Interpretation Panels for the Public
Number 7 - February 1993
Most visitors to botanic gardens come to enjoy the plants and pleasant surroundings. How many have any idea that the plants also have fascinating histories and often amazing practical uses? Most of your visitors need a little help to enjoy this aspect of a botanic garden and outdoor interpretive panels are an excellent way of sharing the secrets of your plants.
Outdoor panels are just one of a range of interpretive techniques, including guided walk and publications. But panels have some distinct advantages:
- Your story or message is strengthened by being next to the real, living plants.
- Panels are available for visitors at all times.
- Panels can carry other information about the site such as the location of footpaths and toilets.
Even their main disadvantages
- can be surmounted by careful and imaginative design.
- they are sometimes visually intrusive,
- they can attract vandalism and they cannot satisfy every visitor's curiosity
Creating a Successful Panel
A lot of outdoor panels are produced that no-one reads because they are boring. Some tips for interesting and successful panels are:
- Above all, know exactly what you are trying to communicate, and keep it simple!
- Keep the text short and simple, without jargon or long sentences. Visitors actually read very little when they are standing up. Aim for no more than 120 words, and use headings, subheadings, paragraphs and captions to break up the text.
- Use lively illustrations to show what the visitor can't see, and put the plants in a fuller context. Show the plant in its original habitat, or how it has been used by people.
- Try to relate new ideas to something from the everyday experience of your visitors.
There's no reason why you shouldn't ask some of your visitors what they would like a sign to tell them about. Even test your text on them - can they understand it? Is it interesting? It's a simple idea but very few sites actually do it.
Mounting and Location
Panels are less intrusive if they are mounted on to an existing fixture such as a wall. If this is not possible you may have to create a new structure such as a wooden frame or a stone lectern. The orientation is also important, so be there when the panel is put in!
The ground around panels can attract heavy use so it should be firm and dry. You may need to set a panel slightly off the path so that readers do not block the way of other visitors.
There are a wide range of materials with different qualities and at different prices. A lot of the general materials are produced under specific trade names by sign manufacturers. Discuss your requirements in detail with a manufacturer. Most will be very helpful, and grateful to know exactly what you want.
Melamine Laminate and Glass Reinforced Plastic (GRP) represent the top of the range in outdoor panel materials. These panels are very tough, weather and vandal resistant. They can carry high quality silk-screen printed images and at least one type of GRP panel can also encapsulate colour photographs for more detailed colour images. There are small number of national suppliers of these specialist panels.
There are a range of similar materials in this category including acrylic, polycarbonate and PVC. Different grades of material have different thicknesses and strengths. The image is generally silk-screen printed on to the back of the transparent material.
Routed wood and cast metal are other "natural" materials which often have a more sympathetic appearance than the various plastics, but they tend to be limiting in terms of design, illustration and lettering.
You can find regional and local suppliers of these middle-of-the-range materials listed in the "Yellow Pages" (a commercial telephone directory) under "Signmakers". These signmakers are essentially printers who specialise in silk-screen printing on to hard materials, which they then cut and finish to the customer's requirements.
Low cost panels are often useful for temporary use, or where you want to up-date information. There are three main options: you can silk-screen print on to low grade, flexible PVC (often used by estate agents); heat seal artwork in a polyester lamination (like library and identity cards); or silk-screen print on to a self-adhesive vinyl. Again, see "Yellow Pages" for suppliers.
There are alternatives to these hard wearing materials. Flags and banners may be more appropriate in some situations. A simple "sandwich board" can also be effective.
What do they Cost?
The costs vary considerably. A top of the range panel in Great Britain may cost œ800 to produce, a temporary panel may cost as little as œ20 to produce, and unit costs will be less for a multiple print run.
The creation of the image is often as important in the overall cost as the materials themselves. Most images are silk-screen printed and this means colours will be simpler and less subtle than, say, in a colour publication. There is also the cost of creating the artwork which will include:
- illustration or photography
In this sense the production of the panel is like the production of a leaflet. You may be able to do some or all of this work in-house, but it's all part of the cost of producing the panel.
Another cost is the mounting system. You must let your manufacturer know how you want to mount the panel as this may influence how it is produced.
Choosing the Right Material
If you are thinking of producing some outdoor panels it is a good idea to have a look around at other people's work. Don't restrict yourself to botanic gardens; have a look at historic sites, castles, country parks, even commercial attractions. Look at their design as a well as the materials used - are people reading the panel? If possible, find out from the site managers more about the panels. This is particularly useful for finding local suppliers of the low cost materials. Finally, here is a check-list of points to make sure you get the panel you need:
- How long should it last?
- Do you want some spares, or baseline images to overprint with more information?
- How many colours do you want to use, and will you want to include photographs?
- Speak to your designers at an early stage.
- Get at least three quotes from suppliers; but discuss your needs with them first.