye to the center of a paragraph, or a sentence, or a word, from which it moves outward or scans across. Graphic design (whether in print or digital form) requires the designer to see a larger perspective, an overview of the page, spread, or window that encompasses all the elements within that frame as well as the area without, which in turn defines the object’s dimensions and place in the physical world. Designing this collection of essays about and facsimile reproduction of the Voynich Manuscript provided a unique and “literal” example of this tension.

Many of my design clients are editors, authors, curators, or scholars. As a result, I’ve spent a great deal of time studying that tension between focusing on a project’s content and surveying its form in order to provide a seamless and pleasurable reading experience. For the Voynich Manuscript project, I worked with a group led by Raymond Clemens, Curator of Early Books and Manuscripts at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, and Joseph Calamia, our editor at Yale University Press.

My work requires me to review a manuscript to understand the subject and determine which points are important to highlight. Once I’ve begun a layout, however, text becomes one navigation point among many, including art placement, chapter openers, and folios. Typically I reserve cover-to-cover reading of an illustrated book I’m designing until the bound book is delivered.

I have always admired the editor’s ability to read with the kind of comprehension and recall required to spot contradictions, inconsistencies, or repetitions from the beginning to the end of a manuscript. On the other hand, I possess a similar ability in terms of typography, color, and composition. This skill, however, requires that I stop reading words in order to “read” all aspects of the book’s design and layout.

Voynich MS408 quire diagram
The Voynich Manuscript consists of 20 quires held together in a bookbinding technique typically in use in 15th-century Europe. The quantity and size of the foldouts (quires 9–11, 14, 15, 17, and 19) are unusual for the time. Several leaves, indicated by dashed lines, were removed or lost at some time.

Design and construction challenges
We first saw the entire manuscript on the Beinecke Library’s website, which contained digital images of every manuscript page. We also received a diagram showing how the parchment pages were grouped into quires, groups of four or more pages folded, gathered, sewn, and bound into the original wooden binding nearly 600 years ago. René Zandbergen’s excellent website, The Voynich Manuscript, helped us understand this obscure-looking diagram (see illustration, top right).

We really began to understand how the manuscript was structured when we visited New Haven for a showing of the actual object. We watched as a conservator leafed through and described the manuscript’s pages in the Beinecke Library’s climate-controlled, dust-particle free conservation laboratory.

The manuscript is unusual in that it features two sections of very complex four-, six-, eight- and even twelve-page foldouts. I was convinced that my client would require me to recreate a fifteenth-century manuscript that was completely different from all available twenty-first-century printing and binding techniques. Even after we agreed on how to present the facsimile pages in our book, its foldout section, defying all automated binding capabilities, required extensive hand-work to insert the foldouts into the standard text sections prior to binding. In its way, a part of each copy of this book is handmade.

Perceptual obstacles
When I started to consider this project, it occurred to me that I may have been uniquely qualified to bring it to successful completion:

  • I have always had a terrible sense of direction stemming from a life-long confusion between left and right.
  • The Voynich Manuscript lacks even the most basic navigational system one expects in a book; neither text nor illustrations serve reliably to connect the end of one page with the beginning of the next.
  • This appeared to offer me an advantage in that I could use my own alternative navigational skills adapted over time to cope with my nonexistent internal compass. At the very least, the degree of patience developed over the years as I’ve found my way around would serve me well.

The need to print design boards for client presentations has mostly disappeared now that sending pdfs of design pages and spreads to clients has become so expedient. (Design boards are full-size, color-laser proofs showing the book’s jacket and the text’s design.) However, the Voynich project clearly required a great many intricate, time-consuming comps (working models). I started with quarter-size models, then increased to 50 percent, and finally full size.

Voynich Comps & Papers

At first, most of my attempts were incorrect due to the complexity of matching the proper recto (right-hand page of an open book) to its verso (left-hand page, or the reverse side of the recto) and creating the right combination of folds. My mistakes seldom revealed themselves until after I had completed the entire foldout section.

Voynich Comps & Papers

I quickly realized that I needed to duplicate the physical act of turning, folding, and unfolding pages in order to find my bearings and check my progress. I was unable to accurately perceive that same succession of steps in my mind’s eye. Often, when no paper model was available, I needed to turn imaginary pages in the air as I followed the progression on my screen.

Sequencing anxiety
The enthusiastic audiences for this new facsimile publication are very familiar with the entire Voynich Manuscript, so any mistake in sequencing its pages would prove seriously embarrassing. Our editors at Yale University Press were understandably anxious about accuracy.

When photographing each page of the manuscript, the Beinecke Library had worked with two numbering systems. The first assigned a reference number to each page of the manuscript; the second was a sequential record of each page as it was photographed. I chose to work with the latter system. It started (and ended) with the book’s front (and back) covers and endpapers, its spine, and the top, bottom, and fore-edges of the closed book. The first actual “text” page began with image #5.

Additionally, at some point over the centuries, someone decided to inscribe the top right corner of all right-hand pages with sequential folios—even- and odd-numbered—except for some multipage-foldout sections, where the intended right-hand page unfolds on the left (see figure below). These systems—and their confluence—presented something of a navigational hindrance.

Voynich MS numbering system.

The design and production phases required obsessive sequential checking and rechecking. One final challenge arose from devising effective ways to convey this very quirky material to the prepress and production department of our printer in Hong Kong, which had to consider all these issues and more to create an accurate imposition for the book. I am greatly indebted to Abby Featherstone, my New York-based printer’s rep at Asia Pacific Offset, who oversaw this daunting task.

Hand sorting and collating at Asia Pacific Offset Printers.

The publication of this facsimile edition of the Voynich Manuscript will no doubt allow a much wider audience opportunities to study and contribute new insights about what is known and what has yet to be revealed about this enigma.

An illustrated book that is thoughtfully designed and well produced deserves to be appreciated as a beautiful object. I hope that my work will inspire readers, who are otherwise deprived of understanding the content, to recognize and value the manuscript for its beauty and strangeness.

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