Developing Self-directed Interpretive Experiences
By Jim Kimmel, Ph.D.
Dept. of Geography
Texas State University
San Marcos, Texas
The US Forest Service uses the following types of "nonpersonal" interpretation, meaning that staff members are not involved directly in personal communication with visitors:
Campground bulletin boards
Unstaffed information stations
Publications Free material
Map tear sheet
Recreation opportunity guide
Most self-directed interpretation uses a printed document. The effectiveness of documents depends on the quality of their design, writing, and production.
Design for the audience
What are the audience's characteristics, what use will they make of the materials, and in what conditions?
Be brief and to the point. Focus on one idea per text unit. Text units should not exceed fifty words. Use subheadings to break the text into sections and to guide the reader. Use active verbs. Do not use jargon, but you should introduce and define new useful terms when appropriate.
Principles of design
Illustrations and text blocks are the "elements" of a document. Each element has visual weight. Large photos, color,
placement close to page edge are "heavy." Weight should be balanced on the page and opposing pages should be balanced. Use a grid as a framework to determine balance.
Readers usually start at upper left corner and exit at lower right corner. Their eyes move from illustrations to type, large elements to small, color to non-color, and from unusual shapes to usual shapes. Use layout, lines, and the content of illustrations to move reader's eyes to the important parts of a document.
Contrast calls attention to certain elements of the document and makes the document interesting. Use contrast in type sizes and styles, sizes of elements, colors, and shapes. However, don't over-do it - keep it simple.
Clutter confuses and frustrates the reader. Use abundant white space. Use simple illustrations and headings. Readers look for reasons not to read something. Make your documents quick and easy to read.
Use a 3 to 5 or 3 to 4 proportion (8.5 x 11 in. paper is 3 to 4 proportion). Squares are not as interesting. Use divisions of thirds, fifths, and sevenths.
Elements must complement each other. Ways to achieve unity include: consistent typeface and colors. Paper, ink, and illustrations should be compatible.
Tips on design
Typefaces, styles, and sizes
Serif and sans serif
Serif is easier to read.
Sans serif is good for headings.
Times New Roman is compatible with most printers.
Consistency of typeface
Don't use more than two typeface. If you use two, chose ones that provide strong contrast.
Bold and italic
Use for emphasis, but keep it simple. Underline now usually indicates an Internet connection.
Size varies with the font
Graphic designers claim that 8 point, 9 point, or 10 point are readable and look most "professional." However, keep in mind that many interpretive publications will be read quickly, while walking on a trail or riding in a vehicle. The light may be dim, and many of the visitors have poor eyesight. Twelve point or fourteen point may the better choices for many publications. Visitors often choose large type, even up to eighteen point.
Avoid line lengths more than 65 characters. Columns can be difficult with most word processing programs, especially in conjunction with graphics. You can use text boxes. Publishing software such as Microsoft Publisher™ and Adobe PageMaker™ facilitate layout with complex text and graphics placement.
Color is attractive and improves retention. Cool colors (blues) are soothing and imply formality. Warm colors (reds and
yellows) are stimulating and convey informality. Green and red-purple are neutral. Red often implies a warning and is a
passionate color. Greens and browns imply "nature." Be sure that there is strong contrast between ink color and the paper or background. Full (four-color) printing is expensive. One color printing is the least expensive. You can give an impression of more colors by using colored paper and a single color of ink (dark blue, brown, or green), plus half-tones.
Illustrations are eye-catching and convey large amounts of information quickly. But they must be high quality and appropriate for the audience and purposes of the document.
Line art does not have shades of gray. Easier and less expensive to reproduce than continuous tone art. Includes pen and ink drawings, wood prints, and engravings.
Continuous tone art
Contains shades of gray or color. Photographs, paintings, and charcoal/pencil drawings. More expensive to reproduce for conventional printing methods because it requires creation of halftones. Can be scanned and reproduced digitally (with mixed results).
Sources of illustrations
Learn to sketch! Learn photography. Otherwise, use clip art, photo stock houses, and illustration archives such as the Texas Department of Transportation. Always give credit for illustrations.
Paper types Bond paper - inexpensive, may bleed through when printed on both sides. Most common weight is 20 lb. Offset paper - better for double-sided printing. Use 50 lb. weight for newsletters, 70 lb. for brochures. Cover paper - Use for document covers and post cards. 80 lb. weight is most common.
Smooth coated (clay) surfaces reproduce greater detail, but are more expensive. Rougher textures are good for less detail. Paper finish conveys a message - slick and glossy vs. warm and informal.
Camera ready copy
Unless you use digital printing (see below), you must have "camera-ready" copy that looks exactly how your finished document should look. Most "lay-out" today is done with computers. However, you may have illustrations that are not in digital form.
These are pasted onto the camera-ready copy. Be sure the edges are thoroughly stuck; otherwise a line will show. You can use tape, but it may show a line and it will obscure anything it covers.
Offset (photo offset), photocopying, and digital printing are the most common methods to produce interpretive materials.
Offset printing requires production of photographic plates. This cost is justified if a large number of the document will be printed and if multiple colors will be used. Photocopying is fast and relatively inexpensive for small quantities (less than 100) using black print. You can use colored paper to make the document more eye-catching. Full-color photocopying is expensive and not comparable to off-set print quality. Single color is available, but more expensive than black. Digital printing is fast and inexpensive for black printing. Digital printers read your file and print directly from it, without using a camera-ready. This means that all of your document must be digital.
Sources and References
Ham, Sam, 1992. Environmental Interpretation: A Practical Guide for People with Big Ideas and Small Budgets. Golden, Colorado: North American Press.
Knudson, Douglas, Ted Cable, and Larry Beck. 1995. Interpretation of Cultural and Natural Resources. State College,
Pennsylvania: Venture Publishing, Inc.
Zehr, Jeffrey, Michael Gross, and Ron Zimmerman, 1991. Creating Environmental Publications: A Guide to Writing and Designing for Interpreters and Environmental Educators. Interpreter's Handbook Series. Stevens Point, Wisconsin: UW-SP Foundation Press, Inc., University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point.