filed under: interpretation

Telling a Better Story

Best practices for developing interpretive panels for trails

This American Trails’ webinar, “Telling a Better Story,” focuses on strategies for captivating your trail audience with provocative, well designed interpretive panels.

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Event Details

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April 26, 2012

10:30 AM to 11:30 AM (Pacific Time) {more time zones}

11:30 AM to 12:30 PM (Mountain Time)
12:30 PM to 01:30 PM (Central Time)
01:30 PM to 02:30 PM (Eastern Time)


FREE for members
FREE for nonmembers

Learning Credit Cost:

  • CEUs are FREE for this webinar.
  • Note:

    Closed Captioning is NOT available for this webinar.
    Learning Credits are NOT available for this webinar.


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    Webinar Outline



    Visitors encounter a range of sign media when they arrive at a trailside. Entry signs welcome them; maps orient them; regulatory signs guide them. But it is the experiences on the trail that inspire them, and often, those experiences are made more powerful with wayside exhibits.

    Wayside exhibits are low-profile interpretive panels positioned along the trail. Done poorly, these panels only dispense facts, and too many of them at that. Done well, they convey powerful messages that visitors understand. While they increase awareness and build knowledge, they also serve to inspire people, even turning them into trail stewards and advocates.

    This American Trails’ webinar, “Telling a Better Story,” focuses on strategies for captivating your trail audience with provocative, well designed interpretive panels. Get practical advice for developing theme-based messages, establishing budgets, selecting images and design elements, understanding how visitors learn, writing interpretive text, and preparing files for production.

    Join us for discussions and case studies, and take away valuable tips and techniques to turn ordinary panels into extraordinary experiences.



    Jennifer Rigby, Director, The Acorn Group, Inc.
    Tustin, CA

    Jennifer Rigby is a board member of American Trails and director of The Acorn Group, an award-winning interpretive planning and design firm. For over 25 years she has created interpretive master plans and media for trail systems in a variety of settings: windswept dunes, ancient redwood groves, arid deserts, cypress swamps, and hardwood forests. Regardless of where a project takes her, her focus is on creating meaningful experiences for visitors with a variety of media including wayfinding systems and interpretive panels. See her previous American Trails webinar on interpretation titled “Telling a Better Story: Best practices for developing interpretive panels for trails.”

    Jenny’s background includes interpretive master planning; teaching in formal and non-formal institutions, including zoos and aquaria; interpretive writing; exhibit and graphic design; and visitor studies. She holds a bachelor’s degree in social ecology, master’s degree in education, and two California teaching credentials. Certified by the National Association for Interpretation as an interpretive planner, Jenny has been working in the field of interpretation since 1982.


    Erica Fielder, Owner and artist, Erica Fielder Studio

    Erica Fielder developed a unique blend of skills she uses to create interpretive displays for trails and visitor centers. She has an MFA in Visual Art and has taken numerous college courses in natural sciences to inform her 40 years experience as a field interpreter. As an interpreter, she led both cultural and natural history field trips for all ages. Such excursions included California transects from the Pacific to the Sierra Crest, and nature/culture walks through San Francisco’s Financial District, to 20 years as resident naturalist at Jug Handle Nature Center in Caspar, CA. Erica illustrated and co-wrote two books, Ecology for City Kids and City Safaris (Sierra Club), on nature/culture adventures for urban children.

    Erica Fielder Studio: Interpretive Panels Start to Finish brings this wealth of experience to planning and designing your interpretive displays and trailside panels. Erica’s displays skillfully convey facts and anchor them through engaging original artwork, and references to memory, sensory and metaphor. Erica is passionate about improving the quality of interpretation everywhere so visitors have rich trail experiences, fall in love with a site, and care about it over time. Erica Fielder Studio has been making displays since 1983.


    Webinar Resources

    QUESTIONS and ANSWERS from Webinar on Interpretive Panels

    Q. I have always been taught that serif fonts are easiest to read, because that is how we learn to read. Has that changed to san serif faces? Whether you use serif or san serif fonts depends on the agency you are working with. For example, California State Parks guidelines for ADA call for san serif. National Parks and other agencies have developed guidelines with differing ideas about this. Be sure to check with the agency you are working with about their guidelines. If no guidelines exist, I’d go with California State Parks or National Parks guidelines. The point is, make sure the fonts are simple and unembellished. Avoid bold and italic whenever possible. My favorite typeface is Optima Standard. It is san serif with graceful stems, and is not too industrial looking.

    Q. What is the latest thinking on using serif or sans serif font? I have always used sans-serif but I was at a conference earlier this year and people were saying that sans-serif is no longer the standard. Could you please comment? Amanda Hughes-Horan, Interpretive Insights

    I think it depends on the agency you are listening to. Some guidelines say san serif fonts are fine to use. If you use serif fonts, make sure the serifs are small and simple.

    Q. Regarding my question about sans-serif: the conference was an NAI sponsored regional conference, which is why I thought the recommendation was surprising.

    I noticed that, too. I’d go with government agency recommendations to be safe, or pick another agency guideline if a city agency has no guidelines of their own. Some agencies, like California State Parks, actually have a Department of Disability that passes every panel through an exam before approving it for installation. For the California State Parks Accessibility Guidelines go to to download the pdf (7.1 mb). Then, go to page 87 for more information on fonts, etc.

    Q. Can you talk about giving photo credits— how is the done properly?

    Appropriately using existing digital photographs is a two-step process. First, you need to secure permission to use an image, including an image found on Google or another search engine. Unless otherwise stated, online images are protected by copyright laws. I usually start this process by sending an email inquiry asking about permission, fees for one-time use, and wording for the credit line. Second, once permission is secured, you’ll need to ask for a high resolution version of the image according to the specifications needed for your panel.

    Q. Your panels lack borders. What is the thought of borders to bound the message?

    This is a style call. Sometimes, art begs to float off the “borders” of a panel, particularly one whose hardware only consists of a pedestal and a back plate you won’t see. In these cases, the panel is typically positioned at a 30 to 45-degree angle for seamless integration with the landscape. Other times, a border is needed to define a panel and help position images and text blocks. It really depends on design!

    Q. Do you find that people are actually using the QR codes? Have studies been done to evaluate if they are really useful?

    Clients are occasionally asking for QR codes and people do use them, according to client feedback. Keep in mind that to use QR codes all displays must have cell coverage and visitors must have smart phones with the appropriate app. Also, you must develop a well designed website that augments specific materials the panels mention. Most studies done on QR codes focus on marketing issues. After a quick Google search for QR code effectiveness, I found that comments are lukewarm for marketing. This is what I found for QR codes for interpretation: .

    Q. Regarding QR codes, do you prefer to keep these external to the panel in order to allow updating of technology over the 10-15 year life of the display? My thought is to have the QR code on an adjacent "mini" panel made of the same material as the main panel.

    This is a good idea if budget allows for the smaller panel. Also, see comments above. This is what I found for QR codes for interpretation:

    Q. What is the process for setting up Quick Response codes?

    There are several online companies that offer simple, free QR code setups. You’ll have to Google QR code setup and do some research. Basically, you go to a code site and enter your site and page URL. The code site then generates you unique code.

    Q. Do you have sample matrices for panel development (from themes to fabrication and delivery, including tasks, timelines, budget, etc.?

    Not really, because each project has its own unique parameters. Our PowerPoint slides are set up to reflect the step-by-step process for tackling an interpretive panel project. I will add that I find it very useful to invest time upfront preparing an interpretive summary for our team, as well as the client. This presents a hierarchical arrangement of messages: themes, subthemes, and key concepts. It also defines our expectations for the visitor by establishing goals and objectives. It keeps the information in check and helps everyone avoid straying during panel development.

    Two books in particular will help you see all the steps:

    • Designing Interpretive SignsMoscardo, Gianna, Ballantyne, Roy, and Hughes, Karen. 2007. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing.
    • Signs, Trails and Wayside Exhibits: Connecting People and PlacesGross, Michael, Zimmerman, Ron, and Buchholz, Jim. 2006. Stevens Point, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Foundation Press.

    Q. In my state, target shooting is a major source of vandalism to signage. Any recommendations?

    [Erica] Sadly, displays are vulnerable. I have found that local education is helpful. I’ve also involved high school and middle school students in the project process in meaningful ways. If young people take pride in their project, there might be less damage in the future.

    [Jenny] When it comes to sign media, you have many options. Ironically, sometimes the more expensive media do not hold up well against the onslaught of a bullet. Even if you chose a material that is highly resistant to bullet damage, you need to accept the fact that all media remain susceptible to destruction if that is the intent of the vandal. If panels are going into an area prone to target shooting, you will need to factor in both bullet resistance and the cost of replacement. Generally speaking, bullets often pass through high pressure digital laminate composite without shattering the panel. However, if the panel is repeatedly shot at, you may want to consider a less expensive material and accept the fact that it will need to be replaced. Of course, the bigger question is what can you do to modify the behavior of the vandals?

    Q. Would love to have cost est. for all these case studies and examples.

    Cost estimates are not publically available and are based on specific scopes of work that differ for each project. However, your question might be, “Can I afford something like what I saw on your webinar?” We are each happy to discuss design and costs with you, including the projects you saw on our webinar. Such a discussion will help you choose the appropriate display materials for your unique situation and figure out what our service charges are. If you want more ideas on how to develop your display budget, you can get a free download called Budget Builder Checklist:

    Q. Please address safety. We have 40+ miles of multi-use trails: hikers and bikers. Don't want to make signage an obstacle course for mountain bikers. (And horses!)

    Signage should always be placed well off the trail. It may be necessary to develop wider areas so people, displays, and even benches, can be safely situated.

    Q. Where should I look for guidelines for directional signage to the trail from city/county roads and Caltrans roads?Is there a standard size/dimension/text size document that would cover this, or do I need to contact each jurisdiction and work with their sign shops?

    Each agency usually has clearly defined sizes, colors and symbols they use in their jurisdiction. Yes, you will need to contact individual agencies. Ask if they are willing to coordinate symbols and signs with one another so trail users will find a more cohesive trail.

    Q. Jayson asks: Do you have any recommended Fabricators in California? Also, who fabricated the core ten steal Laguna Coast Wilderness Park Signs and the Laurel Canyon "Scent Panels"?

    There are several companies in California that have experience fabricating interpretive panels. I’d suggest studying advertisements in NAI’s Legacy Magazine, NAI’s Green Pages, and even the free magazine, Sign Builder (

    WinsorFireform manufactured the LCWP panels. They are located in Tumwater, WA.

    Q. How would you propose for a small agency with limited staff approach interpretive signs and convince the administrators to hire qualified help?

    Explain to your administrators that the mere presence of panels legitimizes a trail and gives visitors a sense that people care and are monitoring it. Also, panels are the perfect place to educate hikers about how to use and care for the trail. Both these points conditions tend to reduce maintenance costs and vandalism. Then, emphasize the fact that professional interpretive design, text and presentation can build advocacy and help people fall in love with your trial. You’ll want people to develop strong emotional ties to your trail so they create a sense of ownership and are more likely to join volunteer groups, donate money, etc. Memorable displays can inspire such generosity through beautiful artwork and professionally crafted interpretive text that provokes thought and makes personal connections, rather than only stated facts.

    Q. I work for a federal agency so I have to go out to bid. Does a really high or low bid raise a red flag? Recently I solicited bids for a small group of panels, with a very specific SOW, and I got quotes from $10,000 to $20,000+. I did call some references and they were all positive, so it was hard to use that info. Our agencies often have to go with the lowest bid, so that's always a concern.

    As you probably know, going with the lowest bid does not always get you the most effective panels, so you need to craft your Request for Proposals (RFP) very carefully and specify exactly what you are looking for. For a downloadable checklist on how to develop such an RFP, go to Make sure you look at bidders’ website display examples. Excluding fabrication, a single 36” x 24” panel can run $2,000 to $4,000 or more depending on the amount of original artwork research and execution, photo enhancement, concept research, theme development, and size of your review team— the more people you have on your team, the more chance of changes and delays in timelines, which are all costly to the designer. On top of that, fabrication materials can differ considerably in price.

    Q. Which materials should never be used in a panel?

    I always shy away from absolutes like the word “never.” However, given that sign manufacturing has evolved radically over the past 20 years, there are certain materials that have been bypassed over the years, now replaced with several inexpensive and superior alternatives. It is worth exploring all your options and weighing your initial investment with the anticipated life span of your project. Study advertisements in NAI’s Legacy Magazine, NAI’s Green Pages, and even the free magazine, Sign Builder (

    Q. Can you share the research you're referencing here: digital media impact in parks and natural world?

    NAI’s Legacy magazine

    Q. Could you please post the names of those writing references - couldn't catch all three.

    • Eats Shoots & Leaves, the Zero Tolerance Approach to PunctuationTruss, Lynne, 2004. New York, New York: Gotham Books
    • Interpretive WritingLeftridge, Alan. 2006. Interpretive Writing, Fort Collins, Colorado: InterpPress.
    • The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed. University of Chicago Press Staff, 2010, Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press
    • Woe Is I, The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, 3rd ed.O’Conner, Patricia T., 2009. New York, New York: Berkeley Publishing Group

    Q. I'm listening today from Canada and had a question about incorporating several ideas such as: Canadian historical information, First Nations interests, species at risk and specific ecosystems. We do have some themes that connect them all. In your experience, can you meet all communication goals of several ideas, i.e. what is the best way to meet communicate goals of several ideas. Do you consider excluding some important parts of the story?

    Your first task is to pick an umbrella concept that is engaging. Then, develop a theme for each topic. Make sure you create each panel with distinct themes and avoid mixing them. To tie the panels and themes together, refer to the over-lighting concept in ways unique to each panel. Keep in mind that good interpretation inspires people to think and do further research on their own. Make sure your panel texts provoke this action by asking questions, making the text personal, etc. Also, since the average viewer will look at your panel for only 43 seconds, make sure your artwork and photos tell a huge story. Keep text to 150 words and photo descriptions to 2 sentences. Avoid too many factoids.

    Q. Have you done text on a horizontal surface? Is it ADA compliant?

    Horizontal surfaces are not compliant. Surfaces must be vertical or angled for viewing from a wheelchair, or for small children. Make sure your text is large enough to pass ADA standards (see above link). Paragraphs should be justified left, ragged right, and no more than 9 words per line for easiest reading for everybody.

    Q. Is it better to slightly angle panels off the straight vertical? Is it ADA compliant to angle?

    Please refer to and click the top item in the gray box on the right to download. Then, look at the sections on Exhibits and Signage for more information. Panels can be vertical as long as they are comfortable to read from a wheelchair, for example, with the center of main body text between 46” to 62” from ground level. ADA angled panels should be 30° to 60° above horizontal.


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