Drowning the Crystal Goblet

As the ben­e­fits of good de­sign have got­ten more at­ten­tion in re­cent years, it’s be­come trendy to de­clare that the best de­sign ought to bein­vis­i­ble,” es­pe­cially typography.

This line of think­ing goes back at least as far as Beat­rice Warde’s 1932 es­sayThe Crys­tal Gob­let (or Print­ing Should Be In­vis­i­ble),” which of­fers the epony­mous ves­sel as a metaphor for ty­pog­ra­phy. Warde was a col­league of Stan­ley Mori­son, the in­sti­ga­tor of Times New Ro­man. For decades, ty­pog­ra­phy teach­ers have as­signed this es­say to ex­plain how ty­pog­ra­phy works, as if it were both self-ev­i­dent and infallible.

But it’s nei­ther. It’s poorly rea­soned, con­tra­dicts com­mon sense, and like all faulty analo­gies, leads to faulty con­clu­sions. Ty­pog­ra­phy isn’t in­vis­i­ble. By em­brac­ing that fact rather than deny­ing it, we can cre­ate bet­ter typography.

Warde pro­poses that on the printed page, the text is like a fine wine, and ty­pog­ra­phy is the ves­sel that con­tains it. She ar­gues that the ideal ves­sel for wine is one that shows rather than hides the wine’s virtues—the tit­u­lar crys­tal gob­let. Ac­cord­ing to Warde, ideal ty­pog­ra­phy should like­wise be in­vis­i­ble, let­ting the in­trin­sic virtues of the text show through.

An ap­peal­ing metaphor, but to­tally in­apt. As I said in what is ty­pog­ra­phy?, ty­pog­ra­phy is the vi­sual com­po­nent of the writ­ten word. But the con­verse is also true: with­out ty­pog­ra­phy, a text has no vi­sual char­ac­ter­is­tics. A gob­let can be in­vis­i­ble be­cause the wine is not. But text is al­ready in­vis­i­ble, so ty­pog­ra­phy can­not be. Rather than wine in a gob­let, a more apt par­al­lel might be he­lium in a bal­loon: the bal­loon gives shape and vis­i­bil­ity to some­thing that oth­er­wise can­not be seen.

Some have sug­gested that Warde meant her metaphor on a se­man­tic level rather than per­cep­tual. If so, that still doesn’t re­pair it. Sup­pose thevis­i­bil­ity” of the wine is like the mean­ing of a text. In that case, Warde’s ar­gu­ment is that ty­pog­ra­phy shouldn’t di­min­ish the mean­ing. That much I can agree with.

But even then,in­vis­i­bil­ity” isn’t the right con­cept, be­cause it im­plies some­thing that is it­self de­void of mean­ing. Re­call the ex­am­ple in why does ty­pog­ra­phy mat­ter?: you choose what to wear to a job in­ter­view based on how you want to be seen. You choose a speak­ing style based on how you want to be heard. The rea­son we care about cloth­ing and speak­ing style—and ty­pog­ra­phy—is be­cause they’re all part of the pre­sen­ta­tion of an ar­gu­ment. And pre­sen­ta­tion mat­ters specif­i­cally be­cause it’s not mean­ing­less. It re­in­forces our core mes­sage by adding its own com­ple­men­tary meaning.

Ul­ti­mately, the flaw in the crys­tal-gob­let metaphor is its re­liance on the creaky, mis­lead­ing idea that sub­stance and pre­sen­ta­tion ex­ist on sep­a­rate lay­ers. On that view, the high­est call­ing of pre­sen­ta­tion is to get out of sub­stance’s way.

But that’s never been true on the page (or screen). Why not? Be­cause the writ­ten word is a fu­sion of text and ty­pog­ra­phy, sub­stance and pre­sen­ta­tion. In that re­gard, ty­pog­ra­phy might be more like sea­son­ing in a casse­role: it doesn’t change the nu­tri­tional value, but it def­i­nitely makes the dish more fla­vor­ful and enjoyable.

But af­ter 80 years of one ter­ri­ble metaphor, let’s not adopt an­other. Let’s just pour con­crete into the crys­tal gob­let and toss it over­board, along with the ba­nal idea of invisibility.

—Matthew But­t­er­ick
8 Feb 2016