Cold-Blooded Killers

Without a hook, it is tough to catch fish. And without words and art blended into a creative, eye-catching package, interpretive signs often go unread and the opportunity to ”hook” a visitor’s attention is lost.

Powerful words—“Cold-Blooded Killers”—were the sharp hook for a new sign at the edge of a marsh boardwalk at Rose Oaks County Park, a 640-acre Oakland County Park 45 miles north of Detroit, Mich. Rose Oaks boasts 5 miles of hiking and equestrian trails, glacially created kettle lakes, woodlands, and a great diversity of wildlife, including beaver, mink, osprey, sandhill cranes, deer, coyotes, and the eastern massasauga rattlesnake.  When trail users reach the “Cold-Blooded Killers” sign, they stop and investigate.

Do your interpretive signs entice park patrons to pause and read? Would park patrons have stopped if the lead was a more matter-of-fact “Reptiles Live in This Wetland”? Supermarket tabloids know enticing hooks lure readers with outrageous headlines—even if the stories that follow are mostly fantasy. Park professionals must accept the simple truth—with visual distractions all around, the first few seconds of text and style presentation make all the difference in capturing an audience.

Make An Impact
Meaningful interpretation enhances visitor satisfaction and assists management goals. David Larsen is a former National Park Service interpreter and environmental educator. In his book Meaningful Interpretation , published in 2011 in cooperation with the National Park Service and the National Association for Interpretation, Larsen explains how meaningful interpretation connects hearts and minds to places, objects, and resources. Larsen emphasizes that “Interpretation facilitates a connection between the meanings of the resource and the interests of the visitor. An interpretive theme statement links a tangible resource to an intangible meaning. That’s what makes it interpretive.”

Making sign-in-place interpretation effective, relevant, and able to clearly deliver your agency’s message is not always an easy task. It takes a team effort. The presented facts must be accurate, whether they are purely educational, such as text about glacial geology, or a safety life-hazard issue such as extremely steep sand dunes. Critical to the process is an engaging and enthusiastic presentation that will compete with increasingly short attention spans that are accustomed to using fingers to swipe across phone screens for data snippets.

Roadside rest areas and many state parks are saddled with old-style signs in upper-case letters. Those messages may be factual, but the presentation is dull. Today, words for public consumption have to be relevant to the reader, or signs will quickly become relics. “Less is more” when it comes to text. Creating exciting text can be a challenge, but diversity of font size and a changing complexity of the message can be coupled with attractive art.

How To Hook ‘Em

Some words must have eye-catching drama that spikes curiosity, while others use an important “geek” factor. With planning, interpretation can entice visitors and meet management needs and the educational goals of your department. Jon Noyes, Supervisor-Planning of Oakland County Parks, places emphasis for interpretive signage to follow three levels of understanding that hook visitors, first with a shock-and-awe approach and then a presentation of the message with additional “geek” information.

An eye-catcher is the sharp hook that draws attention. It may be a few words, such as the bold title “Cold-Blooded Killers,” or alluring artwork that invites visitors to stop and read.

The presentation uses illustrations, coupled with language, that capture the visitors’ imagination regardless of personal interests. “As humans we are hardwired to respond to danger, mystery, and the unusual or new, so when we can use imagery to evoke such emotions in our visitors, they will stay longer, read more intently, and learn more about our parks,” Noyes says. Case in point: “Cold-blooded killers lurk in the weedy shadows and among the vegetation that bends and rattles when winds howl.” That initial sentence was designed to capture the imagination.

Geek” is not a negative word. Best Buy is proud of its problem-solving Geek Squad. The science-rich ”geek text” on interpretive signs is printed in a smaller font, and is rich with details that enhance the main message--the meat of the story. On a sign designed for young children, the message might be delivered playfully by talking animals. In the case of “Cold-Blooded Killers,” the geek text profiles four species of park wetland—the snapping turtle, dragonfly, Northern pike, and bullfrog. The text satisfies the visitors’ desire for more information, and uses drama to get their attention. The text for Northern pike begins, “Growing up is hard to do when your siblings try to eat you!”

“What happened here?” are three words critical to sign placement. As you walk the park trails, look for places, points, and happenings that may draw the “What happened here?” question from visitors. The same is true for an urban pocket park of a few acres or an expansive wildland such as Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore with 65 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, 100 miles of trails, and dozens of scenic outlooks.

The need for signage with comfortable assurances and empathetic interpretation for park patrons is endless, and it ranges from sharing tales of mastodons in Midwestern swamplands to the dramatic creation of glacial moraines. An equally enticing sign can interpret something as simple but intriguing as a stone wall between rows of mature trees—an indicator of an old farm homestead.

Finding Funding

Funding signs is not always easy for park agencies unless money is dedicated to the project budget or a donor wants to back a project. County parks Executive Officer Dan Stencil explains, “ITC [the nation’s largest independent electricity transmission company based in Novi, Mich.] has a long history of corporate citizenship in OaklandCounty, and they pride themselves as being an active member of our community, funding projects that improve the quality of life of our residents. OaklandCounty parks staff, in partnership with the Oakland Parks Foundation, sought financial assistance from ITC to expand our interpretive signage program within the county parks. The application for funding was approved, but ITC representatives challenged us to reconsider how we compose our ‘wayside exhibits’ to make them more appealing to park visitors. It was this challenge and the seed money to move us forward that enabled our new approach.”

We are in privileged positons to communicate powerful messages, and should take heed of the timeless words of John Muir: “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” Park professionals must remember that interpretive signs with a sharp hook will make it easier to connect the visitor to the rest of the world—and deliver our messages.

Jonathan Schechter is a Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Parks and Recreation in Michigan. Reach him at .