Taking Beatrice Warde’s 1932 text, The Crystal Goblet as a starting point, in this essay, I intend to explore notions of neutrality, transparency and invisibility in typography and graphic design. Written in 1932, and originally given as an address to the Society of Typographic Designers, Beatrice Warde’s The Crystal Goblet, or Why Printing Should Be Invisible calls for typography that is transparent, a “crystalline goblet which is worthy to hold the vintage of the human mind.” She states “that the most important thing about printing is that it conveys thought, ideas, images from one mind to other minds.” 1

My position is informed by my background as a fine artist and as a designer and from my specific interest in typography for books and print. There are certain differences in fine art practice and in design practice — as there are in fine art and graphic design education. The essential distinction I see between fine art and graphic design is that the former is about self-expression, whether that be an idea or an emotion, whereas the latter is about communicating a given message— it is the role of the designer to facilitate its transmission with as little ‘interference’ as possible.

The question of self-authorship and self-publishing by designers further complicates the debate: with no push and pull between client and designer, the relationship between form and content can often become unbalanced with form prioritised over content. In an essay titled What is ‘self-authored graphic design’ anyway? Steven McCarthy writes, “Self-authored graphic design is a dance between two central partners with varying degrees of differentiation: the designer as self and the content. The designer as self is recognition of the central presence of the designer as a voice and a vision in the process of form-creation and message-formulation. As an individual who balances emotional and expressive qualities with cognitive concerns, the designer’s personal views and convictions are integral ingredients to the definition of self-authored graphic design. Having a point of view from the vantage point of self is crucial.” 2

My design work does not prioritise my own self-expression: I aim for a neutrality of style — an idea that seems to align with Modernist ideas. One of the central tenets of Modernism is that form follows function and the function of a text is to communicate its meaning. In the 2007 film Helvetica, directed by Gary Hustwit, graphic designer Wim Crouwel said, “Helvetica was a real step from the 19th century typeface... We were impressed by that because it was more neutral, and neutralism was a word that we loved. It should be neutral. It shouldn’t have a meaning in itself. The meaning is in the content of the text and not in the typeface.” 3

However, Post-modernist thinking tells us that any design choice cannot be entirely neutral: design is subjective; selecting a ‘neutral’ style is loaded with other meanings; and those meanings shift with time, even the meaning of the typeface itself changes.

One of the early references for this essay was the title of graphic designer Phil Baines’ 1985 RCA thesis The Bauhaus mistook legibility for communication. 4 As I’ve read more widely around the subject of legibility and readability, I am beginning to understand the thinking behind Baines’ title. I am also starting to question my original position. The questions that I am trying to answer in this essay are: What is meant by the idea of transparency in typography? Where did that idea originate from? Is it possible to have neutral typography and, if so, what is its opposite? By answering these questions, I hope to understand more about my own design decisions and perhaps, ultimately, to answer the question Is neutrality something designers should be striving for?

The idea of transparent typography has its roots in the Modernist axiom of form follows function, as Warde writes, “not How should it look? but What must it do?” 1 Jan Tschichold was one of the first typographers to explore the principles of Modernism. In his manifesto, published as part of a special issue of the magazine Typographische Mitteilungen in Leipzig in October 1925, titled Elementaire Typographie, Tschichold writes, “The purpose of all typography is communication. Communication must be made in the shortest, simplest, most definite way.” 5 Tschichold was aiming for simplicity and clarity; in Britain, typographer, journalist and consultant to the Monotype corporation Stanley Morison, had similar ideas: in his pamphlet, The First Principles of Typography, published in Cambridge in 1936, Morison writes, “Typography is the efficient means to an essentially utilitarian and only accidentally aesthetic end, for enjoyment of patterns is rarely the reader’s chief aim.” 6 Similarly, according to László  Moholy-Nagy, an artist and a teacher at the Bauhaus, typography should be primarily considered a communications medium, and the “clarity of the message in its most emphatic form” 7 its most important principle.

But can typography ever truly be neutral? In their 1992 essay A Natural History of Typography J. Abbott Miller and Ellen Lupton look at typography as a semiotic system as part of the broader practice of writing, one which the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure described as a sign system separate from speech itself: “He (Saussure) saw speech as the original, natural medium of language of language, while writing is an external system of signs (For example the alphabet) whose sole purpose is to represent speech. Writing is thus a language depicting another language, a set of signs for representing signs. Typography, then, is removed one step further as a medium whose signified is not words themselves, but rather the alphabet.” 8

Thinking about Beatrice Warde’s The Crystal Goblet, Abbot Miller and Lupton present the idea that the “alphabetic goblet is clouded with imperfections”— writing is inconsistent, sounds that represent signs are written in different ways. This inconsistency infuriated Saussure who resented the “alphabet’s refusal to patiently reflect its spoken referent, yet he had discovered that in writing, as in language, the realm of the signifier generates meaning apart from a pre-existing signified. And the same is true for typography’s relationship to the alphabet.” 8

If typography, as a faulty transmitter of information, inherently carries meaning other than the intended meaning, is it possible to control this meaning? Can legibility clarify or even fix this meaning? In an essay called Legible?, written in 1992, Gerard Unger talks about the idea of “Disappearing Letters”, of how, in the act of becoming absorbed in an engrossing text, the reader loses sense, not only of the world around them, but of the printed page itself: “First your environment dissolves and next the reading object disappears; or at least, both are placed at a subconscious level. When this type of artistry succeeds, the contents of the text flow directly into the mind of the reader.” 9 This is a wonderful description of the act of reading but it raises two points: firstly, book typography serves a different function from, say, poster typography — posters need to attract the viewer’s attention while book typography needs to be readable, an attention-grabbing display face would be inappropriate for sustained reading; and, secondly, this act of becoming engrossed in reading depends not only on ‘good’ typography but on content that is engaging: when form and content combine the text is able to flow directly into the mind.

But what if this process, this flowing of text, is disrupted? Wolfgang Weingart is a Swiss typographer who was trained — and later taught — at the Basel School of Design; his typographic experiments are based on an understanding of the basic functions — semantic, syntactic and pragmatic — of typography. Swiss Modernist typography had largely focused on the syntactic function but Weingart was interested in how far the graphic qualities of typography could be pushed and still retain its meaning and, more importantly, how certain graphic modifications of type could actually intensify meaning. In an illustrated lecture How Can One Make Swiss Typography? from 1972 and re-printed in the journal Octavo in 1987, Weingart writes, “One of the problems is our almost exclusive occupation with syntactic and semantic design problems in typography. But this is only an outward expression of something completely different. That is, the real problem of the meaning of a text. In my opinion one cannot make really good typography without exact knowledge and precise understanding of a text.” 10

Weingart’s work, although initially poorly received, achieved recognition in the 1980s when American graphic designers such as April Greiman (a former student of Weingart’s) adopted elements of his style as a basis for Post-modernist practice. Post-modernism uses post-structuralist theory that revises Saussure’s ideas by questioning the generation of meaning by the speaking, rather than the writing, subject: it disputes Saussure’s idea of writing as a faulty transmitter of speech. Around the same time, deconstruction, developed by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, disputed the idea of a single meaning in a text, instead suggesting that texts could be open to multiple interpretations. Derrida suggests that all text has ambiguity and because of this the possibility of a final and complete interpretation is impossible.

It becomes clear that once you have understood that meaning is constantly in flux — both in terms of language; the written word; in typography; and in the context in which the text is read, then a fixed meaning, created through neutral design or otherwise, is unachievable and any attempt by designers to secure this shifting meaning is an impossible task. On the other hand, if we accept that the meaning of a text is in flux, should designers be adding to this confusion by trying to create other meanings — possibly not those of the author — through design? Wouldn’t a neutral approach be more appropriate, allowing the reader to make up their own minds?

In an essay, Type and Image, published in Octavo in 1990, design historian Bridget Wilkins argues for a new synthesis between text and image, “Legible is easy to read. If it is easy to read it bypasses the visual potential of the message. People prefer the comfort of legibility. The passive, comfortable approach and negative visual interrelationships of type and image were firmly rooted by Stanley Morison in the perpetuation of left to right reading in the 1930s. Reinforced at that time by many, like Bartram ‘Legibility is of course, the sine qua non of a good type. It should go without saying. It is as elementary and vital a consideration as that the wheels of a car should be round or that a house should have a door.’ Well, sadly this still applies today, so that speed-reading is seen as a desirable skill; ignoring the visual communication of type and image.” 11

If type becomes image is there not a danger of it becoming decoration? Rather than making us look closer at a text, to look for multiple meanings, the text itself — and its meanings — becomes obscured by its unreadability. In the 1990s, work by designers such as Dutch designer and founder of Émigré magazine, Rudy VanderLans, pushed legibility to extremes. In an interview with Koga Toshiaki in Idea magazine, published in 2005, VanderLans answered criticisms that readers don’t read the text in Émigré — they just look at it, “Some people read the magazine from cover to cover, while others just looked at it. But that’s a kind of ‘reading’ as well. It’s a visual reading. And with Émigré we hoped to satisfy both kinds of readers. We just think that those readers who read the magazine on both levels got the most out of it.” 12

Talking about Émigré and its relationship to the Swiss style, April Greiman, head of the design department at the California Institute of the Arts says, “The International Style was based on a simple set of values, and we’re living in an age of enormous complexity. The tools that we have are much more complex and allow more levels of information. Émigré is one example, and a very good example, of a different kind of reading, a textural emotional reading. And that’s something the whole generation of Modernists just don’t even begin to understand.” 13

Rather than locating their practice in a dichotomy between legibility and expression that is rooted in Modernism versus Post-modernism, is it possible for designers to embrace elements from both traditions? Is it possible to make rational, legible design that encourages reading but that also makes explicit the multiple meanings inherent in a text? The ‘visual engineering’ of the English graphic design collective 8vo presented — and still presents — a way forward. 8vo’s output embraced functional problem solving in the Modernist tradition but with a stimulating visual output that was expressive and that enabled the reader to find meaning within the text. The thought processes that created the work are apparent in the final output and the design encourages the reader to think about those processes and, more importantly, the multiple meanings that are being transmitted. 8vo’s essay Synthesis, published in Octavo in 1987 still resonates today, “A new language of synthesis is needed; it must express the spirit of the age and not be afraid of tomorrow. It must challenge the hierarchy of romantic pastiche. ‘The new synthesis’ must express the relationship between meaning and appearance of type and image while pushing the frontiers of the latest technology; using structure and gestalt to go further than the ‘it’s done on a computer it must be amazing’ pictorial typo-wallpaper of today. It must reject letterpress-derived-dead-typography and all its attendant conventions.” 14

I started this essay with a very fixed position informed by Beatrice Warde’s promotion of ‘transparency’: that designers should aim for neutrality and not self-expression and that the role of the designer is to facilitate the transmission of a message. I now realise that neutrality is largely unachievable and that the meaning of messages cannot be fixed. I think the best kind of design embraces a rational, functional approach that gives the reader space to think, to experience reading as an all-pervading experience where the design — and the printed page of words and letters — disappear. This approach does not have to exclude some self-expression: a thoughtful but playful approach can enable the reader to discover meanings within the text. As Bridget Wilkins states in Type and Image, published in Octavo in 1990, “Grids, centred layouts and formulas are straitjackets. Legibility makes for comfort in reading instead of a new visual interpretation each time which enhances the meaning and comes out of the information. Reading should be enticing and inviting, stimulating the visual and intellectual senses.” 11

1. Warde, Beatrice (1930) The Crystal Goblet or Why Printing Should Be Invisible. In: Armstrong, Helen (2009) Graphic Design Theory. New York, Princeton Architectural Press.

2. McCarthy, Steven (1996) What is ‘self-authored graphic design’ anyway? printed on poster/catalogue accompanying Designer as Author: Voices and Visions. Kentucky, Northern Kentucky University.

3. Hustwit, Gary (2007) Helvetica film. New York.

4. Baines, Phil (1985) The Bauhaus mistook legibility for communication. London, RCA thesis.

5. McLean, Ruri (1975) Jan Tschichold: Typographer. London, Lund Humphries.

6. Morison, Stanley (1936) The First Principles of Typography. Cambridge.


8. Abbott Miller, J & Lupton Ellen (1992) A Natural History of Typography. In: Bierut, Michael et al (Editors)(1994) Looking Closer, Critical Writings on Graphic Design. New York, Allworth Press.

9. Unger, Gerard (1992) Legible? In: Bierut, Michael et al (Editors)(1994) Looking Closer, Critical Writings on Graphic Design. New York, Allworth Press.

10. Weingart, Wolfgang (1987) How Can One Make Swiss Typography? In: Burke, Michael et al (Editors)(1987) Octavo Journal of Typography 87.4. London, Eight Five Zero.

11. Wilkins, Bridget (1990) Type and Image. In: Burke, Michael et al (Editors)(1990) Octavo Journal of Typography 90.7. London, Eight Five Zero.

12. Koga, Toshiaki (2005) Interview with Rudy VanderLans. From:

13. Dooley, Michael (1992) Kicking Up a Little Dust. In: Bierut, Michael et al (Editors)(1994) Looking Closer, Critical Writings on Graphic Design. New York, Allworth Press.

14. Burke, Michael et al (1990) Synthesis. In: Burke, Michael et al (Editors)(1990) Octavo Journal of Typography 90.7. London, Eight Five Zero.




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