Attack of the Crab Monsters

My children are happiest in water. Usually, if there’s any conflict between them, I can put them in a pool, or failing that, a bath tub (and if that’s not possible, I can turn a hose on them out on the back porch) and it improves their mood (or at least redirects their ire from each other to me). I took a trip with my family to Australia in 2010, when my children Joel and Maya were six and three years old, respectively. When they talk about Australia, they talk almost exclusively about time spent in water—oceans, pools, one particularly rainy day in Tasmania, etc.

Joel, in particular, tells a story about having his pinky pinched by a crab while we were at the beach on the southern coast near Melbourne. This story has grown with retelling in the two years since; it now concludes with my brave son glaring at the offending crab still attached to his hand, then flinging it high in the air with a flick of the wrist, presumably to splash back into the ocean when it finally lands somewhere over the horizon. (The actual story involves a lot of tears followed by promises of ice cream.)

I was recently alerted by Friend of IBD and author of the Nature Geek blog Katie Fisk to the existence of something called a Japanese spider crab (pictured above in a photo by Hans Hillewaert). I Googled the spider crab and came across this pre-1920 photo from Popular Science Magazine. I assumed at first that this was a big, Internet-based practical joke at my expense, but these things appear to actually exist. It turns out that Japanese spider crabs can measure up to 13 feet from claw to claw.

One of my favorite ways to spend time is in the ocean, so this is something I did not want to know—first because the mere existence of such an animal is terrifying, and second because my son, now almost eight years old, continues to antagonize crabs by telling and escalating the story of being attacked in Australia. With a couple more retellings, the offending crab will be one of these enormous Japanese spider crabs rather than the tiny thing it actually was. Eventually, the story will turn into this:

This is a real-life example of one of my favorite graphic design techniques—scale shift, taking a small object and making it huge so that people see it in a different way. In the book Interpretation By Design (just several thousand copies left, order soon!), we use the example of an image of an acorn blown up to cover an entire wall. I can also imagine an exhibit about great inventions beginning with a huge image of a paperclip (certainly a great invention if there ever was one).

Scale shift works by making big things small, as well. Imagine an exhibit about human history (to name one small topic) beginning with a wall covered with an image of outer space. Off to one side of the image, a small, blue-green planet is marked with an arrow and the text, “You are here.”

Whether you’re making small things big or big things small, scale shift is one way to interest viewers by subverting their expectations.

Thankfully for all of us, there are no real giant mutant acorns or paper clips coming to kill us as we splash innocently in the ocean on vacation. Unfortunately for all of us, the Japanese spider crab is real, and it’s ticked because Joel is telling that story again.

Missouri Compromise-Experience 1

Editors Note: This post along with my next two posts will revolve around three distinct interpretive experiences that my family and I had on a recent trip to Missouri. I tell you this so that if that you had already planned on not reading Thursday posts (as well as Monday posts) you now have a valid excuse.

Last week I had the honor of presenting an IBD workshop for employees of the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) as well as other area interpreters in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. I consider it an honor because of comments about my pants, I most likely won’t be invited back. My family was along for this trip, not for the presentation (in fact they didn’t want to hear me talk about anything besides pools and ice cream), but were there primarily due to the post-presentation weekend getaway to St. Louis.

On this mini-vacation, my family and I had three very distinct interpretive experiences at very different locations. It is not my goal to transform this blog into a “what I did on my summer vacation” blog or take away from our serious writing. But while visiting all three of these locations, I couldn’t stop thinking about sharing them with you and re-finding my family, who left me behind reading and photographing. My wife has accepted this compromise and has become aware that what used to be simply family fun is now IBD fodder.

The first location was the Cape Girardeau Conservation Nature Center, managed and operated by MDC (which also happened to be the site of the presentation). Several weeks back I wrote about another MDC facility in my post A Marriage of Sorts. This is the second MDC site that I have been to and my love of their work continues. Based on what I have seen from the MDC they excel at getting things right.

We all know that a nature center should be the base for getting folks into nature and not the experience itself. One of the most effective elements to the design of this nature center is how the layout replicated nature, kept you guessing, and was filled with surprises. Upon entry you are immediately drawn into the exhibit area. The asymmetrical flow allows you to wander as if in a natural environment off of the trail. There are many directions for you to go.

My children loved this and immediately split up, going towards whatever met their fancy. I split off in search of illicit uses of Papyrus. My wife split off in search of single men. William (my three year old) split off and we haven’t seen him since. The layout makes the exhibit area feel larger that what it actually is. Upon my second pass though the exhibits, this became more apparent to me. The flow also naturally pushes you towards the trailhead and into the conservation area.

Three exhibits really stood out to me as being interesting, unique, or providing an interesting design.

This beaver lodge and trapper cabin exhibit is an excellent way of providing an opportunity for something that otherwise would be impossible to see the inside of. The interactive panels inside the lodge are a great way of illustrating life in the lodge while you are in a lodge. You can’t visit this center and not climb through the lodge. The trapper cabin exhibit adjacent to the lodge effectively illustrates the relationship between humans, beavers, and settlement of the area. The exhibit is supplemented with artifacts and real items to add character as well as authenticity to the interpretation.

What can a typeface do for an exhibit? Besides annoy freaks like Paul and me. It can evoke a sense of time and place. That’s the case in this mercantile exhibit. I don’t know if a historian would say that this is really the typeface that was historically accurate for trading posts or stores in southeast Missouri at the turn of the century, but it works here at setting the stage for an era.

Who’s to say we know it all? Well, my wife for one, Paul talking about grammar for two, but that’s not the case here. Maybe visitors should do more interpretation. This simple but well-designed exhibit allows visitors to reflect and add their own touch to what is being interpreted.

Looking at the artwork reveals what kids take from their visit to the nature center. It is also amazing to see what my children can take from the gift shop while unsupervised. MDC, I’ll put a check in the mail.

Here are a few other observations.

There are other options besides Comic Sans.

Interpretation of the building itself is a great way to show visitors how seriously you take your mission and provides them with information about making green choices in their own homes or workplaces.

The best-designed non-personal interpretive products cannot compete with personal approaches, even if the interpreter is Jeremy Soucy.