Should signage in a garden blend in or stand out?
As interpretation specialists and designers, we typically want the content and graphics we create to stand out and grab a visitor’s attention. Our view shifts when it comes to botanic gardens and nature centers. In these special places that highlight the natural world, the beauty of the plantings and the landscape already grabs the visitor’s attention. We don’t need signage to draw them in. Here, interpretive elements need to enhance what guests are already drawn to and enrich their experience and understanding.
A few things we’ve learned when working with nature centers and botanic gardens:
Enhance the View, Don’t Block It!
This one may seem like a no-brainer, but it is worth discussing. People go to botanic gardens for many reasons. At least part of the reason likely has to do with looking at plants. Whatever form the garden takes, interpretive graphics should be complementary. From rolling meadows to highly cultivated formal gardens, the signage should add to the beauty, not detract or distract.
Help Visitors SEE Something
With the prevalence of smart phones, most visitors walk around with a world of knowledge in their pocket. With a simple search, they can learn the basics about any plant they see. Interpretive content should go beyond mere facts. It should help provide insights and guidance on what they can see, why it matters, how they can “see” it in other ways, and why it is included on site.
Make it Matter
Great content in botanic gardens helps visitors understand its relevance. Too often, gardens offer little to no interpretive signage. While this allows visitors to enjoy the beauty of nature unobstructed, it doesn’t allow for deeper understanding or connection. Most botanic gardens and nature centers have education and outreach as part of their mission. Self-guided interpretation can be a key tool for fulfilling that mission. It can meet visitors as they explore and enhance their experience.
Cut Out the Cookie Cutters
Some exhibits lend themselves to a tidy array of one-size-fits-all signage. Well-done interpretive design for gardens needs more flexibility and finesse to adapt to different landscapes and terrain. What works in a lush meadow may stand out (and not in the good way) in a formal English garden. Designers need to work carefully to develop a cohesive look across a vast array of signage shapes and sizes. By unifying design elements, like color, material, font, illustration style, and more, you can ensure all your “atypical” signage is as consistent and complementary as possible.
Planning Makes Perfect
You’ve probably heard of museum fatigue, well, visitors to gardens can experience interpretive fatigue and signage overload. Sometimes less is more. That's where a site-wide interpretive plan comes in. Planning helps outline the important stories and identify ways to tell them. A good plan has guidelines for ideal locations to establish “AHA” moments, helping create a memorable experience. Interpretation should enhance and inspire but not overwhelm. A well-done interpretive master plan can help keep it simple!
What do you think when it comes to interpretation in gardens? Do you have a favorite outdoor space that includes interpretive elements? We’d love to hear your thoughts and keep the conversation going. Comment below!