I UNDERSTAND WHY it’s often said that graphic design should be “transparent”—that it should work invisibly or behind the scenes. But I don’t understand why designers themselves are invisible.
The idea that graphic design should be as unobtrusive as a crystal wine glass (“thin as a bubble, and as transparent”) is attributed to Beatrice Warde (1900-1969), sometimes called “the first lady of typography,” an American-born type scholar who moved to England in 1925, where she managed publicity for the Monotype Corporation and edited The Monotype Recorder, its house magazine.
Warde (née Beatrice Lamberton Becker) was both beautiful and articulate. Married to American typographer Frederic Warde, she used the pseudonym Paul Beaujon to publish provocative essays about typography in magazines such as The Fleuron, edited by Stanley Morison, with whom she was also romantically linked. After separating from her husband, she became closely associated with British typographer Eric Gill, who found her engaging, and for whom she modeled for dozens of drawings and wood engravings, most notably the “belle sauvage” on the frontispiece of his Art-Nonsense and Other Essays (Cassell, 1929).
According to Warde, her greatest ability was in extemporaneous speaking: “What I’m really good at,” she once explained, “is standing up in front of an audience with no preparation at all, then for 50 minutes refusing to let them even wriggle an ankle.” In one of those speeches, titled “The Crystal Goblet or Printing Should Be Invisible,” which she delivered to the British Typographers Guild in 1932, she described her objection to “mannerisms in typography that are as impudent and arbitrary as putting port [wine] in tumblers of red or green glass!” 
Good design, she insisted, should function as inconspicuously as a transparent crystal wine goblet, in which “everything about it is calculated to reveal rather than hide the beautiful thing which it is meant to contain.” “Type well used,” she continued, “is invisible as type, just as the perfect talking voice is the unnoticed vehicle for the transmission of words, ideas.”
There is renewed interest in Warde’s essays, in part because graphic design in our time is anything but transparent. A lot of current design, critics argue, is deliberately cluttered and obtrusive, to the point that the message is all but obscured by the arbitrary mannerisms of its messenger. To paraphrase Warde, some current designers serve wine in opaque goblets “of solid gold, wrought in the most exquisite patterns.” As a result, the style of the message is more audible than the content, and the parcel distracts from the part it conveys.

Warde’s essay makes perfect sense—sort of. I understand why transparency in design is often desirable, if not always. But what continues to baffle me is the parallel phenomenon that, in our society at least, graphic designers receive less acknowledgment than even the thinnest wine goblet. 
Artists, architects, writers, composers and musicians, playwrights and actors, choreographers and dancers, even fashion designers, are commonly celebrated on television, in encyclopedias, biographies, and surveys of popular culture. But rarely—almost never—are graphic designers the subject of programs, articles, and books outside their own profession. 
For example, on the shelf beside me I have the fifth edition of The Columbia Encyclopedia (Columbia University Press, 1993), one of the most inclusive and reliable one-volume encyclopedias. It contains tens of thousands of biographical entries, including articles about television evangelist Jim Bakker; chess champion Bobby Fischer; the pop singer Madonna; dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp; the painter Helen Frankenthaler; and violinist Issac Stern.
In that same volume, there are only a handful of articles on graphic designers, and those who are featured are either turn-of-the-century Arts and Crafts typographers (e.g., Gill, Morison, Frederic Goudy, Eric Gill, and W.A. Dwiggins) or those who also had careers as fine artists or illustrators, not merely designers. Thus N.C. Wyeth, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and Edward Gorey have entries, but not Lucian Bernhard, Ludwig Hohlwein, Herbert Bayer, Edward McKnight Kauffer, Jan Tschichold, Lester Beall, Bradbury Thompson, Paul Rand, Milton Glaser, Wolfgang Weingart, April Greiman, Katherine McCoy, or Neville Brody. The range of omissions is astonishing. Is graphic design less important in our society than chess playing or tv evangelism? Why are designers the dentists of art?
When I ask that question of other people (both designers and non-designers), here are a few of the answers I get: First, like it or not, graphic designers are servants, not artists. They don’t pursue their own desires; they carry out others’ requests; they solve other people’s problems. Not only must they stay within a client’s directives, they also play second fiddle to copywriters, editors, marketing analysts, art directors, and account executives. Like the maid and the butler who never divulge their master’s most private conversations, they stand by unheard, unseen.
Second, graphic designers are invisible because the forms that they create are both subordinate and ephemeral. As Warde said, designers make things that contain or convey other more essential information. Unlike art, in which form and self-expression are primary, people toss design in the trash—and with it, the identity of its designer. Perhaps it is partly in answer to this that some current designers do what Beatrice Warde opposed: They draw attention to design and their own individuality through annoying typefaces, labyrinthine layouts, and lavish self-promotion books in which—uncelebrated by society—they celebrate themselves.
Third, graphic designers “get no respect” because they don’t deserve any. Unlike architects, lawyers and medical doctors, they don’t actually have a profession. Anyone with a computer can claim to be a graphic designer, with or without a degree in design. It’s the old argument about professional certification and whether or not we should put up a gate to make the practice of design at least more rarefied, regardless of whether it also results in work of higher quality.
I don’t know the answer. Perhaps the best solution (as one friend, an artist, suggested) is that it’s perfectly fine for designers to be as invisible as a crystal wine glass. “Vulgar ostentation is twice as easy as discipline,” wrote Beatrice Warde, and “There is nothing simple or dull in achieving the transparent page.” It may be better to go unnoticed than to be what she refers to as a “stunt typographer.” 
Of course, no one but other designers will know what you do or how well you do it. But in the end, as Warde suggests, “you may spend endless years of happy experiment in devising that crystalline goblet which is worthy to hold the vintage of the human mind.”

Why are designers
the dentists of art?:
The invisible goblet 
in graphic design

by Roy R. Behrens

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for a guide to our websites An earlier, slightly different version of this essay, titled “Invisible  Designers,” appeared in Print magazine (New York). Vol 52 No 6. November / December 1998, pp. 20ff. 
© Roy R. Behrens. Douglas Cleverdon (recalling Beatrice Warde): “At one moment she would be bubbling over with gaiety and wit; at another you would find her absorbed in hard intellectual argument, or forcibly putting her publicity over to a bunch of printing executives. She was a first-rate printing historian. And she was very beautiful. One might describe her as a mingling of Venus and Athena: Venus rather than Aphrodite, Athena rather than Minerva” (quoted in Fiona MacCarthy, Eric Gill: A Lover’s Quest for Art and God, p. 234). Above A wood engraving of Beatrice Warde by Eric Gill. Left Her famous broadside about printing (June 1940). Above The so-called belle sauvage wood engraving by Eric Gill, the model for which was Beatrice Warde, who was his mistress at the time. He used it as the frontispiece for his book Art-Nonsense and Other Essays (1929). The same book was also the first use of Gill’s well-known typeface Perpetua. At the top of this web page is a photograph of Warde from the early 1920s. Beatrice Warde: “Printing demands a humility of mind, for the lack of which many of the fine arts are even now floundering in self-conscious and maudlin experiments.”
W.A. Dwiggins (from his 1919 satirical, fictional transcript of a hearing for the “investigation into the physical properties of books”): —”You don’t consider the look of a page in making a book. This is a thing that doesn’t enter into the production of a book. If I understand you correctly, do you mean to say that it matters how a book looks?”
—”That was the thought in my mind.”
—”That’s a new idea in book publishing.”
Beatrice Warde: “…the mental eye focuses through type and not upon it. The type which, through any arbitrary warping of design or excess of ‘color,’ gets in the way of the mental picture to be conveyed, is bad type. Our subconscious is aways afraid of blunders…of boredom, and of officiousness. The running headline that keeps shouting at us, the line that looks like one long word, the capitals jammed together without hair-spaces—these mean subconscious squinting and loss of mental focus.” Roy R. Behrens is Professor of Art and Distinguished Scholar at the University of Northern Iowa, where he teaches graphic design, illustration, and design history. His latest book, soon to be published, is SHIP SHAPE: A Dazzle Camouflage Sourcebook (in press, 2010). Note: While I still enjoy the sequence of thoughts and the phrasing of this essay, its content is somewhat outdated. Today, designers have far more visibility—good or bad—than ever before, due in part to a deluge of self-promotion books, films and online postings such as this.—RB
Sebastian Carter: ”When we contemplate any branch of design history, we tend to waver between conflicting responses… We see highly simplified classics of design—a chair by Marcel Breuer, a fork by Arne Jacobsen, or Paul Renner’s Futura typeface—and we wonder why anything else is required. But then we experience a natural revulsion, and embrace variety, experiment and amusement, even if it sometimes leads to kitsch. After a while we swing back again to purity. In everyone but a few single-minded zealots there reside both the puritan and the pluralist.” Ruari McLean (The Thames and Hudson Manual of Typography): “As a typographer, you are the servant of the author—colleague, if you like—but your job is to help the author to reach his public. You are not making works of art of your own; you are transmitting, with as much skill, grace and efficiency as may be required, the words of someone else.” Matthew Carter: “I like history. It has been called bunk. It has been called débris. I think of it as manure: it fertilizes the present. We are all agreed that typography is just a humble, utilitarian, workaday, sort of craft, with ‘only accidentally aesthetic ends,’ as [Stanley] Morison put it. But you have to look to an art…before you find a history more glorious than ours. I don’t know what we did to deserve it, but since we have got it, we ought to act as good trustees of it” [quoted in Ruari McLean, ed., Typographers on Type].
Eric Gill: “Letters are things, not pictures of things.” Above Photograph of British typographer, designer, calligrapher, sculptor, engraver and illustrator Eric Gill. For a time, he was also the lover of Beatrice Warde. For years he was known for his interest in religious life, but, as detailed in a vivid biography by Fiona McCarthy (Eric Gill: A Lover’s Quest for Art and God), he had an interest in sexual experimentation that apparently knew no limit. Beatrice Warde’s crystal goblet essay has been reprinted in Ruari McLean, ed., Typographers on Type (New York: W.W. Norton, 1995). Her collected essays are in The Crystal Goblet: Sixteen Essays on Typography Henry Jacob, ed. (London: The Sylvan Press, 1955), which is now out of print. There are a number of biographies of Eric Gill, the finest of which may be Fiona MacCarthy, Eric Gill: A Lover’s Quest for Art and God (New York: Dutton, 1989). Above Specimen of Eric Gill’s most famous typeface, called Gill Sans. Illustration by Jim Hood.
Of late, we were delighted to learn that British-born type designer Matthew Carter (b. 1937), who is quoted on this web page, was deservedly named a 2010 MacArthur Fellow (the so-called MacArthur “genius award”). That’s wonderful. Over many years, he has designed a number of widely-used typefaces, among them Verdana, Bell Centennial, ITC Galliard, Georgia and Tahoma. Clips from an interview with him are featured in the recent film Helvetica.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matthew_Carterhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helvetica_%28film%29shapeimage_29_link_0shapeimage_29_link_1