MonthApril 2013

Interpretive Signage

We’re venturing into my office life for this one …

The great thing about being the sole designer for an agency is that you frequently get a variety of projects in many different media. One that I find particularly interesting, especially all the research done on them, is interpretive signage. We have been working to provide interpretive signage for our state parks.

The process for these signs is fascinating to me. Some of our parks have long-term interpretive plans developed, and some don’t. The plans provide a topic for each sign, and if there is no plan, the superintendents are quizzed about issues for the park that could be addressed on a sign (e.g. trash or trail etiquette). They consider the history of the area (e.g. what did the park used to be), and what is there now that people might be curious about (e.g. flora and fauna, building remains).

Then comes the research and writing – then more concise writing and editing. And then they visit the state archives or a specialist for fact checking and images.

Finally it comes to my hands to design. In the beginning, we researched in interpretive design books, photographed examples of others’ signs and spoke with National Park Service interpretive experts about:

    font sizes
    (Did you know for large signs viewed from three-feet, 24 pt. is the smallest recommended point size? Think captions here.)

    font styles
    (There is some debate about serif versus san serif for these. Because the quantity of text is supposed to be limited for a sign we opted for san serif.)

    using imagery instead of text
    (Did you know there should be no more than 250 words per sign, including captions?)
    Photos, maps and illustrations can often show a topic much better than it can be explained.

    backgrounds
    (Did you know white is a no-no on sign backgrounds because it can glare badly in the sunlight?)

    contrast testing
    (Did you know there are websites that can help you determine if you have enough contrast to ensure your text is readable?)

Here are some examples of the signs I’ve done. I certainly haven’t done all, or even the majority, of our parks signs, but I do find the process interesting. It’s been a nice chance to collaborate with others in the design world and receive their feedback.


One more fun fact for you about interpretive signs: Did you know that a poorly written or designed sign is much more likely to be vandalized than a well done sign? It definitely pays to invest time and effort into the production of these.

My designer takeaway: Being at least aware, if not involved in, the whole creative process of a piece can produce a better end product and a more enjoyable design process.

Text-Only Design

I think back to my senior year of college and a particular course that was supposed to prepare us for the dreaded “real world”. (In all fairness, I think they gave us some great information.) One of the things I remember them telling us was not to do design work for free (even for friends and family). The instructors told us it was like saying our skill set wasn’t worth anything. Well, many years later, I’ve done it. I’m sure we’ve all done it. This is one of those projects where I actually feel okay about donating my time.

I think every family has some major issue that they’ve dealt with, and the one that touched mine was a rare cancer nicknamed GIST. After all the time with the doctors, we found ourselves with this great support group in Colorado full of people who have been there and understand. The group wanted to help people diagnosed with GIST before they even knew the support group existed. Putting their heads together, they came up with a list of things a new GIST patient would want to talk about with his or her doctor. They wanted to make it into a brochure for oncologists’ offices. (If you’ve dealt with medical issues, you know that at first it’s all so foreign that you don’t know enough to even ask questions — you don’t know what you don’t know.) I felt like this project might really help someone newly diagnosed get up to speed faster on what they have and how to talk about it.

They let me (mostly) run with the design, which is always fun but challenging because the options are vast.

I did have a couple of limitations, though:

  • No images
  • Lots of text
  • Must fit in a standard brochure rack
  • And a limited budget, of course

  • Working without images, I used the color and type to fill the roles that images usually play, grabbing the eye and establishing the context. I selected a muted blue for the soothing effect, and I used a slight gradation to add interest. I made the color prominent to make the brochure stand out. Also, I used the type to add visual interest. Using type as a key design element gives you to opportunity to really emphasize your message, to enlarge those key items. That’s what I did here. I juxtaposed the serious dominant san serif typeface with a playful layout to bring emphasis to the message and add visual interest.

    In the end, I think we were pleased with how it turned out, content and visuals. Truly, we all hope that it’s helped someone out there.

    My designer takeaway: The challenge of working without images can help elevate your text design.

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