Thursday, May 26, 2011

Self-Critique, 15 years later

I was sent a photo of this sign earlier today with a question from a former employer, essentially "what is it?"

I won't go into how frustrating it is that this person doesn't seem to knowthe context of this sign. It's one of a series of eight or nine trailside interpretive signs at a place called Loney Meadows, near a place called the Grouse Lakes roadless area.

Loney Meadows was used for dairy cow grazing for over a century, The whey was cast off and the curds were taken down to town to make cheese for miners in Nevada City. In the early 1990s, the Forest Service acquired the land and began cutting down on the grazing pressure, building rock structures in the stream and fencing off certain areas to encourage meadow restoration. It's a great ecotone, a good place to see wildflowers in July and August, and a great place to watch raptors go after rodents.

This was one of the first interpretive signs that I developed, and I've always been proud of this one, particularly the title, "Moo." But I haven't looked at it or the project in a few years, so I guess it's time for some self-critique.

One of the things I liked then and now is the sign's brevity. It's part of a longer story about the meadow's history and restoration. Each sign is essentially a topic or paragraph, and each paragraph is both logically and physically distinct. I would re-write it a little today, the writing seems a little textbooky to me, but I still think it does its job. Ditto with the title "Moo." I still really love the title. Short, provocative, and just interesting enough to make people want to read the text.

The artwork and design, well.... I would do things a lot differently today, I think. I remember that I was working on two or three trails in rapid succession, and for this one I commissioned simple line drawings. Whether it was to be minimalist or due to cost factors, I can't recall. One good thing is that the sparse artwork is very focused. I find some art showing nature subjects on interpretive signs or brochures to be too "beautiful." By that I mean too verdant and complicated, too many species, or "cute" elements such as a pair of eyes peeking out from a knothole or from behind a rock, when the subject might be a plant species. So sparse is good for my aesthetic, but perhaps this is a bit too minimalist.

The color design, well... Part of me is asking "what was I thinking?" The only problem is that I do remember what I was thinking. Time, the elements, and the color balance of the photo have shifted the colors some, but I wanted green and brown that would be similar to mid-summer in this location. I bought a brand-new Pantone book and took it up to Loney Meadows just to get the colors right. Today, the color scheme would be a bit different, but I wanted signing that would be visible but not stand out against the beauty of the meadow. It really is a wonderful place and well worth a visit.

Knowing that very few people have visited Loney, and this post won't cause a stampede, it's hard to put this in context for readers, but I would give myself a B or B+. At this stage of my career, it's a good effort. I made deliberate design decisions (and consulted with a graphic artist, as I recall,) I wrote genuinely interpretive text that expresses a subtheme (the history of cattle grazing caused damage, which is now being addressed) within a larger theme (Loney Meadows is a diverse environment where sensitive management is enhancing resources and repairing a century of damaging use,) that is brief, to the point, and I think, interesting.

Anyway, that's my take on it. What do you think?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Design Aesthetics and Usability

I took a few personal days in late March and visited a place I've never been before. Right now I'm keeping the location to myself because my criticism isn't meant to be personal toward anyone, at least not personal when I have a fantasy of having them hire me to consult with them...

As is my habit, I visit nearly every museum I pass (I'm also magnetically drawn to brass plaques oddly enough) and in this town there was a terrific nature center/botanical garden with some top-notch exhibits, and a small community museum. The contrast between them would have been hard to have been more pronounced. In the nature center, the exhibits were heavily thematic. Each island exhibit in a sparse room had strong titles that were great theme statements, exhibits that not only worked well together and reflected the resources being interpreted, but also could have stood alone and done a quite good job. They used native materials, appropriate technology, and were thoroughly professional without being slick and out of place in a somewhat remote site. Just wonderful.

And then there was the small museum. This was a tiny resort town that is well known and financially comfortable. The town and its surrounding area have a pretty interesting history that, unfortunately, is only partly reflected in the museum. It's a pity.

It's located in an historically significant building where many visitors will end up, so attracting people to the front door isn't difficult. The staff that I met seem to know their town and are proud of it, no problem at all. Unlike a lot of small museums I've visited that look like someone's garage, full of interesting stuff with no rhyme or reason (or explanation) there are clean, professionally designed and built cases, adequate lighting, and though the circulation path isn't great, I've seen much worse.

So what was wrong? Aesthetics and design. It was, for the most part, just beautiful with a light, airy grace. but this artistic aesthetic was its own worst enemy.

With a clear design focusing on a kind of sparse beauty, it failed in communicating the essence of the subjet matter. It looked a little bit to me like an art museum. Interpretive text was painted or screened directly on the walls. To make matters worse, much of the text was about 70% grey on white walls, generally over five feet off the floor. Text panels arranged to continue the case design, without any special lighting, and difficult and in one case nearly impossible to read due to the low contrast.

In one gallery, there were pull quotes on the walls to emphasize certain elements of the subject matter. Again, it was a beautiful design that unified the different panels by being in a light blue strip painted along the walls at about two feet. But the doggone text was applied in a light grey that was to my eye, nearly identical in reflectance! Just beautiful, and totally useless. Sort of like a Corvette in a lumber yard I guess. I never was able to read much of the text. Some of it I was able to read by getting on one knee at an oblique angle to the text, because the paint was flat and the text somewhat reflective, and I could catch it in the light. Others I was able to photograph and then pull the text out so I could read it in Photoshop. This was all very frustrating, because the subject matter concerned the town's connection with a professional sports team that interests me, some prehistory of the area, and some early 20th century cultural history concerning people and events I'm kind of familiar with.

When I spoke with the manager of the store, he told me that he too had trouble reading some of the exhibit text. The director, he told me, had worked previously at an art museum.

Bingo! There's the problem. My emphasis as an interpreter is on successful communication (and accuracy!) In an art museum, I think it's fair to say that the setting, the virtual and physical frame, sets the tone for the piece of art, and aesthetic design often reigns supreme. There's more to it though, than just my personal opinion.

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) contains policy and guildelines for this sort of thing, and it's the law. Many years ago, I attended some ADA training where I was told something that has stuck with my ever since. Most of us think that there are just those who are disabled. We heed to think of this in reverse. Those of us who are fully able will eventually get a disability of some sort. Poor vision, hearing loss, mobility impairments, failing memory, and on and on and on. I guess I could argue that many people over 50 (including myself) don't have the same level of acuity, endurance, or longevity that we had when younger. "I just can't stay up all night or work 14 hours a day any more!" is a gripe that indicates a slight disability, or at least a lack of being fully able.

The Smithsonian Institute used to have a really great ADA guide for museum exhibits online, so my idea was to find this link and send a nice polite email to the director with a summary of my observations and a suggestion to learn about what the law (and good design) include. I don't think that anyone who is in the communication business wants to prevent people from getting the information that we've worked so hard at, but a lot of us just don't think of these things.

But rats! the Smithsonian exhibit guidelines isn't there any more. They've rearranged the website, and put up a different document that I don't think does as good of a job. It's online at and there is lots of good information, but I preferred the previous version. I probably have a copy around here somewhere, but since the move, there's a lot of things I can't find.

And for some reason today I remembered that I need to send a polite note to this museum director to hopefully introduce him to the concept of universal design. At least that's my hope. I don't want to cause any trouble or tick anyone off. For some reason, some people get up in arms about universal design and ADA requirements. I once consulted on a website where there was no provision for section 508 compliance (the website equivalent of ADA,) the person handling the contract told me "Why should I care if blind people can read our website?"

Sadly, that person's point of view predominates. The website is not only not optimized for people with vision impairments, but difficult for users of smartphones to navigate. ADA compliance is not only important to be a good communicator, or because it's the law (and there can be penalties involved if someone files a complaint in court,) but universal design is really good design. In the case of a website, the 508 requirements make things more usable for people with Androids, iphones and Blackberries. In museums, clear, readable text is easier for people to absorb in leisure settings, so all of your hard work in researching, writing, design, layout and fabrication has a better payoff. I'm just sayin...

So what does it all mean? I don't know. The small museum stuck out because it was full of 50 cent solutions to five cent issues, and the end product is that the design is to sophisticated to communicate well.

I guess that I had better take the time to write the director a polite letter and see if I can chip away at this, just one little bit at a time.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Information Versus Facts

Passion, Provocation and Meaning or Information?

This comes from a conversation I’ve had recently with a colleague as well as time spent planning some training for docents at my own institution. The question has come up in two very different settings, but similar contexts. Locally, a docent who is a college student has decided not to attend interpretive training, telling her supervisor that she has some experience with interpretation and knows what themes are, because they are the same as thesis statements. For one of my colleagues, training that she had planned is being resisted by some whale guides who seem to do a great job with facts, but provide no meaning, no connection between the tangible facts and intangible meanings.

Freeman Tilden, in Interpreting Our Heritage, makes a clear distinction between information and interpretation:

Information, as such, is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based on information. But they are entirely different things. However, all interpretation includes information.

So if interpretation isn’t the same as interpretation, what’s the difference? What in the heck does ‘revelation’ mean? Facts are things like weight, height, year, acre-feet, and age. By themselves, I think they mean nothing except as a description. Interpretation provides (or can lead to) meaning, context, relevance, and a passionate reaction by the audience. This, of course, ties in with another of Tilden’s principles:

The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.

Facts don’t provoke; they are either filed away or quickly forgotten. I have a theory that is half in jest, half serious. I really don’t feel the need to memorize facts. Facts can be found in books. If I memorize them, then the purpose of the book has been wasted, and trees have been harvested for nothing. On the other hand, I realize that I’ve collected thousands of facts over the years. I use them in my work and my life to make points. By giving them context and meaning, I’m using facts to create interpretation.

My colleague’s conversation with the whale guide included a comment from a visitor that she “likes facts.” Good for her, but so what? I think that as a society we tend to gravitate toward stats and superlatives. Biggest, smallest, most expensive, oldest, etc. all are interesting in the same way that we glance at tabloids in the supermarket checkout line. For most of us, they are just curiosities that are chuckled over and quickly forgotten. Facts really don’t mean much without context, and by focusing on superlatives, I think that we’re sort of creating a freak show in our heads.

There are several similar acronyms used to describe Interpretation: EROT (Enthusiastic, Relevant, Organized, Thematic) and POETRY (Personal, Organized, Enthusiastic, Thematic, Relevant, and it’s all up to You) are the two I run across most often. Key to these memory aids is the mention of relevance. I’m sorry to tell you if you haven’t realized it, but mere facts don’t have real meaning unless they are relevant to our audiences, and a fact dump just won’t do that. There may be a short term head nod, a quick “wow!” but there will be little or no retention or impact on our audience’s lives, which is a darned shame.

For the college student who believes that themes and thesis statements are identical, she’s close but not quite on the mark. I think that technically she might be right, at least as to the mechanics of a theme. To quickly review, a theme is a single sentence that expresses what we want our audience to know at the end of an interpretive presentation of some sort. They differ from topics in that they are expressed as sentences, and indicate context and meaning, not just a subject or topics. Here’s a topic:

Transcontinental Railroad

And here’s a theme:

Construction of the transcontinental railroad connected California and the West to the rest of the United States.

It’s a theme that could also be a thesis statement. It’s accurate, but kind of weak. It’s not compelling; it doesn’t cause the reader to think “okay, tell me more.” How about:

Construction of the transcontinental railroad made it logically possible for people to travel quickly across the continent, reuniting families, creating vast new business opportunities, and allowing California’s rich agricultural lands to feed a growing nation.

Now I’m interested! How were families reunited? Long distance travel was now much faster and less expensive. Men who had come west during the Gold Rush could now return home to see families that they had left behind. Families could come west to be reunited with their father. Extended family groups could come together, or even visit each other, going back and forth.
Manufacturers of machines and tools in the East now had new markets in the west. Fast and inexpensive freight allowed manufacturers to grow larger and develop economies of scale, to build huge factories served by rail lines, and quickly and easily ship their products across the continent to many users. This, in turn, sped up development in the West.

Fast shipping allowed agricultural crops, most notably fruit, to be shipped from California across the country. People who had never seen an orange could now get them inexpensively. By opening these larger markets, agriculture literally bloomed in the Central Valley of California, as well as across the prairie.

My second theme has much more depth. It’s provocative, contains some teasers, and contains three related concepts that all spring from one idea. This is quite different from a thesis statement used academically, even if it might technically meet the form.

For the two situations with people who don’t (or don’t want to) know the very real and important difference between interpretation and information or fact dumping, this might be a function of fear, or disinterest, or a fundamental misunderstanding of what Interpretation does for people and society. Maybe this is a symptom of a struggle in my profession as an Interpreter. We’ve never done as good of a job as I hope we would do with justifying our profession, and perhaps if we did, it would be simpler for people to understand the difference between Interpretation and information. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I think it’s a very important question.