For many business parks and campus-like areas, signage is an after-thought. But for parks and recreational areas that can cover from one to thousands of acres, signage becomes the key element that ties together the various facilities within the complex, sets the boundaries, helps visitors navigate a large geographic area, and creates an experience that teaches, captures the imagination, and (hopefully) inspires return visits.
Given this wide array of needs, there are specific best practices that can and should be addressed in any strategic signage program for parks and recreational facilities.
The “Signage Super 10”
1. Create a clear, cohesive identity for the entire park system. Basically, cohesive signage is the “glue” that ties the system of parks together, and creates a sense of unity. In fact, when park administrators do a good job of identifying the entire system and the scope of its boundaries, it usually startles people, who often say things like: “I had no idea the park system was this big.” A cohesive signage program can visually convey the true size and scope of the offerings of the system (which can come in handy when seeking additional funding from the city or millage through a levy).
2. Create a cohesive signage program for each park. One of the biggest mistakes made in parks and rec signage systems is that no one sets (and sticks to) an overall set of graphic standards; within each park, there’s often a mish-mash of different signs from different eras, and none of them tie together. By sticking to a pre-determined set of graphic standards, and then applying those individually to each park, you create the sense of a large system with much to offer–and you get a sense of unity with each park individually as well.
3. Set a hierarchy for the specific information to be conveyed. Every park needs to provide navigation information, identify specific buildings and parking, direct traffic, and inform visitors of rules and regulations. An effective signage system should set priorities for the most important information, and the actual signage should reflect that. For example, a 1,000-acre park would need a lot of navigation information for visitors to find their way around. So navigation signs would be “highest on the totem pole,” and would therefore have the largest signs with the largest type. The next most important information would be on signs that are slightly smaller, and so forth down the “signage food chain.”
4. Set a hierarchy for navigation signs. Within the system, navigation signs should have their own hierarchy, with a variety of different types of signs. The main entrance sign is the “grand dame,” or the largest, most important sign. Secondary signs include those for specific facilities or areas within the park. Trail signage should be smaller and, because there will be so many of them, boundary signs that define the geographic borders of a park can be even more modestly sized.
5. Use signage to create the visitor’s experience. Parks are like people–they may come from the same species, but they differ greatly in personalities. Truly strategic signage will honor the pre-set standards but provide additional information to create a memorable visitor experience. Interpretive signage options vary widely but have some common denominators–they inform people and draw them into the natural world. For example, if a park is known for its spectacular flower gardens, signage ought to map out those areas, and provide drawings or pictures, names and information about the various flowers and plants. More rugged parks with nature trails should provide information on wildlife, animal tracks, indigenous trees and bushes, and navigation maps with the distances of various hikes. Finally, many parks are rife with history, perhaps with an old, renovated building of a dairy or barn, or a historic home that’s now a museum. Historical signs should incorporate old photographs, comparisons of the old building vs. the new, etc. Display any information that shows the passage of time and the changes that have taken place in the most interesting way possible.
6. Use consistent materials that are appropriate to the area. Given the large amount of signage needed for parks, it’s best to choose humble, easy-to-find materials, particularly natural ones indigenous to the area. Signage can become cohesive because of a common material that’s used, such as stone or wood. When possible, make sure the materials are appropriate for the park system and the geography of the area.
7. Use consistent, recognizable shapes to add cohesiveness. When developing an overall signage strategy, the repeated use of common shapes is one more visual reference visitors can use to navigate. They may get used to seeing large, square signs at all the buildings within the park, or know that they’ve arrived at a boundary when they come across a small logo’d pole. The bottom line is that people do respond to and remember shapes as well as colors and type treatments.
8. Factor in the speed at which visitors will be traveling for specific designs. The faster people are going, the larger and simpler the signs should be … because people will only see the signs for a short period of time before they pass them. For example, a sign directing people to the park on a high-speed road should feature large type with ultra-simple messages, such as: “Observatory Park, 1.5 miles.” In contrast, people will see trail signs at a walking pace, so trail signs can feature smaller print and more detailed information that invite people to stop, study, and learn.
9. Logo everything to extend the branding. Park systems often miss an opportunity to more strongly brand themselves because they don’t logo everything that can be logo’d. It’s easy to remember to logo basic navigation and facility signs. To extend the brand, also logo the shirts of park workers, the lawn mowers, snow plows and park vehicles in general–basically anything involved with the park that can provide additional identity.
10. Don’t just adhere to ADA rules–honor them and welcome those with disabilities. If you talk to most people in a wheelchair, they will vent their frustrations in trying to find building access, or even a bathroom with a wheelchair-accessible stall. So any good signage scheme should make it easy for those with disabilities to find and access the facilities. More parks are offering wheelchair-accessible trails, too, and these should be as clearly marked, as well as necessities like wheelchair-accessible bathrooms.
One final note–any signage incorporated for a park or recreational facility should look outdoorsy and recreational (vs. being conservative). Signage for these facilities should basically shout two things:
1. You can have fun here.
2. You can learn here.
Tie it all together with a cohesive look that provides form and function, and you’ll have a winning tool for drawing people back to your offerings, as well as establishing a stronger brand.
Marty Gregg, president and founder of Arthouse Design, in Denver, Colo. (www.arthousedenver.com), is a recognized expert in way-finding and signage strategies. He can be reached at (303) 892-9816, or firstname.lastname@example.org.