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  • Writer's picturePhillip Ratliff

Outdoor signage the Backstory way

Updated: Dec 4, 2019

It's a bang-for-your-buck issue. If your public ignores -- or is flat-out confused by -- your outdoor signage, you've essentially tossed a sizable chunk of your budget into the compost bin.

You've also wasted an opportunity to bring value. Do you want outdoor panels that meet expectations and gain public trust? Follow these four rules of successful outdoor interpretation. They’ll help you get the most out of your outdoor signage budget and create loyalty.

Refer to what’s there. Interpretation, well, interprets — an object or a vista or something that’s in front of the viewer. Outdoor interpretation should intuitively reference what's right there in front of the reader.

Sometimes that’s a challenge. The real estate we at Backstory Educational Media had for the Red Mountain panel was around the corner from the rock layers. While we’d have preferred a more intuitive placement, the terrain and pedestrian pathways didn’t permit it. We reasoned that the Red Mountain was such an imposing object that viewers wouldn’t be confused.

Layer information. Use different font sizes and colors and types of artwork. The Backstory team gave the outdoor signage for Birmingham Mineral Railroad (BMRR) a total of four layers:

  • Body copy giving an overview of the Birmingham Mineral Railroad (BMRR).

  • A captioned image of the BMRR from 1936 providing historical context and helping viewers imagine what the nearby trestle would’ve looked like when active.

  • A map allowing viewers to understand the scope of the BMRR and how the piece upon which they’re standing fits in.

  • A sidebar connecting the BMRR to our client, Vulcan Park and Museum.

Our layers had to fit within a template designed by another firm some 15 years ago. It was a tough adapting to an older (and, let’s face it, somewhat dated) design. But we think we nonetheless hit the target. Our layers have allowed viewers to skim the surface, or dig deep, whichever they prefer.

Don’t compete. As much as we all love copywriting and graphic design, it is not as interesting as what you seek to interpret. Placement should intuitively refer to what’s being interpreted without obstructing the view or stealing its thunder.

This needs to be said a thousand times: Don’t place a panoramic photo of the object right in front of the object if you can help it. Why would viewers need a reproduction of what they are looking at IRL?

To help the real-life Red Mountain remain the star, we labeled a stylized drawing of the mountain instead. Using the graphic as a key adds becomes a sort of game for viewers. The process allows them to feel smart because they get to figure something out.

Play to viewer interests. Interpret what viewers are likely to be curious about. How do you know? Ask — through focus group testing or random surveying, or by asking front-of-house staff what the public is asking them.

After discussions with Vulcan Park and Museum staff, Backstory realized that it was Red Mountain’s colorful layers and diagonal striations that viewers cared about. That info sent us to geologist Jim Lacefield. Jim helped our copywriter understand what those layers meant: why they slanted, when the structures were formed, their length and depth — all the questions we knew viewers probably would have.

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