5 Tips for More Creative and Engaging Interpretative Signage
How to use interpretive signage to capture their attention and strengthen brand character
When you walk through a museum, how do you know what you’re looking at? Maybe you see an interesting fossil, but there’s so much more to know – origin, species, size, time period, location, food source, etc.
More often than not, you can thank the signs flanking the exhibit for sharing details that enrich the experience. Also known as interpretive signage, these functional tools convey the who, what, where, when, and why of the subject. Think of them like a tour guide giving you the basics and lesser-known facts behind the visuals. Beyond museums, you may notice them at parks, stadiums, college campuses or any institution rich with history, art and memorabilia. Instead of providing simple directions, they are intended to tell stories that awaken curiosity and inspire learning, pride, and engagement.
Here’s the problem
Interpretive signs play an important role in place-based communication, but they can also be underwhelming in today’s “connected” world, where people are quick google information or too busy to engage. The role of interpretive signage is evolving along with its audiences, and the typical text-heavy design may not capture their interest or intrigue anymore.
Think about it: Would you stop to read a sign from top to bottom, with paragraphs of small print? Or are you more likely to glance and move on to the next thing? After all, research shows our attention span has dropped to a mere eight seconds – less than a goldfish.
This means it’s time to rethink the storytelling style without compromising on brand character. In fact, changing up the way we approach certain types of interpretative signage can even bolster brand. Here are some considerations.
Answer these questions
Whether you’re about to update existing signs or install new ones, imagine that you’re starting with a blank canvas. Ask yourself the critical foundational questions:
- Who are the signs for? Audience drives creative decision-making. An interpretive display for a children’s museum would be vastly different than what you’d plan for a bird sanctuary.
- How do you want people to feel? Experiences that evoke emotion are the most memorable. How you want people to feel in a park or sports stadium (happy, energized, etc.) may be different from how you’d want them to react to stories across a museum or memorial (curious, nostalgic, etc.).
- What information will you share? Prioritize your most prized stories. While it’s tempting to share anything and everything, remember that people’s attention span is limited. Choose only the most interesting, inspiring, or thought-provoking narratives that align with how you want people to feel when they visit.
- What do you want them to do? A successful program is backed by solid objectives. Map out what actions you’d like your audience to take as they transition through your environment. Do you want them to buy a book or souvenir? Visit your website? Donate to a cause? Share the information friends? The wide-ranging possibilities associated with interpretive signs have the potential to generate tangible value and continue the relationship.
Hopefully, talking through these questions with your team gets the creative juices flowing. Once you determine what kind of picture you want to paint, here are some new ways to bring it to life for your audience.
1. Incorporate graphics. We’ve already mentioned your audience’s waning attention span, so what’s the solution? Powerful photography, illustrations, icons, textures and patterns breathe new life into your signs and make the information more accessible.
If text is a necessity, make it concise. Call attention to the most important information with bold headlines and quick descriptions or bulleted lists.
2. Communicate like a human. Your interpretive program doesn’t require an eloquent introduction, robust character development, or long compound sentences. Save it for your website, where you can offer a deeper dive into the story. Your signs should convey information like a human, not a robot. Offer snackable insights in a colloquial tone that are easy to digest and leave people ready for more.
3. Stimulate the senses. Isn’t seeing and smelling a sunflower better than reading about it?
Some of the best interpretive signs are paired with objects or tools that encourage people to see, hear, touch or even taste something that deepens their connection to your place. People don’t just want to stand and read – they want to take action.
4. Blend in, naturally. Your interpretive signs don’t always have to be a panel on a post. Think about where they best fit into the overall experience. For example, does an interpretive sign make sense next to a park trail where people are running or biking past? Probably not; their minds are elsewhere. Maybe those signs fit into areas that encourage people to pause, like a park bench, a water fountain, or a lookout where hikers breath in an impressive vista – these opportunities are often peppered throughout the journey.
Map out how people move through your environment and place signs in high-traffic spots where people are most likely to stop and take in the information.
5. Make it a photo opp. One of the best ways to get more mileage out of your signage investment is to persuade visitors to take photos. People love to share positive experiences with their friends across social media, using images, hashtags and location services. Where are the best selfie spots in your place? Use your signs to give them an encouraging nudge to capture their experience.