Graphic Design Theory: The Crystal Goblet

The next essay in Helen Armstrong’s Graphic Design Theory is The Crystal Goblet, or Why Printing Should be Invisible by Beatrice Warde. Ms Warde was an eminent mind in the printing industry from the 1930s through 50s. The Crystal Goblet is often referred to in typographic circles for its thesis that encourages the humble use of typography to serve the text instead of vanity.

She compares typography to goblets and notes that those who know something about wine, or profess to, will prefer a clear crystal goblet. The various elements of the drink can be observed, color, fragrance, without undue concern for the vessel that carries it. Those who prefer a gold, guilded, ornate goblet put more importance in outward appearance than in the wine itself. The typographic form that a text takes can illuminate what it is meant to carry and portray, the printed word, or it can distract or detract from or even contradict it.

The alternate title for this essay is Why Printing Should be Invisible. Warde asserts that the purpose of written text is thought transference and the any type that does anything to distract from that goal is a failure in its purpose. Type is there to illuminate the thoughts and ideas contained in the written word. She compares typography, in addition to wine glasses, to window panes. She claims that while a stained glass window may be very pretty to look at if you’re trying to see the world outside it’s much better to look through a plane transparent glass. In the same way we can look through the type to the thoughts laid out on the page there for us.

I don’t think that Ms Warde would have us all use Baskerville, Minion, or any other type generally held to be readable for every single case. I read this essay as a cry to make sure that the type is appropriate to the content and not overstepping its bounds by calling attention to itself. For extended reading in a novel more traditional Roman type will usually serve but using that same type in a poster for a Rage Against the Machine concert could seem inappropriate, because it is not a reflection of the purpose of the ideas portrayed. For Morello and company a type that calls attention to itself would be perfectly appropriate, and will communicate an important element of the message contained in the copy. When we treat type appropriately we can “…spend endless years of happy experiment in devising that crystalline goblet that is worth to hold the vintage of the human mind.”

  • Warde, Beatrice. “The Crystal Goblet, Or Why Printing Should Be Invisible.” Graphic Design Theory (2009): 39–43.