Finding The Sweet Spot

At some heritage sites interpretation is entertainment, doing little more than passing time for visitors or delivering information that will not be remembered. Helping people connect emotionally and intellectually with complex stories is a challenge. Experiences must be planned with specific objectives in mind.


Much of what we do in planning natural and cultural heritage sites and programs is really about balance. When planning messages (theme and sub-themes) for a site, we think about hitting the “sweet spot” with our approaches to communication and experience design. We view that spot as the overlap of what interests our audience, what objectives must be met for our agency/employer, and what honors and protects the resource.


Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 8.02.37 PM

There was a time when most interpretive planning and programming was solely resource-based. We told our visitors what we thought they should know using only the techniques we knew well with little regard for their backgrounds, interests or preferences in learning styles. The resulting signs, exhibits and programs delivered information accordingly. But just delivering information is not the same thing as interpretation, as Freeman Tilden pointed out in his principles. More information about the resource doesn’t always help people deepen their understanding and therefore, rarely achieves the objectives of management.


When only management objectives are considered, there may be a tendency toward what has been called “interpreganda,” presenting only the perspective of the agency responsible for the resource. While there is nothing wrong with putting the mission of the organization in front of visitors, doing so without considering how to meet the audience where they are in their belief systems may result in unfortunate conflicts rather than connections.


In the 1980s we began to be more market-oriented, using social science surveys to understand the needs and desires of our guests. Multiple perspectives, especially regarding sensitive stories, began to emerge in a greater variety of media choices designed to reach a greater variety of visitors. The danger, of course, in being solely focused on the visitor’s interests and desires is that sometimes interpretation becomes so entertaining that the resource suffers. The desire to get “just a little closer” to wildlife or interact with historic structures in a way that damages the integrity of the building can put the diagram out of balance yet again.


If the interpretive plan elements support management of the site, appeal to our visitors and serve the best interests of the resource, we have a great start at defining where the sweet spot lies, where balance creates a great experience that benefits all three bubbles of the diagram. A batter focuses attention to swing at a ball, hoping to hit the sweet spot that will mean a home run. A planner has to think in several directions at the same time to hit a home run, finding the sweet spot, the balance, among the many variables required for successful interpretation.


-Tim Merriman


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