Simple But Effective: New Signs For Mount Coot-Tha
Number 7 - February 1993
We had been operating at Mt Coot-tha Gardens for fourteen years without a coordinated signage strategy and so two years ago we decided to do something about our directional and interpretive signs. We were able to obtain the funds to employ communications consultants to help us put together a really effective set of signs.
The consultants helped us to choose strategic places for the directional signs. Signs need to give people a general sense of direction at critical junctures in the pathways.
The overall strategy used was 'minimalist', we wanted to avoid confusing visitors with too much information. Each feature is listed on one board only, and each sign holds a maximum of four boards. The arrows on the signs only point out the general direction of the feature listed. Directional signs are not located beside other types, such as traffic signs.
Even so problems did arise. Some of signs, which we added after the consultants had left could cause confusion. We now have six elements in some places, some of the arrows are confusing and some arrows have been placed too close to other signs. We have learned that it is important to make sure that plans are 'future proof' and that new signs, which will inevitably be needed, are in keeping with the original aims.
The signs are 75 centimetres wide and 150 centimetres in overall height. The average adult can read the sign but the signs are prominent enough to be quite easy to locate. They are made of hardwood and painted green and should last about 10 years. For the lettering we chose white 50-millimetre letters routed in Helvetica style, the preferred style of Brisbane City Council. The signs are cost efficient as they can be produced within council workshops.
Signs at the two main entrances welcome visitors, explain opening hours and encourage visitors, to leave pets, bicycles and skateboards at home. The consultants surprised us by not including a map of the Gardens on these signs which in fact carry no illustration at all. However their reasons were simple. Firstly, a map of our pathways looks like a 'bowl of spaghetti' and secondly, printed maps are available at the Information Desk at the main entrance. By including a map on the signs we would simply be adding too much information, which people would not be able to remember once they had left the signs.
Each of the ten garden areas (Eg Japanese Garden, Australian Rain forest, Fruit Trees) has one sign placed where it can be clearly seen, often in the middle of a garden. The signs are similar in style to those at the entrance but they do carry illustrations.
Each sign is 60 x 46 centimetres, made up of an anodised aluminium sign plate bonded onto a sturdy aluminium mount. The mount consists of a thick plate welded at 45 degrees onto a post set vertically in the ground with concrete. The overall height is about one metre. Each sign uses dark green Helvetica lettering anodised into an aluminium plate. The text is harder than the aluminium and so, difficult to scratch with most items visitors might carry. Dirt and bird droppings can be cleaned off easily. These signs should last twenty years or more.
Message design is just as important as the structure of the sign itself. Our consultants deliberated at length and discussed various ideas with us before arriving at a simple but effective formula. The border on each sign includes a profile of the distinctive hemispherical display dome which gives a sense of unity to the signs. Each message is based on the theme of people plant-relationships: people as horticulturists, technologists, collectors, destroyers etc. Each illustration and caption tells a little 'story'. The story might only be about one species but we tried to chose examples that would affect the way visitors see all other species in that area.
We tried to limit the main text of each message whilst still telling visitors something relevant and interesting about the garden or the type of plants in it. Where possible visitors are also reminded of the need for conservation and protection of species and habitats.
Every message contains a quotation, some of the signs hold no other information, letting the words of the original speaker stand alone. Our quotations were drawn from a variety of sources including, Shakespeare, Carlos Casteneda, H D Thoreau, the Book of Common Prayer and, Australian rock singer, Richard Clapton. For our native collections we used quotations from historians, and explorers and from aboriginal peoples. We wanted to show the links between plants and culture in Australia.
A Dangerous Message
An incident with the 'fruit trees' area taught us an important lesson about our role as educators. We wanted to emphasize the range of new tropical varieties available. Many people tend to persevere with a limited range of hard-to-grow varieties and so we chose the quotation "My wife, my dog, my walnut tree; the more I beat them, the better they be' (Anon)" Despite reservations, everyone agreed that the quote embodied our sentiments about the Garden. However, we almost overlooked one important factor.
The night before the newly-made signs were to be placed out, our consultant, watched a television on domestic violence. She immediately realized that our purpose for using the quote could be misunderstood by the one visitor out of every four who had been a victim of domestic violence at some time. These visitors could reasonably expect a Garden visit to be the last place to find reminders of their dreadful experience. The consultant realized that she not only had a great power in her role as message designer but also had a responsibility to use the power wisely. The sign was withdrawn and replaced with a new quote and text.
The border used on our interpretive signs is now also used for feature labels. When we need something more elaborate than a simple plant label (Eg for a commemorative tree planting or feature garden bed) we can now draft our own signs using the principles of good structural and message design laid down for us. Used sparingly, feature labels, which visitors can locate and read easily, extend the authority of the interpretive signs.
Less is More
The new strategy was not totally problem free but we were pleased with our new signs. The consultants showed us that by limiting the amount of information on signs and choosing the information carefully, we can get our message across more strongly.
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