Can this sign be saved?

This article is an excerpt from the course Interpretive Signs: Attractive, Brief, Clear. I’m offering the course online starting May 4, 2021. Check it out here.

Click the image to enlarge

What this sign does well

This interpretive sign connects people to place; it interprets the scene in front of the visitor and refers directly to features that the visitor can see. That might sound like a no-brainer, but it’s becoming a rare commodity in outdoor signs. More and more, we’re seeing generic could-be-anywhere signs: basically, Wikipedia pages stuck in the ground.

Good interpretive signs are exhibit labels for the scene in front of the visitor.

They encourage sensory interaction with the site. Good interpretive signs, like good interpretive programs, connect people to place in the moment. If they don’t, they’re weak signs. You know that frustrated feeling of, “This meeting could have been an email?” We shouldn’t be feeling that about interpretive signs.

Also working in this sign’s favour: the sign uses a single strong image, rather than a scattershot pastiche of images. Leaving aside for now the problematic medium—some kind of enamel, perhaps, that doesn’t allow for colour or much detail—the composition catches the eye and leads the gaze in a line along the shoreline Into the distance. Again, this is a hallmark of good signs: the eye knows where to go. 

What needs work?

Ok, where to begin? First, we’re going to separate design issues from content issues, and approach content first. In interpretive media, we get ourselves into big trouble when we try to design our way out of writing problems, or write our way out of design problems. It never works. 

Here’s the low-hanging fruit with the content: we can shorten that text a bit, and we can chunk it out into sections grouped under headers. Research shows that you will increase your readership and understanding of large bodies of text simply by chunking it out into accessible pieces, magazine-style. The text as it stands is 365 words not including captions; I suspect a study of average visitor dwell time would reveal that many are not reading through to the end. Let’s pare it down.

A little tougher, but absolutely crucial, will be to identify the overall interpretive theme in this piece, and state it up front.

I suggest that the theme should be written as a complete sentence, and placed as a subtitle to the overall piece, right under the title of Laupahoehoe Point. By stating the theme as a subtitle and then stating subthemes as section headers, we organize the content; we do some of the cognitive work up front so the visitor doesn’t have to. We also satisfy the streakers, the strollers, and the scholars among our readers. That terminology, from Canadian museologist George Macdonald I believe, is a great way of looking at audiences for interpretive media, especially when you don’t have site-specific research about how much time this audience is likely to spend in this spot (as influenced by visitor type, terrain, bugs, sun exposure, etc.) The idea is this: among any group of visitors, some will read the whole thing; some will sample here and there, and some will glance only at the picture and maybe the headers; by taking a hierarchical thematic approach, we can ensure everyone gets our message in some form. People don’t read much these days, it seems.

A related but tougher challenge with this sign will be to acknowledge the colonial bias in the writing, and suggest ways of decolonizing it—that is to say, write in a way that helps counter entitlements and assumptions of colonial power and privilege. The text acknowledges the people who were here before, but does a bit of weaseling out in the writing—look at that conveniently passive voice in the first paragraph: “…one of the islands many sugar plantations was located there.” Um, yeah. Who located it there? By what right, and at what cost?

So, with that in mind, what is the interpretive theme of this sign? I think the first sentence might be the key: “the Laupahoehoe we see now is very different from the Laupahoehoe of old.”

The text as it stands is essentially a chronology of the village that was once on this spot. We can start to distill it down to an interpretive theme by asking questions like, why is that important today? What greater truth does this story represent? What do we really want people to understand and ponder and take to heart through the story of this village?

Who can answer these questions?

Now, if we were really going to redevelop this sign in this place, the first thing we’d do is work with the local communities, both settler and Indigenous, to start to answer those questions. What is the one thing that they want us to understand and remember and cherish about this place? What is their point of view on this chronology?

Next Steps

Readers, it looks like we have our work cut out for us. But the work is not insurmountable: if we can articulate an interpretive theme that is simple, clear, transcendent, and truthful, then the rest of the writing and editing should fall into place. And once we do that, we can get to work on that godawful font. 

See where we take this “Can This Sign Be Saved” project in the online course Interpretive Signs: Attractive, Brief, Clear.

Please share with your network. Thanks!
Posted in Interpretive Media, Visitor Experience.

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