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- Museum & Visitor Center Exhibit Planning, Design, and Production Process
Creating accessible type is mostly common sense. Maintain high contrast between type and background, make type large enough, and avoiding putting type on top of a busy background graphic - especially if the type is in the smaller range.
National Park Service exhibit specialists advise using type no smaller than 24 points in exhibits. We have been shooting for keeping the smallest type (photo captions and credit lines) at least 24 pt, and going upward from there in size to body copy, subheads, heads, etc.
Also take into account lighting conditions and how close the visitor can get to the graphic panel. The more impediments against the visitor seeing the type well, the more the size and contrast of the type should be cranked up to make up for that. It’s hard to make a book of guidelines for this; it’s all part of the art of exhibit design.
Using Standard NPS Fonts
Although I strongly support the use of NPS Rawlinson and Frutiger on most all NPS media products, I have a somewhat softer position when it comes to exhibits. I do believe that the two standard faces should be used on informational displays in visitor centers: at the information desk, elsewhere in a lobby, and perhaps at the entrance to an exhibit area, or on a credits panel. However, if the architectural style of the exhibit space and/or the content of the exhibits strongly suggest doing so, I can see using other typefaces.
On the other hand, if there is nothing that compels the use of other faces, I see no reason not to use Rawlinson and Frutiger. Both of these are excellent typefaces which work well together and are very readable, even at small sizes and in low lighting. And, of course, they have the added (albeit subtle) benefit of connecting the exhibits to other media. NPS Graphic Identity Program
The Role of Text & Typography in Exhibits
While the selection of appropriate fonts is important, it is only one piece of the complex puzzle assembled to create a successful exhibit design. When I incorporate text into an exhibit, a few very basic principles come to mind: Can visitors read it? Does it communicate the intended message? Does it fit stylistically with the exhibit design?
Can visitors read the text? Some typical issues with legibility have already been mentioned in the paragraphs above. Some fonts are easier to read than others, but it’s difficult for me to recommend just two or three. Even the perfect font will be ruined if used in the wrong way.
Type is a design element, and should be open to exploration just like every other element of an exhibit. Ideally it should enhance the visitor’s interpretive experience. The real problem arises when poorly executed typography becomes an impediment to communication. Common errors that create legibility issues in an exhibit environment include:
- BODY TEXT SET IN ALL UPPER CASE LETTERS.
- Type columns that are too wide (your eye gets lost if the lines are too long);
- Too little spacing between lines of type (greater line spacing is needed for exhibits than for books or magazines);
- Under-sizing of type that will be viewed at a distance (text viewed from ten feet away should be 10 times larger than text designed for viewing at a distance of one foot).
Color, contrast and lighting are other common problems affecting legibility of text in exhibits. Since exhibits exist in three-dimensional space, it can be very difficult during the design process to predict the interplay of light and shadow. But the effort should be made. This can be especially important when planning to locate text labels next to light-sensitive artifacts in display cases.
Does exhibit text communicate the message? Exhibits have a number of strengths. They can incorporate objects and artifacts, provide for visitor interaction, create an immersive experience, and transcend language and cultural barriers. Of all the elements planners and designers can incorporate into an exhibit, text would appear to be the easiest and least expensive. While the price is right, unfortunately, text is very hard to do well in an exhibit. It is often a poor choice for communicating the story. Text works best as a support element in an exhibit, not as the primary interpretive tool. Images, objects, three-dimensional environments, interactive devices, and audiovisual elements all provide for a more engaging and effective visitor experience. If budget limits you to two-dimensional graphic panels, then the quality of the visuals, graphic design, and the writing style becomes even more important, since they must work extra hard to attract and hold the visitor’s attention while communicating the exhibit’s story. Standing in an exhibit, reading, while other activities swirl around you is a very different environment than sitting comfortably in a chair concentrating on a book or magazine.
Does the text fit stylistically with the exhibit design? John Warnock, a founder of the graphics software giant Adobe Systems likes to say “Good typography is something everyone sees, but no one notices.” Often in exhibits it is best for typography to exist as a subtle element in the background that quietly does its job without calling special attention to itself. This is certainly the case for labels, captions, and other large blocks of text.
There are times, however, when text can become an active, dynamic part of an exhibit’s visual design. For large headlines and titles, the tasteful application of specialized graphic treatments can be very effective. Unusual fonts that may be annoying or difficult to read when used for a long block of text may be appropriate for large headlines or titles consisting of just a few words. In this use, typography becomes a graphic accent, a little splash of visual interest that helps draw visitors to important information. Knowing when and how to do this is one of the skills a good designer will bring to your project. Basic design principles always apply: the overall appearance of your presentation should be cohesive, and every element should look like it belongs.