On the “Ask a Nerd!” hotline, Joan from Canada writes:
Help! A client doesn’t want me to use photos on interpretive signs because they “add clutter and don’t help achieve sign goals.” They suggest text only, or text with a map. Do you know of any good, recent research to help me convince them otherwise? —Joan
Because research is based on carefully reasoned thought and statistics, while I prefer to deal in wild speculation and unsubstantiated generalizations, I turned to Carolyn Ward, editor of the Journal of Interpretation Research for help. Carolyn turned me on to the 2006 masters thesis of Kari Anne Jensen of Humboldt State University. The thesis, titled “Effects of the Artistic Design of Interpretive Signage on Attracting Power, Holding Time, and Memory Recall,” seems to have been written specifically for Joan.
Having defended a masters thesis myself once upon a time, I know that Kari Anne spent the better part of at least three Mountain Dew-addled years struggling through seminars, slaving over projects, and kowtowing to the whims of professors and advisors to arrive at this answer to Joan’s question:
To make a long thesis short, here is Ms. Jensen’s abstract:
The majority of visitors to interpretive sites receive information from non-personal interpretive media such as signs, exhibits and brochures. In this study, attracting power, holding time, and memory recall were measured to evaluate two versions of an educational interpretive panel on display at the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest (USFS). The original version featured artistic design elements common in traditional interpretive signage. The manipulated version was created using the best practices of artistic design, as defined by research in museums and interpretive settings and cognitive theory. Components of the sign that were manipulated in this study include layout, typography, color, graphics, contour, and the inclusion of a multi-sensory flip-panel. The text copy remained the same for both versions. The manipulated version of the sign resulted in a significantly greater attracting power and holding time. More subjects were able to recall the main message of the manipulated sign, however there was no difference between the two versions in subjects’ ability to recall specific details.
Kari Anne has graciously shared her thesis document and defense with us, so if you’re interested, you can download those documents here:
Thanks to both Kari Anne Jensen and Carolyn Ward!