Essay: 'The Crystal Goblet' – Beatrice Warde

‘The Crystal Goblet’ is a well-known essay written by Beatrice Warde, regarding typography and its role in the world. According to her, good typography should be ‘transparent’ or ‘invisible’ (Warde 2009: 42). In the contemporary world, it might be difficult to define these terms, as they are rather ambiguous and misleading due to the fact that they are entirely dependable on the way people perceive typography, in different contexts. So what makes typography ‘transparent’ in the present?
At the beginning of the essay, we are offered two possibilities: the goblet ‘of solid gold’ and the ‘crystal-clear’ one (Warde 2009: 39). If we see the goblets as a metaphor for the typeface, the overall appearance of the type, and the wine as the content, the message that has to be sent, then we have two types of typography: one that manages to send the message in a clear, legible way (the crystal goblet), and one that does quite the opposite (the golden goblet). However, it would be wrong to assume that one of them is ‘good’ while the other is ‘bad’, as there are various reasons as to why the ‘golden goblet’ prevents people from getting the message. It is an extremely subjective matter, as some people might be unable to understand the information simply because they are not part of the target audience of that design.
Typography is so complex and so diverse that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to confidently label it as ‘good’. According to Bruno Munari, ‘we all have inside us (naturally with some variation from person to person) groups of images, forms and colours which have exact meanings’ (Munari 2009: 43). Depending on our cultural background and environment, the information stored in our brain represents certain things. In other words, the way we perceive a message is entirely dependable on our experience, our life, our culture. This is not only true for the present, but for the past as well. The visual appearance of a typeface conveys a message in itself, and this message might often change depending on who is receiving it, meaning that the same design could be perceived as both ‘good’ and ‘bad’, depending on the audience; going back to the goblet metaphor, this means that most of the time, typography is both goblets, not just one of them.
For example, the posters made during the Psychedelia movement in the 60s often constituted of vibrant colours and vintage illustrations, combined with highly decorative typefaces (Heller, S. and Vienne, V. 2012). The psychedelic typography was deliberately difficult to read; it was unconventional and it was an integrated part of the posters. Wes Wilson, one of the most well-known psychedelic designers, invented a font with letters that looked as if they were moving or melting. From a distance, they could be perceived as illegible, but the designer’s explication was that ‘if people care enough, they’ll lean in and look closer’ (How The Psychedelic 60s Changed Design Forever 2013). Its target audience was a certain group of people (youngsters who were interested in drugs and rock and roll music), and they responded in a positive way to the psychedelic designs because they could identify with the extravagant style presented by them. On the other hand, people outside of this circle were excluded and most likely had a different perception of the movement (Heller, S. and Vienne, V. 2012). It is exactly because of the subjective character of the posters and the typefaces used that they can be seen as both the golden goblet and the crystal one, depending on the person who’s looking at them. As time passed, the movement was slowly seen more as a clich??, as kitsch, even if it used to be highly appreciated by its exclusive community (Heller and Vienne 2012).
Typography has never been just about sending a message across, with no regards to appearances. The serif which appeared in Ancient Rome, was created as a result of the use of utensils with sharp edges (Hara 2009).
‘Typefaces convey a written message, but they also have a visual expression that in itself conveys signals, an identity or even a message’ (B??nemann, H. E. 2012); quite often, you can judge a piece of text only by the typeface, without even reading the actual text. The message still gets to you, but what you see first is the actual appearance of the type, which can influence the way you perceive and understand the text, in a positive or negative way (Munari 2009: 42). When Johannes Gutenberg created movable type and printed his first Bible, he wanted the book to be similar to the handwritten books of that time (Bell 2014). At that time, society was rather conservative and didn’t easily welcome new inventions (Bell 2014), which is why the appearance of the letters made it easier for people to accept the movable type. In this particular case, it was not so much about the conveyed message (people already knew about the people, most of them already read it) but the overall aspect of the letters and the pagination of the text. The typeface used by Gutenberg was inspired by the Gothic style, which ‘marked the initial stage of the Gutenberg text, the so-called incunabula’ (Hara 2009).
Although propaganda used to be associated with advertising in the past, nowadays it is mainly seen as ‘spreading the big lie’ (Heller, S. and Vienne, V. 2012: 50) and is mainly related to the Nazi propaganda in which one of the main objectives was to generate hate towards the Jewish people. Most of the propaganda posters used display fonts, quite often in bright colours, meant to catch your attention. Once the anti-semitic film, The Eternal Jew, was released, the posters meant to advertise this film often used font that resembled Hebrew, so as to show the cultural difference between them and the Germans (Narayanaswami 2011: 4). In other words, the type successfully managed to make people unconsciously draw a line between the two cultures, so they could (by associating the Hebrew-like font with unpleasantly drawn portraits of Jewish people) be manipulated into despising them. This shows us that, despite not having a good and noble goal, typography still worked, in the way that it clearly sent the message to its target audience, the German people, and it successfully managed to manipulate them. As with the Psychedelic posters, typography was an integrated part of the poster, but it did play a very important role.
Typography played an important role as an integrated part of an overall design in styles such as Art Deco and Art Nouveau. Art Deco is a style that is mainly characterized by its geometric shapes, bold curves and strong, vertical lines (Bigman, 2012). In terms of typography, most of the typefaces used were sans-serif, and they were usually distorted and not exactly legible (Bell 2014); they probably wouldn’t have made much sense on their own, having a highly decorative role, but as a part of a design (such as a poster), they could successfully support the meaning of the text. At the time, this style was considered modern, and it could be found everywhere ‘ architecture, graphic design, fine art, film, fashion design, interior design, etc. As in the previous examples, context plays an important role, so it is important to remember the highly industrialised period when this style appeared. Compared to Psychedelia, its target audience wasn’t clearly defined, simply because it was for everyone; it was a very popular style in the 20s, especially in Europe, and everyone identified with it (History of Art Deco 2012). ‘Modern’ is a term that is continuously changing, sometimes faster than we could imagine. If we look back at Art Deco typefaces now, they no longer seem modern to us, although so many people all over the world identified with this style at that time.

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