What is a Type Organization for?

Yesterday I became the president of the Type Directors Club, thanks to the fact that the talented and kind Roberto de Vicq is moving to California, giving up the office he earned after years of TDC leadership.

Why me, and what is a type organization for? I'll cut the boring "why me" analysis short; I was asked and accepted, though I'm neither a type designer or famous graphic designer. The second question is much more interesting, and the heart of the reasons I accepted the office. Years ago I was intrigued by Robert Putnam's essay and book about declining "social capital" in America, Bowling Alone. Can an organization like the TDC help build community connections and a stronger society? What is the TDC supposed to be doing? I'm curious, and want to stick around for answers.

Is the TDC like a union or guild? A fraternal organization? A nerdy fan club? As research, I bought the 1967 book A Study of the History of the International Typographical Union, 1852–1966, Volume II, hoping to learn about a real type union. What I learned is that this book will put you to sleep; it is hard to imagine a more dry, uninspiring account of typographic brotherhood. The book records, in fastidious detail, political fights and long speeches, in which orators vied for the most frequent use of emotional, poetic references. The International Typographic Union (ITU) expended a lot of energy striking, squabbling over the existence of subversive secret type societies such as the Brotherhood and the Wahnetas, and whether to join other unions or not. At a time when typography and printing were tightly bound, the union's greatest achievement was construction of a grand retirement home for old and feeble printers and compositors in Colorado Springs.

The Union Printers Home and grounds in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Note the union logo in the lawn. Not pictured are the estate's herd of cows and over 1,000 chickens. Unfortunately, the TDC office in New York City does not have room for livestock.

The TDC is not the ITU, which had tens of thousands of members and fought for basic rights, such as higher wages and benefits. However, the TDC retains some similar goals, such as the ITU's mandate to "elevate the position and maintain and protect the interests of the craft in general." The leadership of the TDC is not like the ITU; OK, I have the stereotypical white-guy side part in my hair — always have — but look at the rest of the TDC board. Love of type and design is certainly not limited to people like those below.

The TDC is also not really a fraternal organization either. Years ago, the TDC stopped reviewing portfolios of prospective members and made membership more accessible. Unfortunately, some people still seem to think that the TDC is clubby, not quite using secret handshakes, but judgmental and not cool. In fact, the TDC is small enough that membership provides easy access to all kinds of people who like type, from the famous to beginners. Our competitions are limited only by the necessary entry fees, and provide international publicity for winning work.

Fred Flintstone's membership in The Loyal Order of the Water Buffalo spoofed the obscure and silly rituals of American fraternal societies.
The TDC is something of a typographic fan club, but the term "fan club" suggests uncritical infatuation, like my membership in the Thompson Twins fan club in the 1980s, so it's not quite serious enough a description. There is real value when craftspeople support each other. When type designers and graphic designers, those most familiar with the challenges of their craft, define quality within a profession, standards are raised, self-reflection encouraged, and evolution fostered. I think this is what is meant when a profession is "healthy": it is adaptable, critical, forward-looking, and yet aware of its history. The TDC's competitions help set standards by very selectively choosing admirable design and sending it around the world. 

Long live the Thompson Twins!

When I look at the number of members in the ITU (18,000 in 1885!), the TDC, with its mere 900 members worldwide, might appear to be a pale shadow of a time when many more people were connected by typography. The number of people in the world who rely on type making and setting for their living is greatly reduced, but I'm glad that men, women, and children no longer have to ruin their backs and eyes composing metal type all day. The TDC, whatever it is, has adapted, and is vital. What should it become?

Lawn Scrabble

If you visit a big, old cemetery like Woodlawn in the Bronx, ignore the fancy gravestones for a moment and look down, into the grass. You might find big stone letters on squares, scattered as if giants playing Scrabble fought and up-ended the game board. These are cemetery lot markers or occasionally the initials of the families in nearby plots. Like gravestones, they break, shift, wear away, and sink, but offer an intriguing variety of letterforms. They are a typographic grid dropped over the landscape, a permanent Foursquare address. Meet me at the corner of H and K; no rush, I'll be here a while. 

Woodlawn Cemetery, The Bronx

Today I went looking for the grave of designer E. McKnight Kauffer in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Sadly, his grave is not marked, but there was plenty more to see. Woodlawn is huge – over 400 acres - and stuffed with 19th to 21st-century memorials of all shapes. In places the obelisks are as thick and tall as the trees. Since it was cold and late I did not wander far, but would say that Woodlawn rivals Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn for the number of large memorials and famous names buried there. For the most part, the memorial lettering is familiar, tasteful design of the upper class, but some stood out, such as the script on the Foster family structure.

E. McKnight Kauffer's grave site is the gap in the row of modest stones in the foreground.

The Untermyer memorial has an overgrown hill to itself and is extraordinary. The sculptures are by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. More on the Untermyer family here.

Wait, I'm not ready to go!
carpe diem, ya'll
This unusual stone displays urns in a glass-doored niche.

G. W. De Long was a polar explorer who died in Siberia in 1881.