Four years ago graphic designer Richard Heap went on a backpacking trip from his hometown of London to Guatemala City, where he met “a certain wonderful lady,” landed a job as the in-house designer at architectural firm Studio Domus, and put down roots in Zone 1, the city’s oldest and arguably most dangerous neighborhood. It also happens to be one of the best places in Central America to spot spectacular old, signs.
If it wasn’t for Heap, these signs might have also remained one of the city’s best-kept (and most under-valued) secrets. Thankfully, he’s turned his neighborhood walks into typographic hunting trips, dutifully photographing each sign in its natural environment—and then turning them into remarkably modern-looking fonts.
Heap recently released a new series of Zone 1 typography, and since it might just be his last (he and his new wife are getting ready to move back to the UK), we pinned him down to learn more about the type he found and how he lent new life to the city’s crumbling signs.
You’ve been mugged four times since moving to Zone 1. What makes it worth the risk?
The city is divided into 24 zones, the first being the oldest and the core of the city. Sixty years ago, the city was only Zone 1; the rest was countryside, no sprawling suburbs and high rises. We chose to move to Zone 1 for that reason, because it has a sense of history and identity. The other parts of the city don’t have any discernible architectural style. It’s mostly a mishmash of private development without any consistent town planning (although this is starting to change).
What was it about the signs you spotted that made you want to turn them into actual typefaces?
After I started to explore the area, I noticed that all these signs were actually part of the buildings. I’ve seen similar things in the United States and UK, but here they’re really concentrated and pretty much untouched since the time they were built. Some have been restored, but others are just crumbling away.
From a typographical point of view, I loved them. Aesthetically they’re really interesting, how they’ve been carved from the same materials; and from a functional point of view, how they sit front and center on the building’s façade. Proudly displaying the title of the place is not something you see too much of anymore.
The other aspect of the project that appealed to me was that it existed offline: huge typographical works of art sitting right on my doorstep.
Some fonts come in and out of style; you’ll seem them on a design site like Designspiration or FFFFOUND, and they look awesome, but that’s usually where it ends. These, on the other hand, were like forgotten dinosaurs, just sitting up there. I thought it’d be nice to create a link between a “hard” example of type and move it online in a formal, flat vector.
How do you shoot the signs to make them “traceable” in Photoshop?
Once I find a nice piece I’ll take around 20 photos of individual letters, straight on for the vectoring/tracing, and then some more composed shots to show the building or the street. One thing you’ll notice is how many cables there are. It’s a pain getting a shot without having cables obscure the type too much.
Have you learned anything new about typography during the process?
I’ve learned to put my head in the mind of the original typographer, looking for clues that will help the vectoring—like a consistency of curve, of the ascenders, x-height, etc. The main challenge is compensating for the photo’s angle from below. It’s fiddly work. Each one can take from 30 minutes to half a day to trace; some I’ve really agonized over for days, tracing and retracing, trying to reproduce them as accurately as possible.
What’s going to happen to the project after you move? Will we be seeing these in print any time soon?
I’m considering a book, or rather a booklet. Some kind of printed memento where they’re all in print, sitting together with supporting copy to give a little context, like a niche primer on Guatemala’s type history.
What do you miss most about living in London?
Apart from seeing friends and family? Curry (there’s no Indian cuisine here), the newspapers, the football (soccer), pints of real bitter (not wishy-washy lager), and simple things like cups of tea, Cadbury’s chocolate…I’m starting to sound like an old woman here. And of course the design scene is much more developed and diverse back home. I miss that, too.
On an unrelated note, we have to ask: what’s the deal with the, umm, rather interesting collection of portraits on your website?
Every Sunday in Guatemala’s central plaza, a market takes place. There’s the usual stuff, like street food, handicrafts, etc. But there’s also this guy who has a portable generator, stage, backdrop, some knackered Pentium PC, and a copy of Photoshop 2. For 20 Quetzals (about $2.50) he’ll take your photo, cut you out in Photoshop (really badly), and drop you on Mars, the Eiffel Tower, Niagara Falls, etc., and then print a copy out. And people line up for it. Seriously, they love it. I’ve visited family homes with photos like these on the mantelpiece.
I’ve collected around 10 to 15 of them, which are destined for a Tumblr at some point. They’re ridiculous and I absolutely love them.