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Basic Sign Design & Interpretive Theory

A note before you get started

Though the information here is lengthy to is some of the best advice you will find when it comes to Interpretive Sign

Layout & Design. Don't rush through it...take your time...soak in the information! It will aid in making your Interpretive Sign design experience both satisfying and successful.


A simple guide to designing for the Interpretive industry.


A SIGN is an inscribed surface or space, usually with a SINGLE MESSAGE, that provides, guidance (orientation), information or explanation, advertisement, interpretation, or, warning (safety).


There are six major types of signs commonly found in a Park or Forest: Orientation, Information, Trail head, Interpretive, Traffic Directional, and Safety.


They are on duty 24 hours a day, rain or shine, and do not need to be plugged in or turned on. They can alter or complement landscapes and vistas, as well as the visitor experience. And finally they are connectors to experience, thought, and education.


The 3/30/3 rule


Research shows that you only have three seconds to catch the customer's attention, thirty seconds is usually taken for them to make the decision to read the sign, and they only spend about three minutes in reading and digesting the entire sign message.


Why do people choose to read or ignore a sign? The appearance of a sign, and content are the reason they will either read or ignore the sign. The success of a sign or the readership can be weighed with a formula by Wilber Shramm. Here the LOW SELECTION perception is that it will take substantial energy to read and the rewards will be LOW. In the HIGH SELECTION, a sign catches our interest and attention and the amount of energy needed to read and understand it, is minimal and well worth the expenditure.



1. Too many signs clutter the view and detract from the visitor experience.

2. Conflicting and redundant signs lead visitors to doubt their value and diminishes our credibility.

3. Inadequate information leaves visitors frustrated. Unhappy visitors don't stay or return.

4. Signs can form a lasting memory and may be the only impression travelers ever have of the area, and its resources, or the administering agency.


Too many of our signs greet the visitor with messages of prohibitions and restrictions. Rules and regulations need to be conveyed, but do it with sensitivity. It is far more important and effective to WELCOME the public than to hit them with the rules with the first sign they see.


Design the experience from the beginning. Be consistent with all signs in an area. Continuity and unity leaves a big impression with the public.


In the design of a sign, the elements that make up a sign are important to understand. Simply put, a sign has sign face, the sign panel or material on which the message is printed, and finally the support or sign base, which is used to hold up, in-frame, and present the sign. Within the sign face there is a further breakdown of elements into the header or title, body type, graphics or photos and credits.



It is important to have a basic understanding of what interpretation is and how it applies to interpretive signs. One definition is:

"A communication process designed to reveal meanings and relationships of our cultural and natural heritage to the public. It tells a story and brings meaning and interest of a subject for the enjoyment of the visitor".


The communication process should be based on enduring interpretive principles, which state that interpretation must:


1. Provoke the attention and curiosity of the public. Grab interest quickly and keep it.

2. Relate your message to the everyday life of your audience. Why should it matter to them personally?

3. Reveal the essence of your subject through a unique viewpoint, a different way.

4. Address the whole. Show the connection of an object to a theme or storyline.

5. Strive for message unity. Use a variety of repetition of the subject to create or build the mood, feeling or atmosphere.


Effective and successful interpretive SIGNS ARE DESIGNED


A well-designed interpretive sign will:

• Encourage resource understanding, respect, awareness, and ethical behavior of the visitor. What do you want the visitor to  know, understand, value, think about, and remember once they have left?

• Define the site as primitive, rustic, or urban.

• Answer questions that visitors have about a site.

• Direct the attention of visitors to features or natural relationships.

• Explain the cultural significance of a site. What happened here?

• Communicate across languages and cultures

• Increase visitor enjoyment through appreciation and understanding.



• Don't tell everything. Tell less, but tell it well.

• Be the visitor. What are your expectations? How much time and interest do you have? What value does it have for you?

• Steer clear of agency propaganda. Visitors are interested in natural and cultural resources.

• Don't interpret "NEAR HERES.” Stick to what is right at the site.

• Get the detail. Refine the level of detail until it has relevance to your audience.

• Have a Hook. You have only seconds to catch their attention. Graphics, titles, and appearance all contribute to a visitor’s decision to read the sign.


In producing an interpretive sign, it is recommended that you follow four steps: PLANNING, DESIGNING, FABRICATION, and INSTALLATION.


A. PLANNING: Effective interpretive planning is the KEY to cost effective use of limited resources and to

producing attractive and effective signs.


Planning should include:

• GOALS & OBJECTIVES – The first step is to define the purpose of the sign. What do you want the visitor to understand, ponder about, do (behavior), and remember after they have left? Set Educational, Emotional, and Behavioral objectives

• AUDIENCE ANALYSIS - Who are the visitors, Why are they there? Etc.

• SITE DESIGN – Will there be additional facilities such as trails, parking areas, benches, barriers? Is a site plan necessary?

• THEME DEVELOPMENT - What are you going to say? Address the area’s major theme with clear thematic sentences rather than topic subjects.

• BUDGET – Consider immediate and long term constraints and cost analysis.



• Can real objects be used or incorporated in the design?

• Who will design the sign? How much design experience do they have?

• Where will the sign be located and in what direction will it be oriented?

• Will the public be reading the sign from road or trail? Walking or from a bike?


B. DESIGN: In this vital and challenging step, you arrange the visual elements of the sign, including: TEXT, GRAPHICS, PHOTOS, SIGN MATERIALS and SUPPORT / BASE. Always remember that a sign must be read and understood to be effective.


1. Text

Common mistakes on interpretive signs are too much text, too small letters, and continuous blocks of text. The title should be bold, catchy, and draw attention both in content, size and appearance. Do not mix type styles excessively. Print, as a rule should be big, not small. Using the same size type on on entire sign will lose 90% of the audience. Use upper and lower case.

For a sign that is going to be read by the pedestrian the recommended point size on a std. 24"X 36" interpretive sign is 36 pt in the main text, captions italicized at 24 pt, photo credits italicized at 18 pts, and headers large, at 90 -120 pts. or larger, if you have room, but be careful with the visual balance of the sign face.

People do not want to read an encyclopedia. A sign is not a book nor should it pretend to be. The more the amount of copy, the less likely it is that people will read it. Research has shown that people do not want to read more than 125 words, 75 words being most effective on any panel. Leave them hungry for more, don't overdo it. Break the text up into blocks of 40 or so words.



• Text needs order and hierarchy of importance or information. ”All emphasis” is no emphasis. The headers (title), subheads and captions should tell the general story.

• Focus on one theme per sign with only 1 or 2 ideas explored.

• Should be written with the "3-30-3" Rule in mind. Use a hook in the header (title).

• Research your themes and topics then write your text. Write a draft of the text, then edit, edit, edit, and edit again.Bring extra eyes in at the beginning. Check and recheck the facts.

• Avoid unfamiliar terms or bureaucratic jargon. Make your text readable to a wide range of visitors.

• Use active verbs. (Words that end in "ED" instead of "ING")

• Use colorful language. (No, I don’t mean swearing)

• Evaluate the final content by applying a couple of questions: SO WHAT? And WHY should I want to know this INFORMATION?

• Write to your audience as if you are talking directly to them. The best messages often are what you don't say rather than what you do say.

• If it is unnatural or awkward for you to say, then don't say it.

• Be concise, as few words and simple as possible. Just state it, you don't need to explain it.


2. Layout and Graphics

Sign Layout should consider the following:


• Make the sign the right size. Consider the location and distance from which it will be read. Use standard sign sizes for cost effectiveness. Make them no larger than necessary and use rectangular, rather than square or unusual shapes

• Allow the right amount of space around text, graphics and headings. Do not crowd the text. Leave room for the frame or mount.

• Avoid diverting attention from the message. Don't use odd colors, awkward designs, and unusual symbols or words.

Graphics will attract and involve the visitor more than anything else. They convey stories in concise and dramatic ways. A single graphic can replace many words.


3. Photos

Photographs are most effective in signs of a historical nature. They tell a wonderful story and add great human interest to the sign message. As a rule, photos and graphics should seldom be mixed on the same sign. Don't overdo the number and size. They should balance with text to tell the story. Accuracy of the photo credits is critical. It is very difficult to correct a finished product and we usually end up living with the embarrassment for years.


4. Sign Support/Base

You need to give as much consideration and thought to what will support the sign as you do the sign itself. Supports do more than just hold up the sign. They can also imply permanence and respect for a site and provide a link with site features. It should be attractive, functional, and durable. They may also convey the sign and area interpretive theme, but should blend into and become part of the total site design. The base can make a dramatic contribution and draw attention to the sign.



Consider the final selection of the sign material based on research. Which material is the best for your application is as controversial to many as religion and politics? The final selection should be based on the major factors of:

• Aesthetics of the material

• Ability to convey the interpretive theme or sign objective effectively

• Durability and maintenance

• Budget (Cost) - both existing and anticipated

• Site character and the ability of the material to blend into the selected site

• Development Level, Recreation Opportunity Spectrum (e.g. primitive, rural or urban site)

• Amount of vandalism historically occurring in the area

• The amount of people presence or patrols going on in the area

• All signs can be vandalized, some more than others. In areas of high incidence of vandalism, an inexpensive “replaceable format” system maybe a good option.

Don't use a high cost material that does not withstand abuse in a remote area. On the other hand, don't use a cheap, less attractive material, in a show-case or major use area. If a sign is not going to be maintained, or receives frequent vandalism, then maybe other interpretive media choices should be considered and would be more cost effective. Perhaps a brochure, guide, or personal interpretive programs (walks and talks) would be more effective.


This process may be simple or complex. The designer and landscape architect should always be involved in this stage to maintain the overall design integrity. This stage is often thought of as minor and too many times has resulted in a catastrophe. It should not be left to an installer without any instructions or direction.


Credit: Text from "Sign Sense- Principles of Planning, Design, Fabrication, and Installation" by Richard F. Ostergaard, Center of Design and Interpretation, Rocky Mountain Region- Denver, San Juan National Forest, USDA Forest Service.


Through the implementation of these tips, rules, suggestions and wisdom...Your Interpretive Project will not only be graphically will succeed in conveying your message...which in turn will give your reader an enjoyable experience!

Let the interpretation begin!

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