Hand-lettered fonts in the jungles of Belize

Image by Natalie157 - in all my snaps I can't find a photo of an entire sign!

Last year, my fiancée wife and I visited the Maldives to volunteer with the whale shark team for whom I've worked on various projects. It was fantastic to see first-hand the impact my work was having in the field, and also gave me great insight into what we needed to work on next. It's also not a bad place for a break. When we returned, we almost immediately started planning our next trip, and in the end settled on Belize. We found a three-week volunteering slot through PoD Volunteer that placed us at The Belize Zoo for three weeks, working on the animal management and education programmes.

The Zoo is the country's only one, and it has a fascinating history. It was founded over thirty years ago by American-born Sharon Matola after she found herself at the end of a job working on a wildlife documentary with a week's worth of food, no money, and several wild animals including a jaguar that had become too used to humans to return to the wild. Today it is the consistently the number one tourist attraction in the country. Cruise ships dock in Belize City and send bus loads of American tourists twenty-seven miles south-west to see jaguars, tapirs, harpy eagles, toucans, monkeys, crocodiles and many more species in enclosures which mimic their natural (and native) habitat.

'Sharon' font poster
"Lucky Boy" is the name of the zoo's 18-year old black panther

Sharon started the zoo all those years ago by taking a piece of wood, painting the words "Belize Zoo" and sticking it up on the side of the highway. Her lettering is very distinctive, some sort of cross between the typography you might find on a Jimi Hendrix poster and the hurried scrawl of a written-on-the-day greetings card. Almost thirty-five years after the zoo opened, she still paints the odd sign, although they are mostly done by the maintenance team. All the signs, however, retain her signature lettering; it has become part of the zoo's identity.

Hand-painting signs is time consuming enough, but add 90% humidity levels and you've got perhaps forty signs which need refreshing every few months. It's a lot of work. The hand-painted nature of the signs instills them with an unbeatable charm, but it does mean that the lettering isn't available for use digitally. I wanted to change that, so over two weeks we photographed almost every sign in the zoo, a few letters at a time. I tweaked the photos for contrast in GIMP and used Inkscape's bitmap autotracer to convert them to vectors. Finally, I imported them into an open-source font authoring tool called BirdFont.

'Johanna' font poster
"If you value your paws…" appears several times around the zoo!

The author of BirdFont has clearly put a lot of thought into the easiest way to create a font. The killer feature for me is the spacing tab, where you can type whole paragraphs of text in your font and then tweak the spacing settings for each glyph in real-time to get your font flowing just right: especially important for hand-lettered fonts where characters are often irregular shapes and sizes. The ligature creator is also very nice.

At the end of our trip, we presented Sharon with two posters, which are shown here. I actually ended up creating two fonts, one from Sharon's handwriting and one from the more regular, but nonetheless beautiful, lettering used on plant signage. The second is font is named "Johanna" after the member of the education staff who created the reference letters. You will notice a few ligatures - both glyph pairs and whole words - in the "Sharon" poster - I wish we'd had more time to add more, but instructions have been left for future volunteers to carry on the work! We gifted the fonts to the zoo and they plan to use them to reinforce the zoo's brand on posters and online materials, as well as possibly creating stencils to allow them to get a sign up quickly if they need to!