Getting it Right the First Time

Getting it right the first time is always our goal, but it seldom works that way. We learn by hard experience and eventually get better and better at what we do. Here’s a few things that I’ve learned in the past 40 years about “getting it right” when it comes to creating interpretive graphics for park applications.

Every project has a topic and this topic is going to be important in deciding the look of the graphic. The visual appearance of the graphics can give viewers important cues about the meaning and content of the signage before they even read the text. Is the aim of the graphic to provide information about the surrounding area, or is it interpreting the flora in front of you? Does the information in the signage relate to something current, or is it historical? Interpreting heritage buildings requires a very different style of graphic than that needed for a park information kiosk, for example. A memorial plaque should be instantly identifiable as such before the viewer even reads the text.

How do these concepts get portrayed? Look at graphics at each of these types of sites. Which ones tell the story without reading the text? Those are the ones that “got it right”.

Shape, color and use of space are major determining factors in attracting or repelling potential viewers. Negative space is one of the most important, and most overlooked, aspects of design. Negative space shapes the overall impression of the layout. It gives the eye room to roam and gives the positive areas of the layout more impact.

The space is also shaped by color and contrast. Bright colors attract attention, but too many of them can cause visual confusion. The higher the contrast between the text and the background colors, the greater the readability. Avoid the temptation to make every layout look like a circus just because you can.

Digital printing has allowed the use of color photos and illustrations to proliferate because, unlike traditional printing methods, there is no extra cost involved. However, care must be taken to use these elements judiciously, as they can easily overwhelm the text. Too many images, images that are too busy, or a combination of the two can wreak havoc with text legibility.

Typestyles play a large role in achieving the desired look but they are often not well understood. The shape of the text is an important part of the visual message. Certain typestyles evoke feelings by their shape and appearance. Smooth, flowing cursive styles add elegance and charm. Big, bold san serif or slab serif fonts give the feeling of substance and strength. Ultra-modern specialty type can give a printed piece a jazzy, hip look and feel. The look of the typestyle can tell more of a story than any other aspect of the design.

It is generally accepted that serif type, like Times or Garamond, is easier to read than other styles. The thick and thin nature of the strokes break up the pattern visually and the eye naturally follows the serifs across the page. This is especially important when large amounts of text are strung together in paragraphs and columns.

San serif letters, such as Helvetica and Ariel, are among the most commonly used typefaces. Still not widely accepted for use in body copy, they do, however, work well for headlines or other areas where small amounts of large, bold, plain type is required. They are also the standard for highway signs, which have to be seen and read from great distances and at high speed.

Specialty typefaces like scripts, antiques, cursives and novelty styles all have their place in the design world, but must be used with caution. They are generally more difficult to read and should only be used sparingly for their special visual effects.

When doing a layout, try to keep the number of typeface families to a minimum. If you need bold, regular and italic styles, for instance, use them all from one family. (For example Goudy Regular, Goudy Bold and Goudy Italic.) The headline type can be from a completely different family for contrast (Like Helvetica or Futura). More is seldom better in the design world.

The size of type that you use is often determined by the amount of type that the client has requested on the project. This can be a huge mistake. Readability is of maximum importance in any design and the choice of typestyle will only go so far in enhancing the viewer’s ability to read the sign. Color, typestyle, contrast and ambient lighting all play a role in determining type size. Proof prints done at the actual size and taken on site for testing are the final arbiter and can be used to convince the client that they have way too much text.

Too much text is the biggest headache for graphics professionals. Interpreters are passionate about their work and have enormous amounts of knowledge. The real skill is in knowing how to pare that information down to understandable and easily readable chunks of text that will be utilized by the public in this age of “sound bites”. The commonly accepted theory is to have a large headline that brings potential readers to the sign. This is followed by a brief précis of the topic that will supply general information to the casually interested. And then complete the package with a few carefully edited paragraphs for the minority in the audience who are interested in learning more.

The area that the signage will be placed in is an important consideration in determining the final look of the project. Color is one of the most important components. If the environment in which the sign is placed is visually confusing and overgrown, the signs might need to be a contrasting color from the background in order for them to stand out. Neutral colors like white, black, or gray are generally best. Some parks might want the signage to blend in completely with their surroundings. Photographs of the area during the appropriate tourist season will help to select the colors that would unify the visuals.

The third option is to make a sign that is easily visible, but mirrors the shapes and colors of the surrounding environment. There is no substitute for visiting the site when determining this factor, as photographs seldom convey the feelings that local features communicate to the viewer.

Your choice of construction materials will also impart tremendous visual meaning to an installation. For example, round, raw wood posts mirror the tall, straight trunks of a stand of fir trees. Rough-hewn square timbers enhance the look of a heritage mill. Custom fabricated metal goes with the industrial appearance of an old train station. Locally occurring stones can be fabricated into masonry kiosks for interpretive signs. Large rocks or stumps can be conscripted into performing as ready-made sign stands. The fittings on the signs are also an important and often overlooked detail. The choice of style, color, shape, and material all work together to determine whether they will complement or detract from the overall impression. None of these materials have to affect the durability of the display either. Careful consideration can provide an exhibit or sign that fits in with the environment and is still as tough as they come.

Every project is different. There are no rules, only rough guidelines. Visit lots of parks, see what you like and don’t like. Take lots of notes and pictures. Have fun!