Interpretation in Print


A recent interpretive panel for the Alabama Birding Trails project.

Interpreters are often considered to be the “Jack of all Trades” at a facility. From interacting with visitors to planning events to developing exhibits, the hats we wear can be quite large and, sometimes at least, fit a little awkwardly.

For some interpreters, standing in front of a crowd and inspiring passion comes naturally, but staring at a computer screen trying to develop an interpretive panel or even a quick handout to that will be available when you aren’t is a disaster.

In a perfect world, this would not be an issue. After all, everyone has a large budget and can afford to hire people that do one thing and depend on them to do only that one thing. For the rest of us, we’ll continue to wear our multitude of hats, move heavy objects, tell people about the cultural significance of one thing and identify the beautiful bird perched 50 feet in the air, all while organizing a fundraising event so we can do it all again. Oh, and we’ll be putting together a handout to have at the front desk if we aren’t available.

To hopefully make those moments a little easier, here are a few tips/suggestions to help you through the process–some are interpretation-oriented, but many are tips based on experience with working with print material.

Remember the 3-30-3 rule. This is almost always a good rule to follow. a. Make sure you have something that catches the eye (3 seconds). This may be the only thing someone learns. b. Provide some useful and visually appealing content that provides educational opportunities (30 seconds). This is about the amount of time many people will spend on something before they move on to something else. Pull-out quotes, boxes with short declarative statements and simple graphics work wonders here. c. Provide content for someone who wants to dig deeper (3 minutes). You can really tell your story here; this is the content for the person who really wants to learn more. Provide some well-written content, informative graphics and really focus on the story. But remember to make it accessible and easy to read.

Use active voice when writing. You’d never start off an active interpretive moment with a passive voice, now would you? The same rule applies to the written word. “Jack rode to town on a donkey,” is much more exciting and visually appealing than “A donkey was ridden into town by Jack.” Active voice also typically means shorter sentences, too.

Use quality graphics. Get permission to use quality products. You shouldn’t be snagging content from the web for many, many reasons. Copyright infringement is certainly the biggest reason, but you also want a graphic that will print well. If you can see the pixels, you should not be using the graphic. In other words, stay away from most .gif files. They may look great on the web, but they won’t look good on paper. There’s an old rule in printing: any graphic you have should print at 300dpi at the size it is printed. Basically, 300 dpi means 300 dots per inch. If you have a 5 inch x 7 inch photo that is 300 dpi, you can, based on this rule, safely print at 5 inches by 7 inches. Truth be told, you can often get by with half that resolution–if printing digitally. Ask your printer friend…. An awful graphic is much worse than no graphic at all.

Proof-read. (Okay, I’m breaking a rule here.) Take a moment to read over what you’ve written. Take another moment. Have a co-worker do the same. Maybe have a friend do it. If you are printing a panel that may be up for a few years, have another co-worker and another friend read it, too. Someone just caught a typo in a bird list that I hadn’t seen because I knew what it was supposed to say. Yellow-rumped Warber is NOT a bird. a Yellow-rumped Warbler is.

Choose a font or two and stick with it. Try a serif font (like Times New Roman) for longer copy and a sans-serif font (like Helvetica)  for headlines and bigger quotes. The serif on the font (the little ends that make the letter start to point to the next) makes reading paragraphs easier. Sans serif fonts offer clean lines and are often easier to read at large size. Avoid using script fonts unless you have a really good reason. And resist, please, please resist, the urge to use Comic Sans or Papyrus.

White space. Learn to love it. Sure, the story you have to tell is important, whatever it may be. Or you probably wouldn’t be telling it. But, you want people to read it. Don’t crowd the margins to the edge of the paper. Add spaces between paragraphs. Provide places for the reader to take a break and rest their eyes. If you are lucky enough to have “real” layout software–InDesign by Adobe–I have always found that 11 point font over 14 point leading or 12 point font over 15 point leading makes things infinitely more readable. (Leading is the spacing between lines–so named because printers once used pieces of lead to put space between the rows of letters.)

About Joe: Joe Watts is a passionate proponent of nature tourism in Alabama. He regularly works with the University of Alabama Center for Economic Development on trails and tourism-related projects. He became a Certified Interpretive Guide in 2013. He loves seeing the daffodils in bloom even though his allergies don’t agree. Before finding his path along the interpretive world, he was a writer and editor for Southern Progress Corporation, home to magazines such as Southern Living and Cooking Light.


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