Trading typographic transparency

This article is an edited excerpt from an ongoing research project on the role of contemporary book designers and their approaches to typesetting by ABDA member Nicole Arnett Phillips. Nicole is a designer with 18 years experience in visual communications, publication design and art direction.  She believes designers should engage with self-initiated investigations, research and ideation (in addition to their client-focused work) to find a point of view, philosophy or position that is authentically their own. Her working week is split between freelance design (Nicoleap) and self-initiated research, publishing, and printmaking pursuits (TYPOgraphHer).

Design is a service industry. Servitude comes with an ethical framework and responsibilities. So when I first read Beatrice Warde’s ‘The Crystal Goblet, or Printing Should be Invisible’ (as a young book designer at the beginning of my career) I had – what I thought – was my first deep understanding of my role. I felt the transparent weight of that responsibility heavily on my shoulders.

Reading what can not be seen;

Design as a transparent vessel was not a new idea in 1930. Compositors and printers had been talking about typographic transparency and the influence of design on textual meaning since as early as the 1600’s. Joseph Moxon asserted a compositor’s ambitions should be only to make the authors meaning intelligent to the reader even at the expense of ‘visual gracefulness’ – as long as the text was legible and ‘pleasant enough’ to read (Moxon, 1683). This notion established a convention in book typography (particularly literary fiction) where effective typesetting recedes or is said to be imperceptible to the reader.

At the time Beatrice Warde delivered the critical speech, Monotype was developing high-speed industrial machinery for typographic composition and Stanley Morrison (as typographic advisor for Monotype) began to champion the idea of typographic transparency (in direct opposition to the book-beautiful Arts and Crafts movement). Morrison urged against ‘gross stylism’ to influence the author’s meaning (Kincross, 2004). If the typographer is a neutral intermediary between the author and reader, the typesetting process could become mechanical. “Typography is the efficient means to an essentially utilitarian and only accidentally aesthetic end” (Morison, 1936). It is in this context (as Monotype’s marketing manager) in which Warde delivered ‘The Crystal Goblet, or Printing Should Be Invisible’ likening the process of reading to that of drinking wine – insisting those drinking from an ornate goblet would never have a genuine appreciation for the wine because the vessel would influence the experience.

In hindsight, my initial understanding of the Goblet metaphor was naive and divorced of context. It took several years working in publishing houses in New Zealand and Australia before I realised Warde’s metaphor was not insisting on neutrality and that I needed to trade the elusive concept of transparency for a somewhat murkier approach to my design practice. My work was teaching me about the designer’s role in the creation of textual meaning. I began to appreciate our contribution and our worth.

Floating ideas;

In ‘Drowning the Crystal Goblet’, Matthew Butterick acknowledges a designers ability to support or subvert authorial intent, suggesting the selection and arrangement of typography has a direct impact on meaning, and that invisibility does not equal good design (Butterick 2016). “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.” Butterick insists the Goblet metaphor is poorly reasoned (and ‘defies common-sense’), going on to immediately burst his balloon by asserting we don’t need another metaphor.

Tropes aside;

I began to think of Warde’s metaphor as a caution to be purposeful with our influence over the content we shape. Now my work seeks to expand and redefine the relationships between writer, designer and reader, as I believe the design of books is an act of co-authorship.

Contribution & Recognition;

Historically typography had been the work of printers. Specifically, the compositors would typeset or ‘lock up’ the physical type ready for ink and impression. Although by 1922 this was changing; W.A Dwiggins wrote an article a ‘New Kind of Printing Calls for New Design’ (Dwiggins, 1922) suggesting that the commercial artists and compositors were skilled professions; shaping, informing and planning content through their activity. In respect of their contribution to the artefacts, they were designing. Dwiggins suggested this profession deserved recognition and a name: graphic design (Kennett, 2017). Subsequently, the practice of typography and the visual composition of language became more closely aligned with graphic design than the print trade.

Good manners, modesty and grace; 

In the 1920s, Jan Tschichold emerged as one of the most ardent and uncompromising advocates of modern typography and a leader in the practice (and craft) of book design. Tschichold advocated, “Grace in typography comes of itself when the printers bring a certain love to the work. Whoever does not love their work can not hope that it will please others.” he advocated for the typographer to support the authors meaning by adding expression to the work (Tschichold, 1928).

Another luminary in our field, Nicholas Jenkins believed books were ‘bogged down’ by a lack of rapport between publisher, author, designer, and reader (Jenkins, 1970). Jenkins romanticised of the control printers had before the industrial revolution. He argued since the traditional craft of print split into disparate disciplines, the only successful books were ones which the design managed to synthesise the conflicting interests of writer, publisher and reader. Suggesting the contemporary typographer is a mere technician, devising invisible grids with hardly any thought of the material they are are designing, Jenkins questions what the future for books might be if publishers better understood the way designers could add value to a text. He champions experimentation. Jenkins said advancement in our practice must come from book designers working closely and in collaboration with the author on the creation of meaning. Importantly, Jenkins first introduces the idea of the typographer as co-author, believing the literary and visual contributions to meaning should be intimately linked.

The rebellion;

In recent years, new more complex relationships between author, designer and reader have emerged. The notion of visual or graphic authorship relies on the designer taking responsibility for the content and the context in which the reader experiences it. The designer becomes a mediator of the message and contributes to the meaning.

During the 90’s digital wave there was an explosion of experimental typography in both books and magazines (where aesthetic reigned) – design was often meant to be viewed rather than read – this was both a reaction to the meaning of the content and also a rejection of our subservient role.

Magazines such as Emigre and Octavo intentionally inserted the designer between author and reader. Making the designer visible became a deliberate intervention. David Carson exemplified this approach, using abstract symbols to typeset a snooze-worthy article in RayGun (Blackwell, 2004), changing graphic design hierarchy by distorting and challenging content to submit to pure aesthetics. Carson’s attitude reversed the traditional role of the typographer as servant of the author (and text). In the instance of his Bryan Ferry RayGun article – typeset entirely in dingbats – the text was now slave to Carson’s aesthetic!

Increasing Visibility and Expanding Roles;

Michael Rock’s article ‘The Designer as Author’ (Rock, 2006) suggests that when a designer exerts their influence on content “the practice sits in murky territory between design and art”. He references the ‘The Crystal Goblet’, arguing that we often misunderstand our influence. Rock later published an addendum entitled ‘Fuck Content’ exploring the competitive nature of form and function (Rock, 2009). “The span of graphic design is not a history of concepts but of forms,” Rock argues, that the act of design is to manipulate form which always reshapes the function.

Lindsay Starr discusses graphic authorship and the intersections of art, design and publishing. “Disillusioned by the ephemerality and capitalist nature that dominate contemporary graphic design practice, designers are seeking an expanded and more meaningful role which in turn enriches and empowers the discipline as a whole” (Starr, 2017).

Former ABDA president Zoë Sadokierski investigates distinctions between co-design, collaboration and cooperation, in her work and postures for a more visible designer (Sadokierski, 2006), Sadokierski’s doctoral investigation into Visual Writing questioned “when the design elements become content rather than packaging” (Sadokierski, 2011). Demonstrating unconventional typography used as a literary device can extend the meaning and increase reader engagement.

Lucienne Roberts and Rebecca Wright’s research into the design of texts (GraphicDesign&, 2012) invited 75 graphic designers to redesign the first page of Great Expectations (Dickens, 1861). Each designer received the same brief, constraints and content but produced dramatically varied results. Demonstrating the different ways graphic designers bring value to a text, using their voice, interpretive skills, and aesthetic style to amplify, distort, and craft a relationship between typographic styling and narrative. The reader is left to interpret the influence of each design on the textual meaning.

Trading transparency: Giving voice

Book design has value, has worth and has voice. Just as we speak with volume, tone and inflexion (that can convey our emotion), different typefaces and textual treatments have different qualities and tones. The total meaning of text derives not only from what the words mean but from what the text looks like (Levenston, 1992) positioning the book designer to not just transmit but to create meaning as a co-author. Design in and of itself is story telling. Creating a compelling and memorable story is at the heart of both great writing and great design. It is time for us to transcend transparency and use book typography to craft meaning in collaboration with writers – making good on Jenkins call-to-action to redesign book design.


A list of references can be found here.