No, this post is not about Paul and me, but with IBD turning one year old this week, it really would be easy for me to make an analogy between our relationship and interpretive design. It would be the perfect opportunity to be insightful (with occasional attempts at humor) writing about our collaborative efforts, but that’s part of the problem that led me to write this post.
I didn’t think about the after effects of a pre-Valentine’s Day post about my high school sweetheart (for the record, I have yet to hear from her…I’m still waiting Heather) and not my wife. Perhaps it was a lapse in judgment, perhaps it was a cholesterol-induced coma, or perhaps it was my wife telling me that she couldn’t believe that I wrote a Valentine’s Day post about another woman that I haven’t seen in 18 years. After almost 14 years of marriage I’m starting to learn that I should listen to my wife. I thought the Valentine’s Day post was a creative way to talk about dealing with rejection and guilt Heather into contacting me. Thankfully, the topic wasn’t on where I draw inspiration from or the most significant moments in my life.
I’m writing this post for the simple fact that I over-married. Let’s face it; I’m no George Clooney (more George Foreman). When you over-marry you spend a large portion of your life working to keep up with that person, trying to prove your validity, and attempting to display your value. It is hard work, requires a lot of careful thought, running, and Rogaine.
Not only did I over-marry but she’s also a much better person than I am. She plays the piano at church while I listen to large amounts of gangsta rap; she gives organs away to my relatives while I eat fried chicken organs; she takes great care of our children while I have to wear a nametag around the house that says “Dad.” If I have learned anything after 14 years of marriage is that to be successful you have to be respectful of each other, maintain your authenticity, and never stop dating.
In one of the biggest leaps of faith in IBD history, I’m going to apply these three principles to interpretive design and a recent visit to the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Columbia Bottom Conservation Area near St. Louis. I had the opportunity to visit the area on a birding trip as part of NAI’s Region 6 workshop that was being held in St. Louis in February. My wife was at home taking care of the home-front while I was out searching for life birds.
It is great to see an interpretive site that is respectful of the resource. In an era of The Last Child In the Woods, an interpretive center should facilitate the visitor’s experience in the resource. In many locations you see the center become the thing itself, disrespecting the resource. Don’t get me wrong; I love a great whiz-bang interpretive center, but the goal should be getting the visitors outside in the resource and design elements should enhance the visitor’s experience—not be the experience. The designers of the Columbia Bottom visitor center were effective at respecting the resource by retro-fitting an existing barn into the facility, meeting the basic needs of visitors, setting the stage for the experience, and propelling visitors outside.
The re-designed visitor center fits well into the area landscape, is unique, has character, and is an excellent example of recycling. The interior exhibits are simple and primarily low-tech, and are all related to the resource. Animal tracks placed or imprinted into a stained concrete floor seem to lead you to large glass windows that overlook the bottoms, reminding you of the reason that you came to the site. After looking outside those windows you just have to get into the resource. For our group, the birds were calling (along with my wife with the latest disaster involving our youngest child and his preference for the use of the shower over the toilet for potty training).
When I visit sites, I’m always looking for authenticity. I want to experience the thing itself in the place itself. The authenticity of a visit to Columbia Bottoms is improved through the interpretation. An important graphic design element is established just outside the visitor center on a wayside exhibit that becomes key to wayfinding through the area. On that exhibit there is a brief message about the area, but most importantly a visual/graphic element is established for finding specific areas of the bottom. Little explanation is needed because of the simplicity of the designs or logos for each area. Each logo has a unique shape, color, and associated illustration or design.
The graphics are simple, easy to conceptualize, and are found in various formats. Their organic design, natural shapes, intuitive colors, and simplicity all add to the overall approach. While we were there searching for birds, I found myself searching for the design element being used in the various formats. I found the designs used in brochures, road signs, trail signs, mosaics, and wayside exhibits. I also found myself searching for my friends who left me behind while I was photographing signs.
The final element of this analogy is never stop dating. This refers specifically to your significant other, not other’s significant others. If you are looking for a place to take that someone special the confluence at the bottom is a great spot. That’s all I’ve got.
But seriously, the culmination of the driving tour in the area is at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. The location is unique, authentic, special, and highlighted with a beautiful overlook. The views at the confluence of these two great rivers are impressive but I was most impressed with was the confluence and culmination and the design elements leading you to the thing itself.
The overlook features benches with quotes about the rivers and the mission of the Missouri Department of Conservation and the river. What a great place to remind visitors about who it is that is providing access to the resource. Also, you always look before you sit making it a message that will more than likely be read and just happens to be a great place to sit with your sweetie and talk about typefaces. I sat alone, carefully inspecting the sans serif type and then once again searched for my friends. Built into the walls of the overlook are tiles with all of the various elements reminding you of what you had seen on your visit and to remind you that they are there because the rivers are there.
Thanks to our guides the experience was complete with life birds. The Eurasian Tree Sparrow appeared on cue at the visitor center bird feeders as if they were on the payroll. I appeared at home several days later and took my wife out on a date.