The power of the written word: Interpretation and signageLike all forms of communication, interpretation relies on a two-way flow of information. Thus, interpreters need to build on the experiences, knowledge and interests of their expected audiences. While face-to-face interpretation can be tailored to meet the interests and questions of individual visitors 'on the spot', interpretive signage is relatively inflexible. It does not allow the audience to provide immediate feedback or ask questions, and consequently, needs to be much more exact than other types of interpretation.
The best way to ensure your interpretive sign is effective is to view the attraction/exhibit from a visitors' viewpoint and ask:
The answers should form the cornerstone of your interpretive signage.
A word of warning!Like all forms of communication, the danger of audiences misunderstanding your message is very real. The importance of carefully checking your signs for double meanings, culturally specific explanations, confusing sentences and unclear meanings cannot be overstated! This is particularly important when designing warning signs, as misunderstandings may lead to severe injury and even death. It is critical that all warnings are clearly stated, and that they take into account the likely experiences and knowledge of prospective readers. That is, while locals may be very aware of potential dangers posed by wild animals, weather conditions, environmental hazards and so on, visitors may have no knowledge or experience of these. Thus, the function of warning signs is to be both informative and preventative.
Warning signs should have four key elements:
SizeThe size of the warning and the type font used is important. Although the few studies comparing fonts and sizes are inconclusive, it does seem that the more legible a sign, the greater the chances of it being read. Accordingly, interpreters should ensure that their sign is printed in easily read fonts (such as Helvetica or Times) and of sufficient size to be read from a comfortable viewing distance. Some researchers have also suggested that the signal word (eg. 'CAUTION') should be larger than the text of the warning message.
Use of symbolsThe use of symbols and pictures has also been studied in the context of warning signs. This research suggests that combining pictorial information with written warnings is highly effective in attracting attention and enhancing recall of the sign's content. Symbols are particularly relevant in the tourism context, as they provide important supplements to language. Indeed, for international visitors with limited language skills this additional information may be pivotal in ensuring the warning is correctly decoded. A note of caution, however, the symbols and pictures used must be clear and easy to decode otherwise their intended message may be misconstrued or ignored. Furthermore, interpreters should ensure that their symbols and pictures are internationally recognised and not culturally specific.
PositionOnce the sign has been designed it should be placed in a position that optimises the chance of it being noticed and acted upon. For example, in tourism settings involving animals, warning signs should be placed where visitors are most likely to look (paths, picnic areas and viewing platforms).
Furthermore, the warning must be available at the time when it is needed. That is, the warning must be placed where the maladaptive behaviour is likely to occur. Thus, warnings related to feeding of animals should be placed at sites where this is likely to occur (such as picnic areas and campsites) rather than (or in addition to) interpretive centres or entrances to national parks and wilderness areas.
Finally, warnings rarely work if visitors think the required behaviour is difficult, inconvenient, expensive or when the risk of injury seems remote. To encourage responsible behaviour managers should provide
- facilities that make it easy for visitors to adopt the behaviour (eg. bins for food scraps);
- information that persuades visitors that they are personally at risk; and
- evidence that adopting the required behaviour reduces the risk.
Think of a dangerous animal or environmental hazard in your area. Design a sign to alert visitors to the potential danger. What fonts, colours and illustrations would you use? Where would you place the sign for maximum effect?
The information presented in this section draws on a review of warning studies written by Rogers, Lamson and Rousseau and a theoretical paper written by Rogers (see Reference section for full details).