Considered landscape settings are the tapestry against which interpretive signs are hung. Landscapes define the experience on offer whilst interpretation signs help people attribute values and meanings to the encounter.
People's first point of contact with a precinct should always be with clear and simple orientation signage. This confirms their place in the landscape and provides them with essential "need to know" information.
The example below from Purnululu National Park demonstrates how orientation signs feature maps and present a range of messages across multiple themes. Orientation signs give visitors the facts they need to access the experiences on offer at a site unadorned by qualification or explanatory background context.
Their purpose is to convey information in a supporting context and to invite the reader to attach their own meanings and emotions to the content being presented.
For interpretation signs to work in this role, it is essential that they be part of a larger overall communication platform.
If people are disoriented when they encounter an interpretive sign they will be unlikely to read it. Interpretation signs are a value-add component that can only work effectively when layered into a carefully planned, considered visitor experience.
The preparation of every interpretive sign is a journey of discovery into the hidden meanings and contexts surrounding some time, thing or place. Sharing the fruits of this research with the reader then underpins the design and production phase of the interpretive project.
A striking example of how this approach works in practice comes from our interpretive work for the redesign of the Stringybark Creek Historic Reserve visitor experience near Mansfield, Victoria in 2017/18.
Some details of this work at the site where three policemen were murdered on the evening of 26 October 1878 by a group of four men who thereafter became known as the Kelly Gang are outlined below.
As one of Australia's best known cultural heritage sites, Stringybark Creek has never wanted for lack of interpretation.
The challenge for our project was to peel back the layers of meaning that have been draped over the locale to reveal how the events of 26 October 1878 were viewed by the communities who watched the aftermath of that day unfold around them in real time.
This questioning process revealed some exciting new insights.
One was the discovery in the archives of the charge sheet that led to Ned Kelly being hanged for the murder of Constable Lonigan. Another was our research that revealed the likely type of rifle Ned Kelly used in the attack on the police camp.
The value of letting the events of the day speak for themselves provided a very simple and strong base for the interpretive sign project.
These primary materials were such a powerful record of the events of the day that Ned Kelly's own barrister at his commital hearing in Beechworth in August 1880 requested an adjournment so that he could read through the Argus newspaper reports in order to get a thorough account of what happened and when.
By using these accounts as the bedrock of the sign designs a layering effect was achieved. People wanting a quick and clean account of events can read the signs' headline narrative. Those wanting more detail can delve into the newspaper sections that feature as "graphics" on the signage.
Visitors should approach each interpretation sign with a sense of encountering new content that is presented in its own unique setting as informed by the relevant messages being conveyed.
This approach does increase the design challenges involved with a given project as every interpretive sign in effect becomes an "original" undertaking. The vibrance it delivers to an interpretive signage ensemble however more than makes up for this additional creative investment.
One example of our work in this regard comes in the case of a series of interpretive signs we produced for the Walls of China precinct in Mungo National Park.
Foremost in this regard is the option in areas with internet coverage of publishing the sign content in HTML so that it can be easily translated into the visitor's native language via the internet browser on their mobile device.
The additional major benefit of this is evident when people go to take a photo of a trail map at a trackhead. There the camera can pick out the QR code and prompt them to link to the download page.
Here in the case of the system now in place at the Three Sisters in the Blue Mountains, they can access a quality PDF trail guide including maps and trail descriptions that they can embed onto their phones for use in areas remote from internet coverage.
The key point to note here is that visitors do not have to have prepared for this experience in advance by downloading an app to their phone before they set out to visit the location.
Rather it takes advantage of the inbuilt functionality of their phone's internet browser and camera. This equity and simplicity of access is a crucial element that needs to underpin digital support for interpretive signage.