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An interpretive master plan challenges you to take stock of your site, tease out the important elements and messages, and determine which communication strategies are best suited for achieving your interpretive goals.


What Is an Interpretive Master Plan Worth?

When designing exhibits or signs for new trails or visitor centers, the English proverb, “Measure twice, cut once,” holds true. Careful planning in the beginning reduces costly mistakes down the road. In the case of interpretation, costly mistakes come in the form of unread panels, ignored exhibits, and a failure to cultivate an appreciative audience.

photo of people on trail

Taking stock of the site is a first step in creating
an interpretive master plan

An interpretive master plan steers your institution or organization away from these mistakes and others. Further, it challenges you to take stock of your site, tease out the important elements and messages, and determine which communication strategies are best suited for achieving your interpretive goals.

Planning can take many forms at a park, visitor center, or trail system. For example, a resource management plan assesses a site’s natural and cultural resources. A master plan looks at a site’s existing and future facilities, landscape, programs, and operations, while a strategic plan formalizes the identity of an institution, its direction, and the steps necessary to move forward. While these planning tools and others all serve important purposes, they do not specifically address the visitor’s experience or the factors that influence that experience.

An interpretive master plan forges a stronger connection between your visitors and your site. For a trail, it can serve to transform at least some of your visitors from “trail user” to “trail champion and steward.” While it focuses on your overall interpretive and education program, it goes further to recommend specific strategies for engaging your audiences.

But an interpretive master plan requires patience. Often, planning committee members are eager to see the end products—the site plans and exhibit sketches—and less eager to go through a lengthy planning process. In many respects, however, the process of creating the interpretive road map is more important than the products that emerge.

By carefully examining four key parameters, an interpretive master plan establishes a solid foundation that guides future interpretive design work. Never assuming “one size fits all,” it identifies the most appropriate means to convey messages to your audience(s) based on their needs and interests.

drawing of park

Site Plan for Sunol Water Temple: Planning by Okamoto Saijo
Architecture in collaboration with The Acorn Group (Click to enlarge)

Equally important, an interpretive plan works to advance your mission by studying the organization, the opportunities and constraints presented by the site, and the inherent meanings of the resources.

An interpretive plan prods, digs, and reveals. It moves beyond factual information to offer new insights into what makes an area special. It reveals the subtle and the sublime. It creates venues that engage your visitors and help them grasp the points you want to get across. It requires looking at a site from multiple perspectives, from management to maintenance, from existing audiences to target audiences. In the end, what emerges is a thoughtful, systematic strategy to pique interest and capture the hearts of people.

Because an interpretive plan addresses both the needs of visitors and the directives of governing agencies and organizations, it requires a thoughtful analysis of multiple components. Conveniently, they all begin with an M: management, markets (audiences), mechanics of the site, messages, and media, making it the 5-M Model (a process first identified by planner Lisa Brochu).

The management component is based on the foundational documents that define the project and project site. Institutional mission and vision statements, existing master plans, education master plans, by-laws, memoranda of understanding, and other documents all inform the interpretive planning process.

graphic of building with displays

Conceptual design of James and Rosemary Nix Nature Center at Laguna
Coast Wilderness Park in southern California

The market component looks at existing and target audiences to determine the factors that define “demand.” Background research through such means as visitor surveys, front-end evaluation of target audiences, and discussions with staff and volunteers can yield important information that grounds assumptions and corrects misperceptions.

The mechanics component helps establish a design balance between exterior features such as parking lots, trailheads, and landscaping; building features such as courtyards, entryways, and exhibit spaces; and interpretation. The visitor’s experience is considered in its entirety from arrival through departure. Preferred transportation modes, learning styles, ingrained traffic flow patterns, and the needs of various audiences, including young children, seniors, and persons with disabilities, are carefully analyzed to ensure high quality, safe experiences for everyone.

The message component revolves around development of an overarching theme to frame information. It takes into account the site’s most significant natural and cultural heritage stories, the things visitors are most interested in, and the information management needs to communicate. The theme is the one “take-home message” you want your visitors to grasp. Long after they return home, your visitors will remember the message although they’ll forget the facts.

graphic of kids on trail

Sketch for wayside exhibits and activities


The media component examines strategies for communicating the message. The last component of the planning process, it is the mix of products and techniques to effectively deliver the messages to the markets. For trails and centers, media typically are composed of wayside exhibits (interpretive panels), wayfinding signs, orientation signs, trailhead displays, exhibits and displays, print matter, and other material. The media can also include people—docents, volunteers, and staff who work with the public and conduct programs.

An interpretive plan is a sound investment of time and money. Some institutions tackle this work in-house. Others choose to hire an interpretive planning firm to do the work. Although there is an outlay of funds, the cost can be justified, especially when you look at a plan’s capacity to resolve operational problems, convey conservation messages, protect resources, and cultivate a caring and supportive cadre of visitors and trail users. Suddenly, that interpretive master plan becomes a coveted management tool.

Jennifer Rigby, director of The Acorn Group, is a nationally certified interpretive planner. She holds a master’s degree in science education and serves as a board member of American Trails. Since founding The Acorn Group in 1990, Jenny has created over 150 interpretive master plans for trail systems and interpretive centers throughout the US.

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