Devising That Crystalline Goblet

In the past, we’ve written about the importance of understanding the unique character of type (1,2); however, I recently discovered a wonderful text from the early 20th century entitled “The Crystal Goblet,” which has inspired me to think quite a lot about the converse—the importance of a lack of unique character in type.

Thinking even beyond typography and letterforms, reading this piece has served to reinforce my long-held belief that all good design should be transparent—even invisible—to the end user; something which communicates or works truly efficiently should just do so without causing the user to have to pause to reflect on the means by which this end was achieved. This concept may be humbling to designers who toil over crafting solutions to design problems, yet from advertisements to logos to software interfaces to building interiors, I believe that creating something beautiful has to be a secondary goal to creating something that does its job efficiently. These ideas are certainly not new, but I was pleased to find these concepts expressed so eloquently in The Crystal Goblet.

Beatrice Warde, a British typographer and scholar notable for being one of the first influential women in the field, originally wrote this essay to be given as a speech in 1930, and it soon after appeared in various printing and typography publications (albeit originally under a male pseudonym). At the time, graphic design was still a nascent concept. The cutting edge of the design world had already begun to shake off the ostentatious, embellished styles of the day in favor of more modernized aesthetics, and Warde had her finger squarely on this pulse when she wrote her visionary piece arguing the importance of clarity and communication over ornamentation.

In The Crystal Goblet, she crafts a powerful metaphor by comparing type to a goblet, and the contents of the human mind to a fine wine that is contained by the goblet. She argues that a true connoisseur who is actually interested in experiencing the wine itself would choose the most transparent goblet made of the thinnest crystal as to distract the least from delivering what is truly important: the contents of the glass. To the same point, she argues that a someone without strong feelings about what the goblet contains might be drawn to an ornate golden chalice or some other such decorative vessel that obscures their experience of drinking the wine itself. In support of the “modernist” who chooses the clear glass over the ornamental one, she writes, “the first thing he asked of his particular object was not ‘How should it look?’ but ‘What must it do?’ and to that extent all good typography is modernist.”

Taking this metaphor further, Warde ruminates on the nature of human communication itself, writing:

There is only one thing in the world that is capable of stirring and altering men’s minds to the same extent, and that is the coherent expression of thought. That is man’s chief miracle, unique to man. There is no ‘explanation’ whatever of the fact that I can make arbitrary sounds which will lead a total stranger to think my own thought. It is sheer magic that I should be able to hold a one-sided conversation by means of black marks on paper with an unknown person half-way across the world. Talking, broadcasting, writing, and printing are all quite literally forms of thought transference, and it is the ability and eagerness to transfer and receive the contents of the mind that is almost alone responsible for human civilization.If you agree with this, you will agree with my one main idea, i.e. that the most important thing about printing is that it conveys thought, ideas, images, from one mind to other minds.”

Warde also makes a rather astute distinction between fine art and communication–a blurry line at times, to be sure, but an important difference of intent that I feel many designers even today confuse. She writes:

“printing may be delightful for many reasons, but it is important, first and foremost, as a means of doing something. That is why it is mischievous to call any printed piece a work of art, especially fine art: because that would imply that its first purpose was to exist as an expression of beauty for its own sake.” Furthermore, she writes “in advertising, the one and only justification for the purchase of space is that you are conveying a message—that you are implanting a desire, straight into the mind of the reader.”

While reading this essay was certainly good food for design thought, I am most excited to announce that I hereby reject the title of graphic designer and instead will refer to my work exclusively as, “devising that crystalline goblet which is worthy to hold the vintage of the human mind” 😉