Structure in Exhibits

A couple of weeks ago, Facebook reminded me of what my status update was a year ago. Being the sentimental and nostalgic guy that I am, I was reminded of a trip to St. Louis, Missouri, that I took with my family at the same time last year. I decided to go back and look at the pictures to relive the good times and to see how much my hair line had changed in twelve months.

As with most of my family vacation photo files, I have more pictures of signs and exhibits than I do of my children. I get to see my children every day. I may not ever have a chance to see a great use of a complementary color palette at a museum in Missouri ever again. It also keeps your kids’ egos in check by letting them know that it is not all about them.

While browsing through the images I came across a few images that I haven’t shared before of a really cool exhibit featuring the architecture of the Gateway Arch. The exhibit is not at the arch itself but at the St. Louis Science Center.

Here are some images and thoughts.

The design of this structures exhibit was clean and architectural in nature. I love how the materials echo raw materials of a construction site. Even the justified text could represent building blocks. Of course it could have been designed by someone who likes squares, but I think it was purposeful.

These panels continue the consistent message presented on the orientation sign. The concept is expanded with the blueprint-type symbols and open-ended question approach. Of course this is enough to bore my children to death (though death by type is underrated). This was the option that really inspired them…

These pillow building blocks allow children to practice what it takes to build an arch. You will notice that Anna (in the middle) is restraining her younger brother William (the destroyer) so we could get the picture of the complete arch.

This is not related to the structure exhibit, but I just had to share it. I’m not sure what incident led up to the creation of this sign but it was warranted, trust me. Do you have any ideas?

Downtown Sharks and Singing Whales

The coolest thing about the Georgia Aquarium (in Atlanta) is their logo. Oh yeah, the fish are really awesome too.

I think that the letter G is the best letter of the alphabet. Why, you may ask? I think more than any other letterform, the letter G stands out as being unique. I’m a fan of the upper case version as well as the single- and double-story versions of the lowercase G. There are several other reasons why I find myself connected to the letter. My favorite Star Wars character is Greedo, who happened to be green before an untimely death at the hands of Han Solo (in a fan-favorite scene in Episode IV – Star Wars: A New Hope). I like saying “What’s up, G?” Gravy is delicious. My first child is named Gracie. Who doesn’t like Grover? Okay, this list could go on forever and still make no sense. Now that I’m writing this blog post, I’m not sure that I can actually explain why I like the letter G.

In the third installment of four of what my family did on our spring break trip to Atlanta, this week I’m highlighting the Georgia Aquarium. Seriously, this is one of the coolest places I have ever been to. It is hard to put into words how big the place is and what the experience is like there you simply need to plan a trip there soon.

The interpretation of the fish was seamless. Great thought went into making the experience provide meaning to visitors without feeling like you have been interpreted at. Exhibits inspire you to ask questions that supporting, well-designed interpretive panels have already read your mind to answer those questions.

Of course I loved the logo.

I found theme statements in several areas. It is hard to read in the picture but says:

Rivers connect us all to the sea.

Tiny creeks join into mighty rivers as fresh water flows to the ocean.

By their rivers, people in the middle of the Amazon jungle, or downtown Atlanta, are connected to the sea even if they live hundreds or thousands of miles away.

Whatever we put into our rivers affects not just the life in the river, but life in the sea beyond – whether it’s care and respect, pollution and neglect.

What you can do: Don’t dump anything into storm drains; the run into rivers and the sea. Join a conservation group like the Nature Conservancy ( or Riverkeeper (

Not only does this theme explain itself though supporting statements or sub-themes it also gives you an opportunity to act.

The now-traditional IBD photos of the blue/orange aquarium complementary color palette.

Personal interpretation really struggled competing with the aquariums. I can’t say that I really paid close attention to any of the programs taking place because the distractions. And by distractions I mean four friggin’ Whale Sharks.

I don’t think my kids have ever been anywhere where they set so still for so long, just soaking it in. While eating lunch we were reeling from some of the things we had seen even though we had only been through half of the aquarium. Our middle child Anna was talking about the Beluga Whales. She said that her favorite part was sitting, watching the whales, and listening to them sing that beautiful music. I didn’t have the stomach to tell her they weren’t singing but her older sister Gracie was quick to say, “Anna, they weren’t singing, that was a radio.” She was crushed, in an attempt to keep gravity from setting in on her; I told her that was my favorite part, too.

Next week a planned impromptu stop in Mississippi.

Who Needs a Watch?

I wake up several times a night and check my watch to see what time it is. I have really bad vision so I have to wear a watch with a light that I can put really close to my face to see the time. If I had an alarm clock large enough to see, it would look like a solar flare from Arkansas. I have told my wife that I wanted to be buried with my watch, that way (if for some strange reason), I woke up I would know what time it was. I know that won’t happen, though, because when I’m dead she’ll take one last opportunity to tell me, “That’s a dumb idea,” and pawn my watch.

Recently my watch died. This may surprise you but I had the geekiest watch on the planet (Casio G-Shock GW6900BC-1) with crazy meteorological features, solar panels, and atomic capabilities. I want to replace it, but a similar watch is expensive. My daughter Anna (the middle child) and I were talking about it and she said that I don’t need a watch since I have a phone and it has a clock.

I continued my search for a watch just to show my five-year-old daughter who was boss. Not wanting to make a huge investment in something that I’m not sure is even needed anymore, I found a really cool retro (Casio CA53W-1ZD) calculator watch, but the purchased was foiled when my wife said, “That’s a dumb idea,” after I showed her the watch. A recent Huffington Post article titled You’re Out: 20 Things That Became Obsolete This Decade mentions that a “survey by Beloit College of its class of 2014 found, few incoming freshmen know how to write in cursive or have ever worn a wristwatch.”

Let’s face it: elements of lives today will be obsolete before we know it. So what steps do we take to make sure what we are writing today isn’t the next newspaper and can continue to be relevant for generations to come? What should we do to make sure that the investment our interpretive site is making into exhibits is going to hold the test of time and not become the next set of encyclopedias?

When writing text for a brochure, exhibit, or website, remember that it is all about the relating to the reader. Visitors to our interpretive sites come for various reasons. Some want to see what the place is all about. Some are seeking an escape. Some relate to your mission. They all come because it means something to them in the first place. Regardless of why they are there, they are there and that’s an opportunity. When writing for that visitor take some time to look into the motivations behind their visit before you put pen to paper. (Okay, I know I’m not the only one that still does that too, am I?)

Think of your piece of writing like a song on played on country radio. There’s a reason that twangy stuff is so popular, and it has nothing to do with sleeveless shirts, tight jeans, and cowboy hats. Who hasn’t been dumped, lost a good dog, or been stalked by a psycho woman after you cheated on her and she dug her keys into the side of your pretty little souped-up four-wheel-drive, carved her name into your leather seats, then took a Louisville slugger to both headlights, and finally slashed a hole in all four tires. (All kidding aside, she was psycho.)

But write to relate to your audience. Country songs are written with universals in mind, so regardless of you proximity to Nashville, Tennessee, you can still relate. I’m just glad I’m writing to a primarily non-country audience today.

When creating a program or non-personal product, remember that the experience is everything. Visitors today care more about what they can do or say they did than what they can take home. No one says it better than Old Spice (that’s a phrase I never thought I would type).

As you know, people forget facts but they will remember experiences. Go out of your way to craft messages in your non-personal media that help convey the experiential process. Phrases such as “You have arrived” or “Welcome to _____!”  or wayfinding signs that indicate key photo opportunities will let visitors know that the experience has reached its precipice. I’m not saying anything bad about our visitors, but sometimes they don’t know they have arrived or have experienced something of significance if you don’t tell them.

The “Friendly Confines” of the Chicago Children’s Museum

children2After a day at Wrigley Field enjoying the national pastime within the “Friendly Confines,” we returned to our families and found another version of the “Friendly Confines,” the Chicago Children’s Museum. Paul and I presented the option of us taking the children to the museum while the women enjoyed some much needed (and lightly demanded) downtime. They accepted. I’m not sure that we negotiated to the best of our abilities based on their quick acceptance. Note to self: start low and work yourself up in the negotiating process.

There was no better place for our childlike minds (also for our children). The Children’s Museum is well planned and well designed. The children loved it. The strongest design element that we noticed immediately was the impact of color. The use of type was effective, but secondary to the use of color. Paul was especially happy that the museum was devoid of Comic Sans. (This post is not about type, but we want to point out that designers had found multiple child-friendly typefaces without resorting to Comic Sans.)

The color palette used went far beyond the primary red, yellow, and blue. In fact, the colors used in particular exhibits reinforced the children’s experiences. Reds and yellows used in the “Play It Safe” exhibit evoked danger, but not in a scary, overpowering way. Multiple shades of blues and greens were used in the water works area. (However, if these colors were meant to have a calming effect, it didn’t work on our children.)

children1Even the donor exhibit, which was designed for adults, had an appealing childlike quality that could be appreciated by children while read by adults. This was achieved through bright colors and stylized, oversized hands.

The festive colors used in other portions of the museum looked to the visitor that they could have been chosen by a child with a box of crayons, but were in fact carefully selected by designers thinking like a child. For some, this could be difficult. Based on our wives’ comments this week it should be easy for us.

Ask a Nerd: Call to Action

The following question from Sherry comes from our “Ask a Nerd!” file:

Dear Nerds,

What can you suggest for an exhibit idea that is exciting and interactive while addressing a variety of calls to action for an endangered species?

We’re never short on opinions and offering ideas. We’ll take on any question, professional or personal. Our first goal with IBD is to take on current issues in design and interpretation. Our second goal is to make the world a better place (we’re confident that can be achieved through IBD). We’ve fielded several “Ask a Nerd” questions so far, and we are grateful for the valuable responses to those questions from the “Nerd Herd” (our loyal readers). Thank you herd, for helping us make the world a better place!

Okay, so what would I suggest for an exhibit on endangered species that is exciting and interactive while still evoking a call to action? Wow, this is tough. I would think of how an interpreter would take on these issues during a personal presentation. In most cases, I feel interpretation through a person is better than a non-personal approach. (There are exceptions to this, and perhaps that’s another post.)

As an interpreter, my first goal in creating a program is to build rapport with the audience. I want them to know who I am, what I’m about, why I’m here, and what I do. I also want to find out about them. This engages the audience and sets the stage for developing a connection to the resource and eventually evokes the response (or the call to action).

So let’s say our subject revolves around the Bald Eagle. My first goal in developing an exhibit would be to  engage the audience in the subject/resource and with each other (so they see what others think or where they stand in the big picture of things). Just as in a personal presentation, I would solicit input from the audience.

So, how do you do this? It could be something as simple as a dry erase board or log book, where visitors entering the exhibit write in where they are from and how old they were when they first saw an eagle. Or it could be something as complex as a computer kiosk where visitors log in and share their experience with bald eagles. With a kiosk the data that is created can be compiled into a simple database that allows visitors to search for comments by state, age, etc. The first key is to involve the visitor immediately and get them invested into the experience.

Now that the visitors are invested, the focus should be on building emotional and intellectual connections with your message or resource. This is where the creativity can really flow. I love the use of characters as guides in exhibits. I would use a character to build the connections in much the same way an interpreter would.

The type of character would depend on the mission of the interpretive site. If these exhibits were in a scientific type facility, I would use a “kooky”-ologist. If it were a kid-friendly facility, I would us an anthropomorphic eagle. Who better to tell the story than the eagles themselves? Visitors can relate to the universals of family, survival, trying to better themselves, etc., all stories that the eagle can tell. Engage the senses here. The use of sound in this case eagle’s calls, smells of eagle’s favorite foods, use metaphors to compare feathers for visitors to touch and images that support your themes.

Now it is time for the call to action for your visitors. The visitors have invested, committed, and built emotional and intellectual connections. But what do you want them to do? Act. The call could be to learn more about you site, donate money for support, volunteer to save eagles, or something as simple as getting out of the visitor center to see some eagles in their habitat.

The secret to a call to action is that it must be attainable and something that visitors can act on quickly. As visitors get farther from the interpretive experience, the chance of the responding is greatly decreased. If you are interpreting for a cause and need funds, have the donation box ready within the exhibit. Don’t forget to carefully explain how the donations will be used. If you want them to go see the eagles, tell them when, where and how. If you want them to volunteer, sign them up on the spot.

Anyone in the herd have any other ideas to help Sherry?