What if every label was tweet-sized?

I’ve just read Will Stanley’s article on Medium: Museum tours on Twitter. 

In it, he describes using Twitter to create virtual tours of selected galleries at London’s Science Museum. He describes the challenges of distilling an exhibition into a few dozen select tweets, while still retaining the curatorial voice. What’s essential? What can you leave out? This is often difficult enough with a 140-word exhibition label – let alone 140 characters!

It made me think – often I have to redraft a thought several times to make it tweetable. In the process you realise how many superfluous words and phrases you can live without. You find the core of idea you want to communicate, and that’s all there’s room for.

Makes me wonder – perhaps drafting exhibition labels as if they were tweets might be a useful exercise in becoming more (as Susan Cross would call it), “precise and concise”.

Mind the Gap

Have you ever wondered how it is that so many of your visitors miss a prominent sign or installation – after all it’s in plain sight, right by the entrance? Chances are it’s in the Transition Zone.

Transition Zones were identified by Underhill [1] (see previous post on Underhill here) in his observational studies of retail spaces. When people first enter a store, they can be seen going through a reorientation and refocusing period – adjusting to their new environment, working out where to go next, and so on. In these few metres they are passing through the Transition Zone. In the Transition Zone, people are focused on where they are going, not where they are. Their immediate surroundings are, in effect, invisible to them.

I was reminded of the Transition Zone this week, as I am reading a doctoral thesis by Janine Fenton Sager [2], who applied Underhill’s methods to contemporary art exhibition spaces. Not surprisingly, the same Transition Zone effect applies – both at the entrance to museums as well as to individual exhibition spaces where there is a new environment and/or new topic to adjust to.

The South Australian Museum’s main entrance is a fairly typical example:

The main entrance atrium of the South Australian Museum. Visitors enter this space through a set of automated glass sliding doors, and pass through the second set before entering the entrance lobby proper.

I had discussions with the Museum about the use of this atrium space about a year or so ago, not long after I had read about Underhill’s Transition Zones. While I have not spent a lot of time observing how this particular space is used, the Transition Zone concept would suggest that most visitors have psychologically ‘exited’ the atrium pretty much as soon as they have entered it. They can see the information desk and key decision points in the main lobby beyond (the shop, cafe and galleries all fan off this lobby), and are probably already thinking about where they might go first. Consequently I advised the museum to keep this space minimal, and that any signage in this space would be as good as invisible to most visitors, at least on their way in to the museum. (I notice some brochure racks have crept in since then, and I wonder how well and at what stage of the visit they are used . . . perhaps they are picked up on exiting?)

The large iron meteorite on display in here is an interesting one – it’s an impressive object and possibly sufficiently unusual that visitors may be stopped by it. However it may be more readily noticed on the way out than the way in, and I also wonder what role children play in whether the meteorite is noticed and stopped at. (I suspect children are less susceptible to Transition Zone effects but I’m not sure if this has actually been studied or observed).

These nuances aside, the lesson here is not to position important orientation or introductory signage right by the entrance – it’s too close to the Transition Zone and will end up being missed by the majority of your visitors.

[1] Underhill, P. (1999). Why we buy – the science of shopping. New York: Simon & Schuster.

[2] Sager, J. F. (2008). The Contemporary Visual Art Audience: Space, Time and a Sideways Glance (Unpublished Doctoral Thesis). University of Western Sydney.


You can’t miss it!

The blood donation centre in the city has recently moved to a new location, and this morning was my first visit to the new site. I knew roughly where it was (in one of the city centre arcades), but wasn’t sure of its exact location. I needn’t have worried.

As soon as I walked into the arcade, there was clear signage (both at height and on the floor) that confirmed that I was in the right place and headed in the right direction.

Floor stickers and a large overhead banner point directing you to the new donor centre.

The floor signage repeats on both sides along the full length of the arcade – important for busy times of day when crowds will obscure at least some of these.

More floor signage – I’m still heading the right way!

This continues until you reach the entrance of the facility – it’s clearly signposted and the large clear facade welcomes you to enter:

The entrance to the new Blood Donor Centre. Clear signage and a sense of arrival.

The net effect of this is that I arrived to my donation appointment on time, and in a relaxed frame of mind. Although I find blood donation trouble free, it’s still not something you want to arrive stressed at!

Inside the centre itself there are large graphic murals of different people who have benefited from blood donation as well as signage that explains the donation process and what your blood might end up getting used for. (I’ve avoided taking photos inside to respect the privacy of my fellow donors.) There were some nice touches here, although I was struck by the lack of ethnic diversity in the featured donation recipients.

This amount of signage probably won’t be around forever, as people get used to the new location. But at the moment it’s a great case study of how to get people to your door without stress, fuss or confusion.

Interpretive Signs of Kangaroo Island

Following our visit to the Flinders Ranges (see previous post), we recharged our batteries for a few days in Adelaide before heading down to Kangaroo Island. K.I. (as we South Australians call it) is renowned for its wildlife and interesting landscapes. Interestingly, even though we were a few hundred kilometres and several hours’ drive away from the Flinders Ranges, both KI and the Flinders are part of the same ancient geological region. But once again, of course, this post will concentrate on the interpretive signage.

Flinders Chase National Park

While this park covers more or less the whole western third of the island, the most popular destinations are Admirals Arch and Remarkable Rocks, both at the south western tip. At the entrance to the National Park, there is a visitor centre which also acts an an entry checkpoint, where you pay your park entrance fee. At first my (UK-based) travelling companions were a little surprised at this, but were satisfied that the money was being well-spent when they arrived at Admirals Arch to find well-maintained boardwalks and viewing platforms. It took plenty of stairs to get down to the arch itself, but even for older visitors this was not too big a problem.

First, notice the positioning of the signs – they were located at the bottom of the boardwalk platforms at an angle, so you could read them as you were taking in the view:

Interpretive sign at base of boardwalk, viewed in profile
View of interpretive sign from boardwalk. Seals are basking on the rocks beyond as the waves crash around them.

I thought this was a good way for the signs to be positioned. As you were looking down from the boardwalks they were in easy sight without being intrusive. However, the sea air is obviously not good for them – as you got further down to the Arch itself, they got increasingly more tatty, and at the bottom of the arch the interpretive sign (whatever it was about) was so degraded as to be just a yellowed and dog-eared blank rectangle.

A sign interpreting the arch structure itself. Notice how this one is showing more signs of wear and tear than the seal identification one.

Around Admiral’s Arch there were a few walking trails, including some that were a bit more of the “off the beaten track” variety. On one of these we encountered some signs about the strategies the local flora use to survive in such a windswept and saline environment:

Sign on the Cape du Couedic walking trail

While walking this trail (ostensibly a loop), I started to get the distinct sense that we were doing it ‘backwards’ compared to the way that the designers intended. One clue was that the order of the interpretive signs seemed to be telling a story in reverse – in itself no big deal. A bigger problem was that we sometimes had trouble picking up the trail among the undergrowth, as the line-of-sight direction arrows of the trail were presumably placed on the assumption that you were heading in the opposite direction and sometimes were obscured from the other way. A lesson to trail designers – make sure your wayfinding and directional signposts work in both directions!

Remarkable Rocks

Still in Flinders Chase National Park, Remarkable Rocks are a short drive from Admirals Arch. (Incidentally, the rock structures were formed by similar geological processes to those which created Uluru [Ayers Rock] – something I picked up from reading the signage.) As well as interpreting the formation and significance of the rock structures, safety is a strong message here.

Signage hut on the way from the car park to Remarkable Rocks
A safety message. The salutary tale here is that you are risking the lives of others, not just your own, if you stray into prohibited areas.
A sign featuring then-and-now photographs, highlighting the continuing erosion of the rocks

Seal Bay

Another stop on our travels was Seal Bay, famous for its colony of sea lions. I don’t have any photographs of the signage here – access to the beach is via guided tour only, and the boardwalks overlooking the beach have signage of identical design to those at Admirals Arch. They must have all been commissioned together. But we did take the guided tour, on which I learned:

  • The difference between seals and sealions: the former are predominantly ocean dwellers; the latter are equally at home on land and on sea.
  • Sealions are related to wolves and bears, so you’d better keep your distance! Especially during the breeding season, it’s essential to keep your distance. This point was made more than once, and I wondered if the analogy to wolves and bears was to reinforce, particularly to international tourists, that these animals are not to be taken lightly.
  • Female Australian sea lions have 18-month pregnancies, with only two weeks off in between. So they are almost constantly pregnant with one pup while nursing another. The long gestation period makes it slow for a population to recover if their numbers are reduced for any reason.
Prospect Hill
Our final stop on the way back to the ferry terminal was Prospect Hill. I’m not sure how many steps it is from the car park to the summit, but it sure is a long way up!
View from Prospect Hill, facing Penneshaw. We climbed up here from the car park at highway level - quite a trek!

Once at the top, there was a lookout with a few signs about the view, the exploration history of the site (apparently Matthew Flinders climbed up in 1802, without the help of the stairs . . .) and the local wildlife to keep an eye out for.

Interpretive sign on Prospect Hill

Another sign (elsewhere on the island) had included diagrams of the different kinds of footprints you may see in the sand, and what animals might have left them. Unfortunately, from this vantage point, all I could see was evidence that the Trainer Wearing Off-trail Tourist (Inconsideratus destructii), had been by recently.

NB: For the benefit of Australian readers, I assure you that the timeliness of this post is completely unintentional. And that no payment has been received 😉

Interpretive signs of the Flinders Ranges

I’ve just come back from a couple of weeks’ holiday showing visiting relatives some of South Australia’s sights (a good excuse to finally get around to seeing them myself!). Our first trip was to the picturesque Flinders Ranges in the state’s mid north.

While most people take photos of the scenery when they go on holiday, I like to photograph the interpretive signage I see on my travels. So here are some holiday snaps of the interpretive signs of the Flinders Ranges:

Animals in the First Person

On the walk into Wilpena Pound are a series of interpretive signs written from the perspective of the animals of the area, both native and introduced species including goannas, frogs and mountain goats. It’s an interesting way to present messages on conservation and species loss.

Species loss through the eyes of a goanna

Geological Time Travel

A drive along Brachina Gorge is a trip through time between 640 and 520 million years ago, as you drive across 13 km ancient rock sediments that have been folded and eroded over the millennia. There are interpretive signs along the way, as well as large signposts pointing out the different geological types and ages as you drive along. However I’ve only got photos of the signs in a small shelter located at the end of the trail. While these were a little dry and technical in places, the text was broken up into small manageable chunks and subtitles making it easier to get the overall gist. Also, the diagrams were reasonably clear and helpful in placing what you had just seen in a broader geological context:

Diagram showing the trail in context of the geological layers
Another example of the Brachina Gorge signage

Dreaming stories of the landscape

At Stokes Hill Lookout there is a 3-D map of Wilpena Pound (known as Ikara to the indigenous Adnyamathanha people), that offers a good point of orientation to the topographical features of the surrounding landscape.

The topographical map of Wilpena Pound . . .
. . . that lines up perfectly with the landscape beyond.

Also at this lookout were a series of interpretive signs describing the Adnyamathanha stories of the formation of the landscape and how this is reflected in art and oral history.

Dreaming stories sign

Assuming these signs are the same age as the 3D map, they are about 20 years old now (the map had a plaque which was unveiled in 1992), so they have survived the ravages of the outback climate quite well it would seem (the looked like an enamel-coated metal of some kind). However, they did seem to be oddly located in the context of the lookout – the row of signs had their backs facing you when you were standing at the 3D map or looking out across the landscape. I wonder what the rationale of this positioning was?

Old Wilpena Station

By the time we made it to Old Wilpena Station, it was towards the end of a day’s sightseeing, when both daylight and the stamina of my fellow travellers were in short supply. So I only had a chance to have a quick scoot around the Living with Land Interpretive trail about the pastoral history of the Flinders Ranges.

One of the signs on the Living with Land interpretive trail.

I would have liked to have seen more of this trail but it really was a lightning trip. And when I returned to Adelaide I realised that the text of the one sign I photographed didn’t really come out at all . . . but that’s holiday snaps for you.



You lost me at “Hello”

I’m a firm believer that first impressions are really important for creating excellent visitor experiences. Of course, the flip-side of this is that I’m acutely sensitive to experiences that get off on the wrong foot.

An example of this happened to me recently. To explain, it’s probably best to walk you through the entire scenario. Bear with me as I give some background:

Earlier this month my partner and I were in the UK visiting family and friends spread across the country. On our way to visit friends in Edinburgh (via car), we decided to take a detour via Hadrian’s Wall. A friend had recommended we visit Vindolanda, an old Roman fort near the wall. It is the site of significant archaeological finds, offering an intriguing insight into daily life in a Roman military outpost.

Like many remote historical sites, it’s not the easiest place in the world to find, tucked away as it is past a small village and along some winding, narrow Northumberland roads. This sort of thing is obviously part of the deal – historic sites are where they are of course.  But it does make orientation and signage even more important than usual.

We had been driving along a very narrow road (too narrow for two vehicles to pass each other), not entirely sure we were heading in the right direction when we saw a sign saying “Vindolanda”. So far so good, and we took the turning.

A few hundred metres down the road, and some distance from anything resembling a Visitor Centre, we saw this Car Park:

Signage for Vindolanda East Car Park. The "East" implies that it is not the only car park (and probably not the main one - at least that's how I interpreted it). Information on the adjacent sign is too small to be read from a (moving) car.

Not convinced this was the right place, we pressed on. A few hundred metres further and we found the entrance to the Visitor Centre. Or was it?

The Entrance to the Visitor Centre complex. Where to from here?
We were faced with: disabled parking; barrier-controlled entry to another car park; a building with nothing to indicate its purpose (but which did not look like a Visitor Centre); and another building beyond, which potentially showed more promise as our intended destination (even though it’s hard to see in the picture above).

In the absence of any indication of where we were supposed to go, we decided to park in a courtyard in front of the furthest building (which did turn out to be the Visitor Centre), with a view to wandering in and working out what the story was.

We had barely got out of the car when a staff member came out of the Visitor Centre, enquiring about our business. After explaining we were just trying to visit, she told us that we should have parked back up the road (in the Car Park we drove past); the area we were in was for disabled access and deliveries only. Duly chastened, we returned back up the road.

It was only at this stage that I saw the crucial sign:

The 'no parking beyond this point sign', relatively high and to the left of the sign which has just attracted all your attention. Blink and you'll miss it!
This sign had been completely out of our field of view when we entered, and this important information was not repeated anywhere else once this threshold had been crossed.

I concede that technically we were in the wrong and that the sign does say that this is where we should have parked. But in our defence, it is in a completely different line-of-sight from the sign that attracts your attention first.* And given the location of the main car park is less than intuitive (being some distance from any obvious destination), why weren’t the parking arrangements made clear on the main sign?

We finally made our way back to the Visitor Centre. By this time, having already driven an hour or so from Newcastle to get here, I wanted to use the rest room. But even this simple requirement was made less-than-straightforward by the toilets being located past the pay-barrier and halfway through the exhibition space. Thus we had to first purchase tickets and pass through the back half of the exhibition to use the facilities (good thing I wasn’t desperate, or with a three-year-old who was). Once we were done in the loo, we found ourselves deposited halfway through the exhibition space, losing some of the logic and storyline as a consequence.

Which is a shame really. The newly completed exhibition (opened April 2011, developed with Heritage Lottery Fund money) looked well researched and designed, with plenty of interesting objects and displays. Then there were the fort ruins themselves. Pity I was too cheesed off to really take it in and enjoy it properly.

I’m aware that this post might come across as a bit churlish and nit-picky, especially since the chain of events was triggered by my own failure to see a sign. But as I have said before, I believe that everything an attraction does sends visitors a message, not just exhibitions and site interpretation. And in this case, I think a quality visitor experience (and an exhibition that clearly took a lot of planning, time and money to create) was let down by a failure to look at the visitor experience as an integrated whole. In short, no-one had thought through the whole experience, from finding the site right through to departure, in a visitor’s shoes.

Supporting this contention are a couple of additional observations:

  • The on-site cafe was open to “paying visitors only”. Why? The vast majority of visitors who make the effort to come to such an out-of-the-way site would surely have every intention of partaking the full experience – eventually. But visitors may have made a long journey and need to recharge before they’re ready to make the most of the site. To demand that visitors pay their entry ticket before they can purchase any refreshments (or use the toilets, as in my case) betrays a suspicious attitude towards the visitor, not a welcoming one.
  • What was the rationale for having the main car park several hundred metres away? Admittedly, most visitors to such a site are hikers for whom a bit of a walk is not a problem at all. But to my mind, this is beside the point. There was a car park closer to the Visitor Centre, but this was controlled by barriers (see picture above) and presumably was reserved for staff. Doesn’t this send the message that staff convenience outweighs visitor convenience? Again, a less than welcoming message.
To end on a happier note, I’ll add an epilogue to this tale: further up the road, past the Scottish border, we stopped at Jedburgh Abbey. A good audio tour was included in the entry price and they had nice biscuits in their gift shop.
That cheered me up…

 *Reading the Environmental Psychology literature as part of my PhD has made me less inclined to see such failures as my ‘fault’ – there is enough theory out there to explain why our mistake was a perfectly understandable one in the circumstances.