Essay: ‘The Crystal Goblet’

‘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).

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