Do This, Don’t Do That, Can’t You Read the Sign?

In 1970 the Five Man Electric Band had a popular hit song about obtrusive signs that were “blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind.” We all have them in our facilities and visitors mostly despise them. I’m talking about that long laundry list of negative authoritative non sequiturs—the ‘do nots’ that are tacked up next to the visitors entrance. They typically use that stern third-person phrasing your father had when you were about to cross his last nerve:
• Do not feed or harass the animals
• Food is not permitted on the park trail
• Do not litter
• Stay on public trails/boardwalk
• Remain quiet on the trails (really? How well does this one work?)
• Absolutely no smoking in the park

Our visitors DO need to know what activities are permitted at our places (mostly at our lawyer’s insistence), but they also came to have a good time and not to be overtaxed with rules. So how do we get the point across without coming off like the Church Lady? One way is to appeal to their own sense of ethics, to let them make their own decisions after being presented with the possible consequences. This becomes educational instead of confrontational. I saw an excellent example of this during a recent visit to Petra National Park in the Middle East country of Jordan (I highly recommend it for your bucket list).

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The visitor entry of this UNESCO world-heritage site was welcoming and well-designed. In fact, there were hardly any obtrusive signs other than for wayfinding. Maps and historical information were carefully tucked behind walls, giving way to the more spacious landscape and sublime sense of place. Along the journey to the historical sites, however, were a few cautionary signs.

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Under the title “Care for Petra” (who wouldn’t?), the signs implored one to “think” –before you act, buy or ride. Meaning that there are children at the sites selling wares–some taken from the historic monument itself, or pack animals such as camels and horses that should not be carrying heavy loads or heavier tourists. The signs didn’t command one to not do these things, but instead left one with an ethical dilemma for each person to answer on their own. The graphics were equally compelling by leaving a blank figure in each situation for the visitor to insert their own image. The only recommendation on the sign was to “make the right choice.” After all, that is the only action that we could hope any visitor to perform. So take a close look at your “do not” signage and see if you can appeal to your visitors’ integrity instead of token admonishment. Sometimes it just works better.

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