Interpretative Signage as Stealth Marketing

Revealing the Character of a Place & Encouraging Visitors to Learn

When we think of signs, we think of those that provide directions or label a place, all with intention of helping people find their way. But signage can do much more than guide people – it can promote learning, invite engagement, trigger behaviors and stir emotion. Cue interpretive signage: a powerful tool that communities a depth of information or tells a story that ignites meaningful relationships with visitors.

What Is Interpretive Signage?

Interpretive signage is most often used at museums, zoos, parks and in communities to share information about what visitors are seeing or experiencing. The signage tells a story, conveys the character of a city or place, and evokes curiosity that prompts exploration. While gateway or directional signage supports a wayfinding strategy, interpretive signage goes deeper as a story-telling, marketing tool that can elevate an area and make it more meaningful for visitors. Interpretive signage is an art and a science, involving extensive research and careful communication, both visual and in written word.

The origin of interpretive signage is actually from a man named Freeman Tilden’s work, Interpreting Our Heritage – a textbook that includes principles for messaging that provoke attention and curiosity. “Interpretive signage must relate to the life of everyday readers, so it may use analogy, metaphor, simile and other writerly tools to help people understand concepts and discover revelations,” says John Veverka, a certified interpretive planner and trainer.

“Interpretive signage must relate to the life of everyday readers, so it may use analogy, metaphor, simile and other writerly tools to help people understand concepts and discover revelations.”

Interpretive signage is informative, and sometimes instructive with a behavioral agenda (i.e. “do not touch the exhibit”). The messaging often concludes with an answer that promotes further discovery or plants nostalgia, concisely written in 100 words or less. It should produce tangible and intangible results, Veverka adds. “A tangible result might be smelling a wildflower, and the intangible, emotional result would be if the smell of the wildflowers evokes memories.”

Telling the Stories That Bring Places to Life

Interpretive signage is designed to illuminate the character of a place—to tell its story. How does this work? Take the small village of Somerset, Ohio, which is packed with pioneer history and cemeteries dating back to the Civil War. However, the only way to find out about this rich history is to track down a member of the city’s historical society and have a face-to-face conversation.

Guide Studio partnered with Somerset to explore interpretive signage that would help tell the village’s unique story and position it as a place of historical significance. This is appealing to visitors who seek out pioneer history and experiences, but also makes a place more memorable for passers-by and builds pride within the community.

The process began with mapping out key locations in the community that work in concert to illustrate the full story of Somerset’s past. The market square, an old village courthouse, a cemetery and former jailhouse are among the interpretative signage experience.

From there, we conducted interviews with community members and volunteers at the historical society and other related organizations. Guide Studio and Somerset historians walked the properties to get a deeper understanding the story in the context of the place. Somerset wanted to tell captivating stories, not just spew historical facts. So the discovery process itself was a thoughtful storytelling exercise that churned up fascinating historical nuggets that could be shared with the public via interpretive signage.

“Interpretive signage involves telling a story of someone who was physically there or something that physically happened in a specific place,” says Andy McEntee, Design Consultant at Guide Studio. “Each story pulls out the character of the town.”

Elevating Visibility and Attracting Visitors

When interpretive signage is linked to a marketing strategy, its impact can increase visitor traffic, and elevate the visibility and reputation of a community or place. For example, signage can link to a learning program that is centered at a community center. In Somerset, there are plans to partner with stakeholders to open a historical museum. So in essence, the interpretive signage will provide historical outposts with the museum bringing together the whole story.

Furthermore, these stories and themes can be woven throughout a community’s marketing and communication, and informational websites or maps can guide visitors through the experience and elaborate on the stories for a deeper experience. The marketing possibilities associated with interpretive signage are wide-ranging and have the potential to generate measurable value.

What we love about interpretive signage at Guide Studio is the opportunity to peel back the layers of a community or place and expose important stories that make an impact.

What’s your story? We’d love to hear it.


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