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ON THE SUBJECT OF DESIGN TRANSPARENCY IN MATERIAL BOOKS

I’ve read both Beatrice Warde’s 1955 essay, “Printing Should be Invisible? and Jan Tschichold’s The Form of the Book, and I agree with both of them to certain points. I agree that in the case of the written word—where an author or writer can artistically and eloquently deliver some meditation or exploration of an aspect of the world in an engaging written form—then to a degree, the design has to be genuine, if not illuminating of that content and intent. Part of the joy, benefit and experience of reading books also has to do with the reader being able to simultaneously project their own version of the writer’s world in their head, while reading those words that the writer has laid out for them.

So within that, there is a paradox: How much design is too much? For me, there is a fine line. Design can explore, illuminate, engage and cause further reflection and thought. But too much design could turn off the fundamental task of the reader to be actively and creatively engaged as a part of the text. In effect, it’ll become a lot like television—which can strongly elicit emotions from the viewer, but rarely engages active creation of a part of that world.

One of the things that has always struck me about Warde’s essay was her fundamental metaphor—that of the crystal goblet.

She says: “You have two goblets before you. One is of solid gold, wrought in the most exquisite patterns. The other is of crystal-clear glass, thin as a bubble and as transparent. Pour and drink; and according to your choice of goblet, I shall know whether you are a connoisseur of wine… you will find that almost all the virtues of the perfect wineglass have a parallel in typography? (11).

She goes on to draw parallels between the crystal goblet and areas of typography.

Now perhaps I am arguing over verbiage, over semantics, but I feel I have to make a point that her metaphor carries a number of value judgments that I think need to be fundamental considerations in design.

The first is with the goblet itself. Now, I have had the “pleasure? of working a number of years in an upscale culinary store, explaining and selling their wares. We too, sold crystal goblets. They were german, embedded with lead—and are nearly universally accepted as the best glass to drink wine out of. These glasses, thin and transparent as a bubble were shaped based on the kind of wine they were to hold. As such, the glass itself targeted the wine to the exact area of tongue that was best suited to taste that wine. See, your tongue is broken into regions that taste bitter, sour, sweet, etcetera. I had always wondered why, when reading wine labels that I could never detect those hints of strawberries, chocolate and roasted chestnuts. It turns out that the glass itself is fundamentally important in that experience. Furthermore, these glasses while being thin and transparent as a bubble cost upwards of forty dollars a glass and were exceptionally prone to breaking. Not to mention that lead thing.

In the end, I find these glasses elitist. If you were to shell out for a really good bottle of wine as a treat, or for a special occasion, you could certainly do so, but a lot of the experience is lost because you can’t shell out three times more than the wine just for appropriate glassware. So I guess I’m trying to say that the glass in-and-of-itself is a value judgment on not only the act of drinking wine, but what is in the glass in the first place. Some wines are good independent of glassware, and there is a certain charm and experience just drinking the wine—be it out of Ikea wine glasses, juice glasses, tumblers or plastic cups.

My second point of dissent comes in the value judgment inherent in what is in the goblet to begin with. Wine comes with a whole host of elitist leanings and connotations. As if all one should be drinking out of a goblet (or drinking at all) is a “vintage of a deep shimmering crimson? (11). From a personal standpoint, I always feel the odd woman out at parties and dinners. I don’t drink a lot of wine even though I do enjoy a glass now and again. Part of this is for personal reasons—I am vegan (a form of strict vegetarianism, as I see it) and as such do not eat anything that came from an animal. Most wines are fined with isinglass, a form of gelatin derived from fish guts. While most of this isinglass is removed, a small amount remains, and so I abstain from most wine, most of the time.

But I also just like the taste of good beer, despite the carbs, calories, and the lack of antioxidants. Some beers too, are fined with isinglass, but there are also many that are not. So inevitably at dinners and parties, there is a sea of women with glasses of white wine and red wine. Then there are the men with their beer, and me… with my beer.

So I feel like in constructing her metaphor, Warde is making a significant value judgment on the content of books that deserves fine graphical treatment, and then using the fine graphical treatment to continue an elitist idea of reading in general. Why a goblet at all, and why can’t we be drinking orange juice, water, or Schlitz?

Though there are some of her ideas about transparency that I do agree with. When she says that we must not first ask “How should it look?, but What must it do?? I am in fundamental agreement. I don’t think any designer should through the writer’s skill, work, and ideas out the window, at least not at first. Find out what the design has to do, and then determine the extent of the look. Later on down the line, once the writing has become a part of our cultural milieu, then look at the design, and the potential for it to help give the book new meaning. The great thing about great writing is that it is flexible. It will continue to resonate in some way as times, peoples and cultures change. Design, I think, can help elucidate and explore new and / or alternate meanings in these texts.