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An interview with Richard Heap on his typographic travelogue

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his is a story of pure, unconditional love. When graphic designer Richard Heap went on a backpacking trip from Europe to Central America, everything was about to change. His life, his loves, his interest in his craft. Whilst working as the in-house designer at architectural firm Studio Domus Richard Heap fell in love with a wonderful Guatemalan lady with whom he discovered Zone 1, the city’s oldest neighborhood where spectacular old, signs on buildings reign. He decided to document the city’s under-valued secrets through his typographic lens and turn them into stunning, beautiful crafted modern-looking fonts. We decided to sat down with him and have a little chat about this amazing project of his listening to some salsa and talking about the impeccable ghost signs that found new life through his eye on design.

Which is your most favorite and your least favorite urban typography you have documented?

Aaargh - I don’t have a straight answer to either of these. What I do like about them is the weird, unusual quirks they have - like the ‘a’ of El Prado, or the ‘d’ of Cordova. I can just imagine the architect and construction team thinking, ‘you know what, let’s whack up the ‘d’ on this facade type’. There’s something very endearing about that. You may notice I use the ‘R’ of the ‘Rich’ as a mark on personal site. That's a kind of favourite actually. Rich was a local ice cream brand, and I love ice cream too (I mean look those chubby cheeks for Christ sakes). 

What Zone 1 really means?

Zone 1 is the oldest part of Guatemala City. The capital is divided into 22 zones, each radiating out from the President’s residence right at the core - i.e. Zone 1 was the first and most central location in the city. Perhaps not the most poetic references, bit of a Judge Dredd MegaCity1 vibe, but it’s logical. Anyhow like many developing cities, Guatemala City has grown fast (and still is doing so). The economy is doing quite well over there, and new buildings are popping up all the place. However Zone 1 has a unique status in being a genuinely historical part of the capital, and this shows in the architecture and its typography.

How did you decide to turn these buildings’ facades into actual typefaces?

The idea came from exploring the area, and noticing these all over the place. You don’t really find them elsewhere. I loved how the sit front and centre, immovable. This is LUX, and everyone knows LUX. Kind of like type fossils from a past age. You’ll notice some are also falling apart, which kills me. Or just completely ignored. Take the ‘El Cairo’ - this is a major Guatemalan company, that at some point had a flagship store here. They’re still operating, having moved out to more upmarket parts of town, but it kills me to see this beautiful, chunky type just forgotten about. I mean it’s half-covered in crappy Hello Kitty merch in some crappy store. And worse yet El Cairo now operate under this clip-art garbage. Wankers.

How do you approach the creating procedure? Please guide us kindly through the steps of working this project of yours.

It’s basically a 3-step process: Wake up early. Get in the car, and drive round looking for type. Locals may have seen me craning my neck out the window like a maniac, trying to scope any examples out. Once I find a piece I’ll jump out the car and take photos. I try and get as many as possible - which is sometimes a challenge with the traffic, or some shady lads eyeing my camera. Zone 1 has some really rough areas. I won’t go into the details, but all sorts of crime, violence and vice goes on. I’ve been mugged a few times round there (luckily without my camera) so obviously I try and get photos as quick as possible.

I’ll take shots of each letter, zooming in as close as possible to catch as much detail as I can. And then I usually take a ‘contextual’ photo that I’ll use online. This gives you an idea of the building, the area, the condition it’s in. Some, you can see, are better than others. LUX for example is a nice, safe area - the Spanish Cultural Centre is here. The FOX was an old cinema, and one of the govt’s assigned ‘red zones’ (i.e. dangerous areas). My wife and I got mugged three times in that spot alone. That’s three decent phones sacrificed to the local crims to get that piece online.

Once I’ve got the photos I went back to my studio at home, and traced them in Illustrator. Some are much easier than others. Some I’ve really agonised over. It’s tricky knowing how the should look as formal flat vectors when you’ve taken photos at street level. There’s some educated guesswork - getting inside the head of the original typographer to figure out how he designed them.

Some of them have a wonderful randomness to them - the ‘o’ of Hotel Fenix, or the ampersand at Bilak for example. This can throw you off a bit. And there’s also the question of compensating for age and condition. So a few different factors.

What new did you learn about typography through this process?

It’s been a great technical exercise in typography, but what really appeals to me is taking these wonderful pieces and converting them into formal, flat vectors. And of course, showcasing overlooked craftsmanship from generations ago. 

Have you developed a new understanding of typography through this project?

Perhaps more than any other discipline in the graphic arts, typography offers the challenge of balancing rational, technical needs like legibility along with a creative, artistic side. If you can create this you’re onto a winner. I think the best typographers know how to create fonts that do this. I love all the classics as much as the next guy - but it’s always pleasant to see work that has a sense of the unusual or unexpected.

What are your future plans for the project?

Future plans - at some point to create these as actual downloadable fonts. I’m currently unemployed right now, so looking for full-time work is my primary concern at the moment. But once things are more settled, this is ultimate aim. Be great to see them resurrected in the 21st century.

You have moved to London after four years in Guatemala. Which elements are you going to miss of the city?

I’ve actually moved back to Manchester, with my wife. We’ve been back 2 weeks now. I’m already missing the weather. Cold feet - not enjoying that! I’ll miss the steaks too. You get some great cuts over there, and they know how to cook it. I swear to God - if you ever go to Guatemala order a rare puyaso steak - it’ll blow your socks off. And of course Guatemalans are lovely folks. It seems to be a very divided society, especially between the rich and the poor which is hard to see every day, especially coming from the UK. But despite this they’re incredibly courteous, and friendly. A nice bunch all round - my wife especially of course! haha! The city, though, to be honest, is a bit of a mess. Corrupt government, lots of crime and bad traffic...but it gets by. Despite all this though people get by - I’ve nothing but admiration for Guatemalans in that respect.

Which city would you like to explore in the future?

I lived in Japan for a couple of years after graduating. It’s probably the most contrasting place you could imagine to Guatemala. At some point I’d like to go back, try and make sense of Tokyo. That place is a monster too, in it’s own way. 

What are your future plans altogether?

My next couple of projects are actually not city related at all. I can’t give too much away right now though.

Who is your favorite typographer of all times?

Erik Spiekermann - He’s done so much great work. And he’s got buckets of charisma. He called Helvetica chubby in the Hustwit documentary, which I’ll always love him for (he’s right of course, it is a little porky).

Which is the best song to accompany the reading of this typographic travelogue?

Try Radio Ranchera, aka La Mera Mera. It’s a local radio station - lots of marimba, salsa and vaquero rhythms. Good for dancing to whilst cooking too. I got married to that stuff. For real.

What do you think is the best way to close this interview and say goodbye? 

As they say down south - “Gis us a job!”. I need one for my wife to get a residential visa. We’re doing this proper - no corner cutting! (Laughs) Seriously though - Guatemala is a beautiful country, you don’t need me to say that. The capital city’s type has been overlooked though, and hopefully this project has made more people appreciate it - tourists and locals. And I hope this project makes it way back to the families of the guys who carved out those letters. Be nice to go full-circle.