Art Imitates Life

Early-day sojourners stacked rocks into piles or used an axe to mark a tree to signify to those who traveled later that “This is the direction to follow.”

Signage can be beautiful, functional and educational. Courtesy Of Don Brigham, Jr.

In 1960, urban planner Kevin Lynch coined the term “wayfinding” to define signs and other graphic methods used by travelers to convey location.

Although well-designed signage is important, travelers also have a desire to learn more about the location at which they have arrived.

This is where interpretive panels come in.

Successful interpretive panels have eye-catching graphics and attractive formatting that conveys a message quickly.

Once lured into reading the panels, travelers should not be disappointed with the information. There should be a message pyramid, beginning with a short, catchy phrase that grabs the reader’s attention, followed by a vivid and clear narrative that works in conjunction with the illustrations.

If captions are used for photos or graphics, they should serve a purpose and not merely repeat the message.

A Marriage Of Landscape And Art

If possible, there should be a contextual unity of the surrounding landscape and the artistry of the panel. This can be conveyed through a visual linkage.

For example, at Modie Conservancy Park in Lewiston, Idaho, the designers found inspiration in century-old basalt pillars that remain extant in the park. The form and color of those pillars are stylized into the kiosk column that holds the new interpretive panels.

For centuries, Native Americans and pioneers crossed the Clearwater River near Orofino, Idaho, on horse, raft, ferry, and boat.

To illustrate a traveler’s rest at the site, the landscape architect drew motivation from the history and materials of the crossing; the kiosk resembles a log raft stood on end, and smooth rocks from the river grace the seating walls.

The texture of the water flowing over the rocks even serves as a subtle backdrop for the panel’s message.

While interpretive panels should not distract from their natural surroundings, they do need to be noticeable in order to compete for the reader’s visual attention.

Providing visual continuity between the message of a panel and the stand supporting that panel was achieved in a series of five interpretive panels placed along the Snake River in Lewiston, Idaho.

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The panels made comparisons between Native Americans and the Lewis and Clark Expedition--their means of travel, types of dwellings, and methods of writing.

One panel illustrates similarities between the tipis, the tule-covered lodges of the Nez Perce, the tents of the Corps of Discovery, and even the tent city, which was the early settlement of Lewiston.

The image of the tipi was stylized and plasma-cut into the half-inch steel base of this panel. Other bases featured their own unique images.

Highlighting History

Interpretive panels--by definition--are intended not simply to supply information visitors can plainly see, but to assist them in seeing what is not always visible.

For example, images of animals hidden in the woods or the imprint of a quail’s footprint show a child what to look out for while exploring the area.

Occasionally, a graphic designer may wish to re-create a scene that no longer exists. For example, a series of panels located along the west bank of the Snake River south of Clarkston, Wash., highlight the geology of Hells Canyon, the aquatic life of the river, and the Native American history of the region.

Another panel depicts a view across the river to a traditional winter camp of the Nez Perce; however, today it is a tree-shaded state park. To give visitors a sense of what that view was like 300 years ago, the trees were removed while tipis and a young man in a dugout canoe were added--all through the magic of Photoshop.

Put It In Writing

Writing text for interpretive panels is an art unto itself. The consultant needs to work closely with the clients to determine the purpose or intent of the message.

This is followed by conducting the necessary research, developing preliminary drafts, and submitting them to the clients for their reaction.

Often, a sharp knife is needed to cut away words and edit the text to its core. This process is repeated until the clients are totally satisfied with the product.

In 2004, the Idaho Botanical Garden in Boise, Idaho, sought assistance in planning its Lewis and Clark Native Plants Garden. The Garden wanted an extensive series of interpretive panels and wayfinding signs.

A knowledgeable volunteer committee--including a historian, Forest Service biologist, and Native American expert, among others--was established to provide input and review drafts of the materials.

The members’ expertise and insightful comments proved useful in refining the topics, editing the draft panels, and ensuring that the messages were readable by a wide-ranging audience.

The audience for the Native Plants Garden includes busloads of fourth graders studying Idaho history, armchair historians, tourists, and backyard gardeners.

In this case, a hierarchy of signs was utilized for the wayfinding system. In the outdoor shelter, the visitor is provided with an orientation of the garden as well as the Corps of Discovery’s route with wall panels.

There are orientation map panels at strategic locations as well as vertical panels--explanation points--that announce the arrival at a new environmental zone, such as the Plants of the Canyons shown in Photo L.   Other eco-tones, such as the wetlands, prairies, and mountains are revealed with similar signs.

Just as Lewis and Clark required maps and the guidance of Native Americans to find their way to the Pacific, visitors to the parks and gardens can benefit from well-designed interpretive panels and wayfinding devices.

Don Brigham, Jr., is a landscape architect with over 29 years of experience designing spaces for the enjoyment of people. His firm is headquartered along the Washington-Idaho border from which he serves clients throughout the Northwest. Since 1984 he has served as Adjunct Faculty in the Landscape Architecture Department at the University of Idaho.