Location, Location, Location

It’s a cute aphorism about the three most important attributes of real estate. It may be true, but think about how it relates to SIGNS for a minute. They can be well-written, well-illustrated, and have a strong message and still be useless. Just put them in the wrong place, too high, too low, between the visitor and the view, on the wrong slant, in too tight of a space, and your beautiful signs may not be effective. Signs in the wrong location might just as well not be anywhere.

Signs should have all of the other requisite traits of great visual media –

• images that help communicate the message to the target market

• professional quality design to capitalize on the visual and verbal elements

•  a theme – a clear strong message that gets the reader to think

• made of the right materials for the environment

• brief in number of words (fewer than 100 if possible in text blocks of fewer than 50 words each)

• a compelling title that provokes interest

• an appropriate size, shape, and mount for the situation

If one sign does not get the job done, adding more may not help.

There’s more to putting a sign together than most people realize. We have all seen the “book on a stick” approach with too many words and too much jargon, and not enough visual interest provided by photos or original illustrations. Sometimes there are just too many signs with the same message located too closely together, almost ensuring that no one will read any of them. We stopped at a county campground in Wyoming that had more than fifteen signs saying FEE AREA or PAY HERE, all mounted within a few feet, or in some cases, a few inches of each other. Signs may be poorly mounted and fall apart, fade due to UV light, have bug damage, be too easily vandalized, or just seem out of place in terms of materials that were chosen.

Those are all important considerations but let’s go back to LOCATION for a minute. If you are hiring a team of professional planners, designers and fabricators to work on your sign project, they will likely help you get the “must do” items done correctly by talking to you about your objectives for the sign or signs. When the signs arrive, you control placement and installation. Hopefully the planner has helped you make good choices about placement and you will follow his or her advice.

Here’s a few tips about locating signs that you may find helpful, recognizing of course, that every situation is a little different:

Restrooms are a great place to provide signs that orient visitors to the area.

• Think about placing signs in or near the restrooms if appropriate at your site. It’s the one place almost everyone will visit.

• Avoid obscuring great views of that which you are interpreting with vertical mounts. Reader rails with small signs or low angle mounts might be a better choice.

• Avoid placing signs above head level. A good rule of thumb is to keep text portions between 36 and 72 inches from the floor on wall-mounted or vertical signs. Seniors are often a major market segment at interpretive sites. Visual acuity and neck mobility change as you get older so placement matters a lot.

• Keep text size reasonable for viewing distance. Small type on a sign placed below knee level is impossible to read.

Older visitors need signs in a location where it is easy to read and on a slant that requires little bending or stretching.

• Place signs where the target market is. If you target sportsmen, the message about dangers of fishing line to birds might work better on a sign at the marina or on a minnow bucket. If you want to communicate with hikers, the trail entrance is an obvious location.

• Avoid placing signs on the wall in stairwells (a hazard if people stop to read them), in hallways (creates traffic blockages), or facing the opposite direction from the feature you want to draw attention to.

There’s a lot more to locating signs than can easily be put in a brief blog article. A good interpretive planning course includes a major segment on media best practices and things to avoid. If you would like a course at your place for staff and/or volunteers, give us a call. Courses also have a LOCATION need. They are best attended when they are at your place and you help all of your staff and decision makers understand how media can enhance or detract from an experience for your audience.

-Tim Merriman

Underpromise, Overdeliver

We were on the Big Island of Hawaii last year and tried out a night swim with manta rays with a local company. We suited up with full wet suits, listened to the safety talk and then the photographer/naturalist gave us a pep talk. “This is going to be the best outdoor experience of your life.” He had just set his company up for failure and,  sure enough, it failed. He promised the best experience we would ever have and no mantas showed that evening. We’ve had some pretty remarkable experiences, so a miserable evening of lying in dark, cold water without the distraction of mantas or other marine life just wasn’t doing it for us.

He could have started the talk with “This is an underwater experience of great subtlety. The lights will attract tiny animals, zooplankton, and they will attract fish and on a very good night, the manta rays will show up.” The big brag at the beginning of any outdoor experience may not always be in your best interest. Ecotourists, adventure travelers and very experienced naturalists have done a lot in their lives. Personally I have sat in a giant panda nursery in China with 11 sixty-pound giant panda babies, seen lions and cheetahs in Tanzania from four feet away in the safety of a safari vehicle, and caught vampire bats in the middle of the night in Belize while wading through the Macal River among Morelet’s crocodiles. A new “best experience” would have to be stupendous to beat those and other situations in which we’ve found ourselves.

We would eventually swim with the mantas in a more thoughtfully managed experience in Hawaii with a different operator that did not promise anything, but suggested we might have a good night if we were lucky. That night, only one manta showed up and this 16-foot female swept back and forth near us two dozen times. It was amazing. It required no big buildup. It was simply a great experience on its own merit. We went away very happy with a new memory to tuck into our great times file.

Some experience planners suggest that a big “Wow” is needed to enhance every situation. Actually it often backfires to build a community, resort or adventure experience around the “Wow.” Weather, animal behavior, or group dynamics can derail any experience without warning. Helping people have a realistic idea of what they will encounter works much better, because when something amazing occurs it is even more exciting.

People try out new places and experiences for lots of reasons. They may just want to take a photo or two, make some new friends, show their children a special place or say they have been there and done that. Helping them understand the place, the people, the animals or the story is much more likely to make a lasting connection. And they may make that connection even on the evening when the “Wow” doesn’t show up or is underwhelming if the overall experience is thoughtfully planned to work with or without the “Wow.”

We sometimes underestimate our audiences. They come to an experience with varied expectations. The “Why Zoos and Aquariums Matter” research conducted by John Falk and others segments an audience into experience seekers, facilitators, spiritual rechargers, professionals/hobbyists and explorers. It makes the point that our guests often already know a lot about the resource and they expect thoughtful, ethical behavior from our organization. Their specific expectations of the experience differ. But the one size fits all approach of promising a “Wow” assumes that they’re all interested in the same thing and so misses the mark for many of them.

Planning outdoor and community experiences is more than generating big “Wows.” It requires visitor experience planning (interpretive planning) that includes thoughtful analysis of the audience. The planning must consider every step of the experience from Decision to the Entry through the Connections (tour, program, etc.) phase to the Exit and finally the Commitment (what will they do – buy a video, tell their friends, come back again).

The Decision point and Entry is where we set up their expectations. Promises are dangerous, especially superlatives like the “BEST EXPERIENCE EVER.” We are far better off to underpromise and then overdeliver. Our audience wants a realistic idea of what to expect and when we deliver more than expected, they are delighted.

-Tim Merriman

Songs Make a Difference

I’ve been listening to Allison Krause, Neil and Peggy Young and Celine Dion today. Songs, good songs, cast a spell. I feel them more than hear them, in my heart instead of with my ears. Sometimes the melody matters most and sometimes the lyrics dominate. The best songs, the ones that seem to live forever as classics, have both working together to create an indescribable feeling and deliver the song’s message.

Most songs, by virtue of their poetic structure, are thematic. Each verse is usually a component message or subtheme of the overall theme that gets repeated in the chorus. As in good interpretation, the strongest, most provocative themes make us think.

John Medina talks about meaning making in his book, Brain Rules. He suggests that we have to make meaning every ten minutes to keep people engaged. Songs are rarely even five minutes in length so their theme repetition must be frequent. In determining messages for communities, parks, zoos and museums, we might remember what a great song does. It becomes a kind of idea prayer wheel spinning in our brains. Some never fully go away, keeping the ideas in the forefront of our minds, allowing our thought process to evolve.

In the late 1960s I remember the songs of the Vietnam War era best. Often they had a meaningful theme that drove at the heart of the conflict and our diverse feelings about it. Country Joe and the Fish performing their Vietnam Song at Woodstock sang, “it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for? Don’t ask me. I don’t give a damn. The next stop is Vietnam.” It wasn’t great melody or song, but it stuck with you as an idea. The Weavers, a classic folk group, beautifully sang an Ed McCurdy song, “Last night I had the strangest dream I’d ever dreamed before. I dreamed the world had all agreed to put an end to war.” I remember well the ache that went with hearing the lyrics as I thought of my friends who did not return or those who returned with life changing emotional or physical damage.

Songs reflect the times, giving us an ongoing journal of the human condition. Somewhere a songwriter is trying to explain global climate change in a manner that doesn’t sound like a physics lecture, a worthy challenge indeed. We need a young Mark Russell to play piano and explain this election to us with humor. The messages in current political ads are wearing the best of us down.

Village women in Malawi adapt traditional songs with HIV message lyrics in hopes of getting people to be tested to save their lives.

In Malawi, Mike Gondwe and Aaron Maluwa, museum educators, go out into villages to do HIV and malaria programs to encourage people toward more safe practices. About 18% of the people in that gentle but poor nation are HIV positive and more than a million orphans have lost their parents mostly to the scourge of HIV. Aaron and Mike embed their HIV messages in the traditional songs and dances of their culture. They want to preserve the rich cultural traditions of their nation, but recognize that people are dying and the traditional messages must change. The songs have a job to do culturally. The music endures in the minds and bodies of their people. The ideas live on and hopefully become a part of their cultural practices – “take only one wife and husband, be true to them, protect your children from HIV.”

As interpreters, we are often challenged to find ways to help people understand their world, their lives and the issues they face. Great interpretation must include powerful themes, the messages that can provoke further thought or action. Songs can sometimes provide the way to ask deep and probing questions. And where will we find the answers? “The answers, my friend, are blowing in the wind. The answers are blowing in the wind.”

– Tim Merriman

The Nonprofit Roller Coaster

This Pueblo Nature Center cafe building attracted donations easily. People like to invest in brick and mortar projects.

I invested thirty-one years as executive director of two nonprofit organizations, a community nature center and a professional association. Both were somewhat like riding a roller coaster. You experience ups and downs each year, financially and emotionally. The predictable recession economies can lead the organization onto tracks that end in midair, making you wish you could back up and make a decision differently.

A former executive director of one of the world’s largest foundations gave me excellent advice early in my career. He said, “we view many nonprofits as being like Wily Coyote of cartoon fame who chases the roadrunner off a cliff and then looks down and realizes a great fall is coming.” He was choosing a nice way to say nonprofit managers sometimes do not know the organization is in trouble until it is too late.

The foundation executive had other advice about grants that I valued and applied over and over. He pointed out that many foundations prefer to pay for brick and mortar projects (buildings) because they know their money remains as an asset. It cannot easily be squandered. Regarding operations funds, he expressed a preference for investing in new programs that would be self-sustaining. He would say, “Ask us for funding to start something that will make money for your organization each year.” It was great advice.

This nature center had a key entry location to a community trail so parking fees were a sustainable income source.

We landed many grants in both organizations and the funding for building something was the easiest to get. Funds for operations were the most challenging to land. When you land an operating grant, it is hard to get it a second and third time and grow it. And some grant sources from government and private sector foundations will simply disappear in hard times. Foundations also depend on growing their funds and the amount they can give is directly related to their careful management. In hard times there are few places to invest that give a return of more than two or three percent.

I never became accustomed to the roller coaster. I saw my job as being skilled at riding the ups and downs while trying to lessen the dips and heights by making good choices. The very best choice was always to work on earned income strategies. Like any business, we were good at some things and not so good at others. Earned income strategies should build from your areas of organizational strength. Some of the best earned income ideas for the nature center were:

• Annual thematic eventsthat the community came to rely on – improve the profits each year through knowledge of the details and tweaking the events accordingly  (e. g. bluegrass music festival, Halloween trail, and recycled raft race).

The Nature Shop at Cincinnati Nature Center sells items that any nature lover might want and that help create a brand relationship with members.

Market-based programs offered for a fee provided sustainable income because we provided a service we could deliver better than anyone else and we became more skilled at it over time (fee-based school programs, training in specialized areas such as flyfishing, birdwatching, and recreational programs such as cross-country skiing or river rafting,etc.).

Sale of goods that matched our identity, our brand, created a sustainable choice because members, clients and customers bought from us knowing that the profits were ploughed back into the nonprofit purpose (native plant shop, birder shop, regional gift shop, etc.).

Your organization develops a thematic brand through these events, programs and goods, if they all match your mission and work together well, making it the preferred source. If the product mix is appropriate, a recession does not necessarily result in substantial financial collapse. Any of these individual programs may decrease by a double-digit percentage in hard times but shrinking staff as needed helps you survive economic downturns and rebuild as revenue grows back in better times.

The Advice from Nature line by Your True Nature is a common sales item at nature centers because it connects the intangible values of the place to memorabilia such as T-shirts or posters.

Without diversity of earned income sources to sustain an organization through hard times, the sudden disappearance of big grants or government gifts may be an irretrievable loss. Foundation and government givers have their own problems in a recession. Philanthropy income also goes down in economic austerity periods as donors pull back and investment returns decline with plunging interest rates.

You may never get off the roller coaster at a non-profit organization. Nonprofits are usually built on seasonal ebbs and flows of business. The national economy has its own ups and downs. You will enjoy the ride more if you build a solid foundation of earned income activities and diversify revenue sources as you plan sound financial strategies.

– Tim Merriman

Made in America

Refillable water bottles for sale at the Future Generations Shop of Xanterra in Yellowstone National Park have a conservation message, as well as Made in the USA.

Friends visiting us recently commented that they stopped in several shops looking for gifts for their kids back home, but memorabilia in the parks and tourist towns all seem to be made in China, Thailand or Vietnam. How does that recall the specific place, the experience?


Pine and Gilmore, Harvard professors and experience economy gurus, point out that mixing in memorabilia is a key component of an experience. It extends the experience through learning or as a post-marketing icon.


I have a bamboo dragonfly that takes me back to Shibakawa, Japan, each time I look at it. I recall the meal I had of soba noodles with Lisa Brochu, my wife, and Masa Shintani, a friend and colleague. We left our special lunch that we helped make to watch a bamboo carver crafting beautiful dragonflies and other insects from local bamboo and wood. We negotiated a price and bought ten of his dragonflies to give out back home as gifts. My dragonfly has that special value. I know who made it and I watched him working during a wonderful day in a friendly community near Mount Fuji. We related the story to each of our family and friends that received one of the ones we brought back and they treasured the gift accordingly.


A sign in Xanterra’s Future Generations Shop at Mammoth indicates the variety of sustainability indicators used in finding the memorabilia guests will prefer.

It can be tough to find things that are made locally. We drive cars with lots of foreign made parts or even a foreign brand of automobile that may or may not have been manufactured in the U.S. Many of us use computers built in China. I would like my computer to be made in America, but if local manufacturing means it cost twice as much, I have to face the fact that I probably would not have just bought a new one. The world labor market has made myriad items affordable that would not be inexpensive if manufactured in the U.S.


But souvenirs or memorabilia in communities parks, zoos, aquariums, nature centers and historic sites have a role that transcends convenience or cost implication. They tangibly represent the intangible experience. If the experience is authentic, special and produced by local people around community stories, then the memorabilia needs to be just as special.


There was a time when the take home items from a park or community visit could simply be a T-shirt, magnet or shot glass with the local name. But many Americans are spending their time and money in experience economy places of business – Starbucks, REI and Whole Foods. They expect the thematic

The Future Generations shop by Xanterra at Mammoth Springs in Yellowstone National Park sells bison jerky and other products produced locally.

experience to be consistent. They look at manufacturer labels, just as they search for “organic” items at the farmer’s market or food store. They often prefer that the item they buy will enrich someone who deserves the help. They may ask the source of the materials used in manufacture or look for the recycled label. They may reject the item just for having excessive packaging. Words like sustainability, recycled and fair trade are important keys to what to buy.


When we design experiences, finding the local or regional sources of the right memorabilia to recall the experience is challenging. Foreign fabricators are making beautiful, inexpensive items that have American flags, American wildlife and a Made in Somewhere Else hangtag or sticker. But we have a chance to reap greater rewards through more sales and a more lasting connection with our guests, clients and visitors by thoughtful selection of inventory. Much of what we do in life is a “been there done that” experience. When we truly connect people to a place, a story and a people, the items that recall that should be very special and very integral to the story. We have to choose what we sell very carefully. It is a challenge worth taking for people who want to have tangible icons of a great experience, tell their friends about it, and remember the trip every time they look at the souvenir.


– Tim Merriman


Finding Frankl

Viktor Frankl, from Wikipedia.

I have run several miles almost every day for 36 years. I find that it rebalances my brain chemistry and keeps me from sliding into depression when things aren’t going well. Meditation and random acts of kindness also help, which brings me to Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning (1946).

Frankl’s self-transcendence concept (1965) emphasizes the value of helping others and taking responsibility for your own attitudes. It builds on the work of Abraham Maslow (1954). Maslow’s model is always a reminder to take care of people’s basic needs and intermediate needs if you want them to appreciate esthetic values or achieve self-actualization.

Viktor Frankl was a psychologist working with those suffering from depression and attempted suicides before World War II. As a Jewish psychologist in Austria, he was forced into a ghetto and lived through the horrors of the Holocaust by providing psychological counseling to others within the ghetto. Frankl’s school of existential psychology led to the observation by Irvin Yalom that Frankl, “who has devoted his career to a study of an existential approach to therapy, has apparently concluded that the lack of meaning is the paramount existential stress. To him, existential neurosis is synonymous with a crisis of meaninglessness.”  It makes me think about how much of being a teacher, an interpreter, and a coach is really an exchange – a true win-win situation. If we can help others get better at whatever they’re doing, we grow stronger and healthier as well. Our lives have greater meaning for our investment in others.

Frankl wrote, “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.”

I like Frankl’s idea that there should be another statue on the west coast, like the Statue of Liberty. He believed that liberty is a freedom that mandates responsibility, so a Statue of Responsibility would be a dramatic reminder of the need to take responsibility for those freedoms we enjoy. In this society that so often focuses on “less taxes, me first, I got mine, you get yours,” we could definitely use more societal responsibility.

On a personal level we can surely take responsibility for our own attitudes and make the choice to do things that help someone else. The fact that it may also help us feel better about ourself and life in general is a bonus.

– Tim Merriman

When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.

Viktor Frankl

The Power of Questions

Anne Frank House is well-interpreted, an important story and museum in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

A couple of years ago we were in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and went to the Anne Frank house. It’s a powerful interpretive experience. Anne’s words projected on the walls of the small townhouse’s upstairs apartment are sobering. There is no guide, but at the end of the experience, a video screen shows footage of current civil unrest and ethical issues happening around the world. Visitors are asked to vote yes or no on a specific question related to the video currently showing. Using an electronic voting pedestal that immediately tallies and displays the votes, you can see the results as a percentage of the group effort. More questions are immediately raised in your own mind. Did I react as others did? Was there a right answer? Why are these choices so troubling?

Socrates (469 B.C. – 399 B.C.) believed that questioning was the only defensible method of teaching. Centuries of experimentation in learning and communication theories have passed and his ideas endure. Why is that? What makes a question, especially a thought provoking one, so powerful?

College classes often are called lectures. As guides, we give a tour. Why aren’t we facilitating a conversation instead? Why not call a class or a tour a dialogue?

I have to think back at the number of times when I lectured without asking questions in a college class or spoke at a campfire program. I know I did this at times. But somewhere along the way I realized that asking questions kept people awake, if I waited for the answers. If I asked rhetorical questions, expecting no answer, it quickly became clear they could snooze with their eyes open and I would rattle out the answers. Real questions kept them engaged in the subject if I allowed them time to process the question and to answer.

Starting a conversation with open questions (those that have no right or wrong answers) helps people feel safe and can be a warm-up for more specific questions that might follow – recalling things they already know, making observations to get them to focus on what we want to discuss, or analyzing a situation to develop their ideas about it. Eventually we get to a capstone question, hopefully a deeply probing one that really gets people to think. What if Anne Frank had not kept a diary, a record of her thoughts during her period of hiding in a room behind the bookcase? How has this tragic story engaged people in thinking about the tragedy of oppression and bigotry?  A tour like the one at Anne Frank House can get someone to think more deeply about oppression and bigotry in today’s life – by asking questions, whether those questions are asked by a live guide or in a video.

Certainly, questions can be troubling. They can be provocative. They can sew a seed of doubt about something we have taken for granted. Social science research suggests that we only shift our attitudes, beliefs and behaviors after thinking deeply about something. Questions get that thought process started. Conversations bring people more deeply into any story, helping them to understand and perhaps to care about or for the subject. Simply telling them about the same subject may not work as well. How will you apply that premise where you live and work? It’s an interesting question.

Tim Merriman