Interpretive signs: how long is too long?

What’s the right length of an interpretive text on a sign? Like most things in our business, it depends.

As you might know if you’ve been following my blog, I am just winding down a course that I have been presenting on writing interpretive signs. In that course, I give a writing constraint of about 100 words per panel. As you can imagine, some writers balk at that. Saying what you need to say (or what your subject matter experts feel you HAVE to say, or your manager, or your stakeholders) in 100 words or less is hard work. Interpretive panels are a surprisingly constrictive medium. Like so many art forms, it takes a whole lot of skill and discipline to make the final product look effortless.

And so we start with 100 words, and if we can pull that off, well, it all gets easier from there. But my constraint is artificial. It’s not a rule; it’s a guideline to encourage discipline and economy of words. Who says a sign can’t be more than 100 words? Who says a really good sign can’t be 400 words or 600 words? Can you write a 700 word sign and get away with it? Who says you can’t?

Well, the reader says. Your audience says. They will tell you if your sign is too long. They’ll let you know by walking straight past your sign, or walking away after 15 seconds. Engagement doesn’t lie.

But here’s the good news: play your cards right, and you just might be able to get away with an epically long piece of text. You just need to find the right convergence of the following variables.

Museum exhibit of long scrolls filled with poetry.
To be fair, it’s art. Wall of Worries Part I. Photo Jenn Mason.

Target market

What do you know about the people who frequent the space where you’re thinking of putting your sign? Are they likely to be engaged in your subject matter or are they blissfully ignorant of it? Are they on their way somewhere? Are they likely to have young children with them? Are they bringing strong attitudes or even misconceptions with the that you might have to gently try to counter in your sign? All of these will set a limit on how much you can write. The cardinal sin of interpretation is assuming they know and care about your subject as much as you do. Don’t assume anything. Research your target audiences and write for their attention span; write for their level of interest; write for the amount of time they are likely to spend on you.

Location and setting

Is your sign located somewhere that your readers are happy standing for a minute or two? Or have you put the sign on a rocky slope in blazing sunlight surrounded by black flies and mosquitoes?

Put the sign somewhere people are naturally inclined to stop, and you’ll have a lot more of their attention. Put that sign near a sweet lookout where people want to take a photo or have a drink of water, and you might just be able to offer them 400 words of text… if it’s well written and well laid out.

Don’t put your sign in a spot where they’re likely to be miserable. Or, if you REALLY have something you need to say there, be realistic: you’ve probably got a few seconds of their time.

I wrote this one for the Douglas J Husband Discovery Centre in Delta BC. Design by Double Dare.

Content

Is your writing compelling? Are your visuals attractive? Do you have a catchy title and an impactful theme statement? Does your writing flow logically and easily, with a vocabulary free of jargon and acronyms? Have you broken big blocks of text into chunks with interesting sub-headers? Because that will get you more of your audience’s attention, too.

Is your subject and your message tailored to your target audience’s needs and interests? Does it speak to something within them? Does it speak to something greater—a greater truth, a pressing issue of our times? Does it move them? Because relevance and emotional impact will buy you a lot of your visitors’ time and energy.

Long museum text projected on a wall.
OperaLab exhibition, Warsaw

Design

One of the principles that guides all my work is Schramm’s model, dating back to 1960s communications theory: attention span equals perception of reward divided by effort required. If your visitors take one look at your interpretive media and see a lot of mental hard work waiting for them without much bang for their buck, I guarantee they will walk on by. On the other hand, if they glance over and say, “Hey that sign looks pleasant and fun and talks about a thing I’m actually interested in today”, well, you’ve earned some of their time. Use it well.

Interpretive signs can be at their most attractive when they have a single beautiful image that helps tell the story. A logical layout of textual content helps a lot, too: one of the first questions I ask when evaluating a sign’s design is, “Does my eye know where to go?” If my eye is searching madly for some point of entry, some logical place to start, well, I don’t have a lot of extra patience for that. But an arresting visual that sets a mood, gets the story going, and directs me toward a simple hierarchy of titles and subtitles that eases me along a satisfying arc of storytelling? Love that. I will read the hell out of a sign like that.

Excerpt of Wilbur Schramm text talking bout expectation of reward divided by effort required.
Wilbur Schramm knew his shit.

Constraints of space

If you’re writing a classic rectangular panel, say roughly 2′ x 3′, (that’s .6m by 1m ish) you’re going to be constrained by space and the visual accessibility of your text. Generally, a sign like this will need body text no smaller than 22 points, though there are more exact standards from that. Now, if you’d like to have a beautiful visual in there (and you really should), you can’t write 500 words. You just can’t—particularly if the sign is going to be bilingual or, as we’re seeing more and more, trilingual including a local Indigenous language.

Interpretive panel about the geology of diabase dykes made from magma.
This is one of mine, from the Gros Morne Discovery Centre. Design by Reich + Petch.

Interpreters have trouble paring things down.

In my experience, interpreters tend to get Very Excited about their subject matter. We want to say everything. We want to tell all the stories; we want to show all the pictures. We want to make overwhelming, cluttered, confusing interpretive signs—or maybe signs that might appeal to people just like us. We need to stop.

Let somebody evaluate your work. Hand it over to a good editor and a good graphic designer. Listen to them. Let them cut your text and cull your visuals. Don’t get possessive of your content.

And when they’ve done their good work? Prototype it. Test it out. See how many people stop and read your sign; see how long they spend reading it. Use what you learn to tweak the length and style and design of your interpretive media. You just might find ways to increase your audience’s attention span.


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2 Comments

  1. I find getting my learners to distinguish between ‘Content’ (subject matter / topic) and ‘Content’ (theme, message and delivery) is really challenging.
    The difference between ‘what are you writing about?’ ‘how are you saying it?’ and ‘what do you want it to mean?’
    So i would tend to split Content up into Subject Matter (which includes topics) and Engaging Delivery (which includes themes, story, message and expression) and Style (presentation and technical side of the writing).
    I do like a hierarchical list though, so that could just be me.
    But you make an excellent point, what’s good is whatever works well in context. Each context is different, and the interpreter can control or shape some of it.

    • Ian- I agree that content is a problematic term. I use it because all of my clients use it, and when I need to divide it further than that, it’s useful to me to think of interpretive planning (goals, evaluation framework, identification of media), research and image procurement, and interpretive writing. These are useful distinctions for me because a) they tend to pay differently and b) sometimes a client is willing to supply you help in one of those but not the others.

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