Planning interpretation that really connects with visitors

I’m often asked what the first steps are for planning interpretation, exhibitions or activities that really connect with visitors. In a blog post in August I shared a visualisation technique for helping staff to put themselves in visitors’ shoes. I strongly advise that you do that exercise as a first step.

Once you’ve spent time in your site visualising your successfully engaged visitors, you will need to find a way to capture that on paper for communicating with your team, designers, funders and other stakeholders.

The ‘Think, Feel, Do’ framework below is one way to express at a glance the visitor experience you want to offer. Sometimes it is tempting to over-prioritise the ‘Think’ elements. After all, subject specialists are often passionate and desperately want to share their knowledge with visitors. However, it is just as important to engage with the emotional objectives. These have been proven to be key when it comes to creating memorable interpretation, as is offering something for visitors to ‘do’.

Think, feel, do framework for interpretation planning

Communicating the message

Once you know your objectives, we must consider the most appropriate media for conveying our messages to our target audiences. [Target audience identification is a whole other issue, and one which I will have to consider in a dedicated future blog post!]

It’s often worth considering each step the visitor might go through from when they first get a glimpse of your offer from a distance to them approaching and exploring the site, object or exhibit, and interpretation. We can think of these layers of visual impression and interpretation as an inverted pyramid:

Interpretation planning diagram for layered interpretation

The first message the visitor gets will be driven by the overall look of the interpretation and any built structures.

The second layer of messaging will be determined by the big displays. Try half-closing your eyes and imagine standing five metres away. What do you see? Do you see a ‘big thing’? or a collection of many things? Do you see a big film? Or attractive photography? What makes you want to step closer? Large graphics and headlines can work at this level, but the overall visual impression will always speak louder than text.

Once visitors approach, they will be in a position to engage with individual items on display and their labels.  Visitors are often drawn to things they recognise to some extent or which raise questions in their minds. At this level we have the potential to use smaller films, images and text to tell our stories. However, it is also at this level where too much text will put many visitors off.

At the most detailed level, some visitors will want to dig deeper. A good way to offer this in audio or using digital screens to hold more information. This avoids that information giving an off-putting impression at the level above. You should not assume that most visitors will reach this level, and those who do will certainly not dig deeper at every display.

ALL these levels are important. A visitor who reads all the deeper level labels is not ‘better’ than one who strolls through appreciating the more headline effect. We must always remember that our interpretation is supposed to enhance an experience, it is not a challenge to be endured! 🙂