The Interpreter's Handbook
Methods, Skills, & Techniques

Interpretation through Self-Guidance

Self Guidance Methods and Devices

We often hear the statement "there is no substitute for the personal touch in interpretation." Perhaps this should be modified to say "no substitute for the personal touch in interpretation is of equal value insofar as the visitor is concerned." Certainly there are various self-guidance devices that are highly effective in telling the interpretive story. However, providing a supplementary interpretive service of this type should not be regarded as a complete replacement for the experience which the visitor receives through the warmth of personal service. A self-guiding trail or device, regardless of how well developed, is at best only a supplement to the human approach.

The self-guiding trail or tour might be defined as a type of visitor facility, consisting of an established physical route providing interpretation of area features, objects, structures or concepts by means of well designed devices located in sequence at selected sites. It is operated wholly, or in part, without personal services of interpretive personnel.

All unmanned interpretive devices are essentially self-guiding. These include exhibits of all types, regardless of location. They may be along roads, trails, at historic buildings, various types of structures, or even in museums.

A self-guiding facility should be developed to fill a specific interpretive need, and not simply because it is a popular device. Visitor use patterns and relationship of local features to the interpretive story to be told should dictate whether a self-guiding facility is logical and necessary to adequately interpret the area. Self-guidance should be related to and assist other interpretive facilities and services in telling the overall story. The facility should not be considered as a static installation, but should be designed for flexibility to allow for changing conditions, or inclusion of new knowledge.

To be really effective, the facility should provide the visitor with as many interpretive elements as possible. Such elements might include:

The story of human history and natural history seen along the route, told in a thematic way where possible.

Development of appreciation and understanding of the scenic, scientific and historic values of the area.

Recognition of inspirational values of the route of whatever nature.

Encouragement of an independent personal experience on the part of the visitor in some subject matter field.

Developing awareness of the visitor's own relationship to, and responsibility for, protection of the area, its features and environment.

Significance and meaning of the area, building, structure or site.

Creation of a truly enjoyable experience.

There are advantages and disadvantages to any type of interpretive activity, and certainly such are to be found in self-guiding facilities. Advantages would include:

"On-the-spot" interpretation. It is difficult for the visitor to carry in his mind interpretive material from an exhibit in a museum to the field site itself. On-site interpretation can show the object in its proper relationships, lending reality and vividness to the visitor's experience.

The visitor is given the opportunity for personal participation.

The visitor need not wait. He may go at any time with his activities controlled only by possible opening and closing hours of the area or structure.

He sets his own pace. This is important, as each person has his own interests, and will spend more time at some stops along the route than at others.

The visitor has some degree of privacy. He is not part of a large group, such as on a conducted tour.

The tour may be of a nature that encourages the timid and uninformed visitor to venture into unknown features of terrain with a feeling of security.

Less manpower is required in the interpretive operation.

The interpretive story can often be carried away by the visitor in the form of a small publication or leaflet.

Disadvantages to self-guiding devices include:

Lack of personal contact with a trained interpreter.

The facility cannot answer specific questions occurring to the visitor.

Advantage cannot be taken of the unexpected, such as a bear crossing the trail, a beautiful flower, etc.

They do not enable the visitor to follow up on specific interests. The facility is often subject to vandalism.

It requires good maintenance to keep it in attractive and efficient operating condition.

Wayside exhibit, Grand Canyon National Park.


Just as guided tours are often classified by type, there are also several ways to classify self-guiding facilities. Such classifications are usually determined by the nature or character of the subject matter to be interpreted.

1. The specialized theme.

The primary characteristic is a single subject chosen for development to the exclusion of all others. It may be centered on history, archeology, natural history, ethnology, or man's activities. It may be restricted to one particular aspect of a subject, such as an historic event or date, ecology of a beaver pond, work of glaciers, or operation of a power dam. It may also be restricted to a specific process of man or nature, such as mining, weaving, tree growth, flour grinding, etc.

2. The "Great Truths" theme.

This concerns itself with a broad concept rather than a specific science, event or object. It may deal with life, philosophy, or the entities of history and science. Such subjects as the wholeness of nature, environment awareness, cultural development, the mind of man, etc., are representative of this type theme.

3. The opportunistic or theme-less.

The objective of this type of self-guiding facility may be to induce the visitor to become involved in the tour, to "read" the trailside, to become aware of objects seen along the route. It takes advantage of the many features encountered that the visitor might overlook, or the significance of which he may fail to understand. It presents a challenge to the visitor to probe even beyond what the tour has to offer.

4. The orientation theme.

This type of facility becomes interpretive in a minor way. For the most part, such a tour is designed to acquaint the visitor with geographic features and places. It gives him information about the places named, etc., rather than attempting to interpret them. There is no well devised story involved, nor does it apply any of the principles and laws of nature or social science. It is often used, however, to show relationships between places, such as portions of a battlefield and their relations to the terrain, relationship of high and low elevations, etc. It is primarily to inform the visitor.

Classification can also be made according to physical characteristics of each facility and the treatment given each. The physical characteristics indicate what kind of route or conveyance the facility utilizes; the treatment indicates by what method, or methods, the interpretive messages are to be made available to the visitor. Under physical characteristics would be such facilities as: foot trail, auto tour, boat tour, horse tour, underwater tour, house or structure tour, or combinations. Methods of treatment would include: numbered stake and booklet, text in place (includes signs and markers, labels, paintings, drawings and related subjects), the use of audio, and such devices as diagrams, models, objects, sighting tubes, and combination of various methods.


Planning a self-guiding facility is no simple matter, but neither does it require excessive time or experience. In the listings which follow are items that should always be considered in developing a well thought out program:

The facility should closely relate to existing operations, interpretive or otherwise. It should be an important and integral part of the overall scheme of interpretation for the area, and should be coordinated with all other phases of area operation.

Often its location is governed by the existence of a center of visitor concentration. A heavily visited feature, such as the General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park, immediately suggests additional visitor services through use of a well designed self-guiding trail featuring the sequoia story. Such facility is particularly valuable if other interpretive services in the general area are limited.

Self-guidance should normally not be established along a route served by a guided tour. To do so is duplication of effort, and each robs the other to some degree. This is especially noticeable where interpretive signs, markers, or exhibits are in place at points of interest along the route. Not only are such interpretive devices distractions on a guided tour, they also cause group confusion as visitors tend to divide attention between the tour leader and the self-guiding facility. If it is found desirable to establish both types of tours along the same route, unobtrusive numbered stakes and guide markers are certainly less objectionable than other devices.

The subject, or subjects, must be of intrinsic interest to the visitor, or capable of being made interesting by skillful interpretation. Even unrelated stations of a "themeless" trail or tour can be made meaningful when there is continuity or connection between points. What may appear to be unimpressive material can be developed into an outstanding facility through perception, imagination and "feel" for its interpretive story.

Subjects that are ephemeral in character, such as blooming flowers, must be handled in a way to make their identification and interpretation flexible. There is nothing so frustrating to the visitor as to be given good identification, only to find that the flower has long since bloomed and gone.

Existence and location of key features, objects or structures to be interpreted are often basic and may determine the route to be followed and the spacing of points of interest.

Where possible, planning the location of self-guiding facilities should be worked out when trail, road routes or other physical developments are programmed.

Safety of the route chosen is very important. Dangerous situations should be avoided by careful study of the area. The route should not be physically strenuous, or have rough sections. This forestalls possible tort claims.

The self-guiding facility should be easily accessible and readily seen by the visitor if it is to render maximum service.

Adequate parking space must be available at, or near, the start of the tour. This is especially important if the self-guiding facility is some distance from developed areas.

Landscape and aesthetic values should be considered in the route selection. Interpretive devices along the way should not intrude conspicuously upon the scene, features or any structures.

Go over the proposed route several times to grasp its full potential before final selection.

While self-guiding trails or tours receive much heavier use when located near normal routes of visitor travel, this does not mean that all such facilities must be so located. Occasionally a trail to an outstanding scenic, historic or scientific feature can easily be justified.


Among the most important points to keep in mind when laying out the self-guiding trail or tour are the following:

A well chosen name is an asset. It can be used to give a clue to the visitor as to what is featured along the route. The title should be pleasing to read, inviting, and easily remembered. Such titles as "Trail of the Shadows," "Cactus Forest Drive," and "The Hallowed Ground" are familiar examples. The title should be on an attractive and conspicuous sign at the point where the tour begins, and in harmony with its surroundings. Such a name says to the visitor, "Here is something of unusual interest."

A self-guiding trail should not be straight. Use of curves along the route lends interest and increases a feeling of privacy. Even a heavily used facility can seem rather remote if enough screening is available.

Each self-guiding facility should have a well defined beginning and end. Where possible both should occur at, or near to, the same point. This is important if the facility is a trail; it may not be possible, however, with a facility laid out as a road tour.

Be sure the route is physically easy to follow. The visitor should never have any doubt as to where the trail or tour makes the next turn.

The first interpretive marker, numbered stake or other device used to indicate the location of the point of interest should be within sight of the starting point. This also serves as an invitation to undecided persons. This provision does not hold true if the facility is an auto tour.

Spacing of signs and markers along the route should be close enough to sustain interest, but not so close that visitors are likely to intrude on each other. Where possible, the spacing between markers should be relatively even, with no lengthy gaps. They should always be placed along the edge of the route. If located some distance from it, they may be overlooked.

The sign or marker should be close enough to an object being interpreted that there is no chance for mistaken identification, yet not so close as to detract from its appearance or use as a photographic subject.

In placing signs and markers along an auto tour route, consideration should be given to the presence or absence of a formal parking place, "pull outs," the nature of road curves, sight distance and other safety factors.

There are different opinions as to how many numbered or named stations should be included in a self-guiding facility. However, a well balanced trail will have 20-30 points of interest selected for interpretation; the road tour a few less.

The most desirable length of the trail or tour varies greatly, depending upon the extent of the area to be interpreted, number of features to be visited, energy that must be expended by the visitor, length of time the visitor normally spends in the area, weather conditions to be expected, and visitor use patterns. Most successful walking tours seldom exceed one mile in length, with two miles a maximum.

Where terrain is a problem, a self-guiding trail should have any necessary uphill travel near the beginning of the tour, if at all possible, with downhill walking on the return. Facing an uphill climb toward the end of a walk is somewhat dismaying to the poorly conditioned visitor.

Call attention to outstanding photographic opportunities along the route, for many visitors carry cameras.

Place benches at appropriate spots, where possible. View points, shady spots and natural rest sites make ideal locations, and the visitor will appreciate your thoughtfulness.

If the self-guiding facility uses leaflets or booklets, a distribution box is necessary at or near the starting point; or they may be given out at a visitor center. If the tour publication is offered for sale, a vandal-proof coin box or vending machine is required. Care should be taken to see that contents of the dispensing box or device are protected from damage by rain or snow.


Those with the greatest effectiveness are grouped somewhat as follows:

1. Physical aids in place.

a. The stake and interpretive label method.
b. The underwater trail.
c. The interpretive sign.
d. The wayside exhibit.
e. The outdoor display method.

2. Physical aids, with self-guiding literature.

a. The stake and leaflet method.
b. Self-guiding boat tours.
c. Marine garden tours.
d. Back country tours.

3. Physical aids with recorded messages.

a. Trail and road tours.
b. Garden and building tours.
c. Radio transmittals and on-site repeaters.

4. Physical aids, combinations of items 1, 2 and 3.

5. Special uses of physical aids.

a. Symbols.
b. Statement of trail or tour objective.
c. Trail map.
d. Aids to visitor traffic.
e. Restoration drawings, diagrams.

Painted wood, self-guiding signs. Left-Tongass National Forest. Right-Yosemite National Park.

While there are numerous ways to accomplish self-guidance, the most successful are found in a somewhat select group using simple, uncomplicated methods. Their success is due to the ease with which visitors can use them, and the effectiveness with which their interpretive messages can be absorbed. Almost as an afterthought, they are usually inexpensive to develop and put into operation. Only the special devices tend to incur much additional expense.

Whether used as a self-guided boat or auto tour, a trailside experience, or a leisurely stroll through history, most self-guiding facilities have certain basic characteristics common to all. Thus, they differ in method, but not in objectives. To understand more fully the characteristics, advantages and disadvantages of the best known types, let us examine each in turn.


1. The stake and interpretive label method.

This type of self-guidance is commonly encountered, whether in the many natural parks across our country, in the forests, or in the more formalized city parks. Basically it consists of a relatively short interpretive message mounted on a stake, and placed by, or near to, some object, feature or structure that is deemed to have a story worthy of telling. It may also be used strictly for orientation and limited to name, location, dates, etc.

The stake (post or other device) is usually of wood, metal or concrete, tall enough that the visitor doesn't have to stoop to read the message it carries, yet short enough not to constitute an intrusion.

The interpretive message may be routed, typed, printed, lettered, painted, reproduced photographically, or cast in metal or concrete. The label or marker may be made of metal, plastic, wood, concrete, stone, treated paper, or any number of combinations.

The message text may carry several details of a story, or there may be no text at all, simply diagrams to show relationships, or photographs to identify a plant, object, structure or landscape scene. Text should have letters large enough for easy reading, as many visitors find it difficult to read with bifocal or trifocal glasses. Color and background of lettering is an important consideration. Writing text for this type of sign is an art in itself, and few do it really well. There is need for short sentences, non-scientific terminology, and accepted nomenclature of such things as flowers, etc. The label should also be understandable, interesting and completely accurate, both in fact and spelling.

Advantages are, in part:

It is very effective when the trail or tour is of considerable length.

Visitors often do not wish to carry descriptive literature along; thus, on-site labels are well received.

It is not difficult to modify a label to reflect seasonal changes or include new knowledge.

It is normally not very expensive to replace vandalized labels.

Among disadvantages are:

A good supply of spare stakes and accompanying label texts must be kept on hand. There is normally attrition through vandalism or the work of pranksters. A large number of such labels have a way of finding new usage as adornments in student rooms on various school campuses.

Loss of a single label may impair the continuity of the interpretive story being told.

Constant maintenance is essential, not only to correct man-caused damage, but to counteract results of weathering.

A label can be an intrusion on a wilderness situation, and care must be exercised in its design.

The label text is physically located at a definite site, and the interested visitor must either remember its message or copy it for future reference. He cannot take it with him, although many instances are reported where he tried!

2. The underwater trail.

With growth of interest in the marine world, this type of facility is experiencing growing popularity. It has the same basic objectives as the stake and interpretive label method, but is used by the swimmer or wader in water situations where there is a story to be told. It is usually accomplished by producing interpretive labels that can be anchored beneath the water at selected sites. (See chapter on underwater interpretation).

The signs may be routed, cast or painted. Text letters must be large enough for easy reading by the visitor using a face mask, or by looking down through the water from the surface.

3. The interpretive sign.

Basically this device is merely an enlargement of the interpretive label. It is larger in size, longer in text, and designed to tell a more complete story in itself. It is usually placed on much more substantial mountings, and stands higher above the ground than the interpretive label.

It must be attractive to do an effective job. A poorly designed sign, both as to color and shape, is not acceptable. It must have a finished look and "eye" appeal. It must be made of materials in harmony with its surroundings, yet clearly visible. Various types of materials are available, so be sure to select the best for your purpose. (See section on Producing Self-guiding Signs, Markers and Literature).

What are the ingredients for the text of a good interpretive sign? Here are some basics:

It must be simple. It should never contain statements that require much, if any explanation.

It must be only long enough to present the message. It must be "readable."

It must be easily understood. If the reader has to figure out what you are saying, it has failed.

It must not contain words whose meanings are not usually known.

It should not be slangy.

It must be friendly in tone and content.

The content of the message should be imaginative in treatment.

The message should bean entity unto itself, yet tie in with the overall area interpretive story.

It should not be controversial in nature.

It should have a "teaser" thought, if possible, to stimulate further study.

It should leave the reader with an urge to check further.

Any humor, if used at all, should be handled with extreme care.

4. The wayside exhibit.

This type of device is also commonly referred to as a trailside exhibit or an on-site exhibit. It is used where more detailed treatment is needed. It may cover the total story of the site, thus serving as an entity in itself. It may contain actual display objects, sketches and charts, which may or may not be "native" to the site. It may be relatively large, or of more simple design. Basically it is a structure normally used to display exhibits behind glass. It may have one or several glass panels, and is roofed for protection against inclement weather and sun.

It should have an attention-getting lead-in statement, and an equally interesting closing thought.

Some advantages of the wayside exhibit are:

It attracts visitors and will almost certainly entice them to see what is being presented.

It allows for detailed presentation of a subject, at a location where it can be most effective.

It can handle rather large numbers of visitors in a limited time.

It is especially effective along trails of a mile or more in length, and at road pull-outs.

It is much appreciated by visitors who do not carry descriptive literature with them.

Disadvantages include:

The device is more costly to construct than most out-of-door interpretive facilities.

Preparation and installation of the exhibit is more expensive than for some other methods.

The device must be inspected at fairly frequent intervals to keep it in good condition. Inspection is especially critical after the winter season is over.

Maintenance costs are relatively higher than for most other out-of-door devices.

It is somewhat difficult, and more expensive, to alter or improve the exhibits once they are installed.

Vandalism is a problem unless special precautions are taken. Unlike a sign or marker that can be easily removed and carried away, the exhibit is subject to damage or total destruction.

Loss of one such exhibit may seriously impair or destroy interpretive value of the site.

If located along a trail used for guided tours, it becomes a distraction. Members of such a group tend to direct their attention to the exhibit, and thus break continuity of the tour leader's presentation.

5. The outdoor display.

Occasionally there arises need to develop a display in an out-of-doors situation using plants, rocks and historic or prehistoric objects or structures assembled in such manner as to tell a comprehensive story. This allows many items to be brought together that would otherwise be difficult to utilize because of original location in widely separated spots. By putting all these together, it is possible to present a comprehensive concept, process or even a culture. Through the use of interpretive labels in a garden or outdoor exhibit area, the story can be told in a clear and meaningful way. This type of self-guidance can be used wherever it is found desirable and logical.

Its primary weakness lies in the fact that it is definitely an unnatural situation, and might possibly be confused for the original condition. It also tends to be limited in subject matter, with emphasis usually falling on botanical, geological, historical or archeological items.


1. The stake and leaflet method.

This is the method most commonly used over much of the country. Thus far it has been considered one of the most useful devices in terms of cost, effectiveness and simplicity. It is popular with both the one who designs it and the visitor who uses it.

Basically it involves selection of interpretive sites along an established route, which are then marked with numbered stakes, posts or other markers. A leaflet, or small booklet, is then produced to tell the interpretive story of each site.

Methods of marking vary considerably, depending on the type of route to be covered and locations of the numbered stakes or markers. Some areas prefer rustic posts with the numbers routed, printed or burned into the horizontal, vertical or angled surfaces. Some use posts or stakes made of wood, metal, or even concrete, with cast, metal screw-on, or slip-in numbers. Stone markers have also been used with engraved or painted numbers. Some markers simply bear the name of the site or object being interpreted, and the accompanying leaflet or booklet utilizes the location name to identify interpretive text.

A wide variety of literature may be found in various parks, forests, etc., but basically all operate on the same principle. Booklets and leaflets are designed to tell the interpretive story in sufficient detail to be easily understood, and, at the same time, allow the visitor to take the material away with him. A box for dispensing the leaflet or booklet is usually required, and is located near the start of the tour. Some publications are distributed at a visitor center or museum rather than at the self-guiding device.

This method, although simple to produce and operate, has numerous advantages and disadvantages. Among advantages are:

Inexpensive materials can be used for both the location marker and the publication.

Such a system is easy to design and install.

It is possible for the writer to prepare the text for "out loud" reading designed for family groups who use the facility.

It is easy to rearrange if found desirable.

It is simple to replace materials lost or destroyed.

Vandalism is normally not a great problem. Removal, defacement or destruction of a site marker does not have much appeal to the occasional vandal.

Intrusion upon the natural or historic scene is minimal. While the site markers must be seen to be effective, appearance is easy to control.

Because the markers are unobtrusive, they do not conflict too much with guided walks or tours that may use the same route.

A trail with numbered stakes and an interpretive publication guide gives the timid visitor a sense of security and safety. This is especially valuable if the trail passes through heavy forest or wild country.

A marked route tends to keep visitors on the established trail, minimizing the tendency to wander or short cut.

Even if the marker is lost or stolen, the leaflet or booklet carried by the visitor gives him an unbroken story.

The publication can be taken by the visitor for future reference or as a souvenir of his visit.

Disadvantages are not especially numerous, but they include:

As in all self-guidance, some vandalism is to be expected, even though not extensive.

There is need for regular maintenance to assure attractive appearing markers.

Where the small booklets are for sale, there is some loss from visitors who simply take them without payment.

Free booklets and leaflets tend to encourage littering, especially of the latter. The psychology seems to be if the literature does not cost anything, it isn't worth keeping!

2. The self-guiding boat tour.

This is a field in which little has been done over much of the country, but there is considerable potential. With a well designed boating guide the boat traveler can readily identify prominent topographic features along the seashore, lake or river. The interpretive stories can thus be keyed to these features. It is also possible to use a number system along the shoreline at key points. These can be made visible from the boat by contrasting color background or a unique shape to the marker. They should not be glaringly evident, but visible to the traveler wishing to locate them.

3. The marine garden tour.

This type of tour must be carefully done to be effective in a seacoast situation. Posts must be placed to withstand tides and still be visible when the tide is out and the marine gardens are exposed. The problem of salt-water deterioration of markers is always present.

4. Back country tours.

With an ever increasing number of hikers utilizing back country regions, there is need to develop self-guiding devices which will assist these people. A small, pocket-size booklet can be produced whose interpretive messages are keyed to readily recognized topographic or other features shown on trail map sections. Such a booklet will necessarily have to be distributed at some central point of visitor contact, such as a visitor center or museum.

Self-guiding auto tour tape recorded with a portable repeater, Lake Mead National Recreation Area.


The tape recorded interpretive message has brought a new dimension into self-guidance. It may be used in a number of ways, the most common being the following:

1. Trail and road tours.

A portable play-back device, equipped with cassette type tape, is used in lieu of a booklet or leaflet. The interpretive message is recorded. The location of each interpretive site may be indicated by a numbered marker or descriptive narration on the tape. The visitor has only to activate the play-back device to obtain the various interpretive messages along the route.

2. Garden and building tours.

Produced in the same manner as above and used in much the same way. However, the interpretive narrative tends to be more general in nature.

3. Radio transmittals and on-site repeaters.

Tape recorded interpretive messages are transmitted by short range radio to cars traveling along the road. The car radio serves as the receiver.

A tape repeater with recorded message is located within a permanent structure and activated by push button. The device is normally placed only at special sites and serves both the visitor using self-guidance and one who is not.

Among the advantages of this method are:

It requires no reading of literature or signs, merely the ability to listen and follow directions.

Considerably more information can be given to the visitor than could be included in a small booklet or leaflet.

The narrator's voice can be used to give emphasis to portions of the interpretive message deemed of special importance.

Tape recordings can be easily changed to include new knowledge or improve the old narrative.

Disadvantages are not many, but are quite important. They include:

The equipment needed to bring the taped message to the visitor tends to be rather expensive.

Maintenance of equipment is essential at all times.

The equipment used with on-site repeaters is subject to weather damage and possible vandalism.


Combining the above methods, along with utilizing such things as exhibits, objects, or structures, is also very effective. Areas featuring history or archeology have found this especially helpful. Primarily it may involve any of the above methods used in combination with any significant object or structure along the route. Wayside exhibits, interpretive markers and on-site taped messages may also become a part of the planned route, and an integral part of the overall interpretive story.

Advantages of such a method would include the following:

It allows use of detailed exhibits at special points of interest occurring along the route.

Continuous use of a leaflet or booklet is not required. This allows for a "change of pace" which the visitor often appreciates.

It still contains the basic simplicity of the other self-guidance methods.

Disadvantages are few, but very important:

There is some loss of flexibility where fixed exhibits are used. These cannot be easily altered to meet changing conditions.

The visitor is unable to take away with him the story told in the fixed exhibit, unless it is repeated in the leaflet or booklet describing the tour.

If formalized exhibits are used, they tend to eliminate visitor feeling of being in an undisturbed environment.

Self-guiding trail numbering method, Walnut Canyon National Monument.


Various devices and techniques should also be considered as the route is developed. Most of these are simple, yet add much to success of the facility. Some of the most important are:

1. Symbols.

These devices are designed to arouse the visitor's interest in a trail or tour. It acquaints him with existence of the facility when he might otherwise miss it. The symbol chosen should, if possible, be representative of the area or park in which it is found, For example, in Yosemite National Park a simple, routed profile of Half Dome is placed on each tour marker along the highways. The wooden marker also carries the number of the interest point. Along the Blue Ridge Parkway, the symbol is a sketch of a squirrel rifle and powder horn. In Sequoia National Park it is twin sequoia cones. Such a symbol tells the visitor that here is something of unusual interest, and he may look more closely for other such indicators. Sometimes the symbol is used along the highways to announce the approach of a turn-out containing a point of interest, or to alert the driver that he is approaching a numbered marker or named feature.

2. Statement of the trail or tour objective.

Lacking a personal means of introducing the visitor to the self-guiding trail or tour, it is often valuable to present a brief statement through use of an attractive routed sign or similar device at the point where the tour begins. The statement may be used in conjunction with the sign bearing the name of the tour, if found desirable. It can also be used as an opening paragraph for the self-guiding booklet or leaflet. Its function is simple: to arouse the visitor's interest to the point where he wants to take the tour. The statement should be short and carefully worded. It should appeal to the imagination, yet not belittle one's intelligence. For example, the name of a self-guiding trail might be "The Trail of Pinnacles" and the accompanying statement might read "A Walk Through 15 Million Years of Time." Or, in a more lengthy fashion it might read: "The Gentian Trail. It will lead you through quiet and pleasant surroundings, rich in plant life and geological interest. Wayside labels will help make your walk more enjoyable."

3. The trail map.

Sometimes it is most helpful to place a routed or painted trail or tour map at the start of the route. This enables the visitor to visualize the entire route, the distance to be covered, and some of the key points to be visited. A statement as to normal walking or driving time is also helpful. This information often makes the difference as to whether or not the visitor will take the tour.

4. Aids to visitor traffic.

Often it is very important that traffic move on a predetermined course. This is especially true for indoor situations, and may be accomplished through use of directional arrows, interpretive messages or labels at doorways, or by using unobtrusive barriers to steer the visitor along the desired route. The small directional arrow is also very effective on out-of-door tours.

5. Restoration drawings, diagrams and paintings.

This type of interpretive aid is most helpful to show how a building or feature may have looked originally, and is very useful in historical and archeological areas. The drawing or painting can be used as a small trailside exhibit, or put in the interpretive leaflet or booklet. Diagrams are valuable in showing geological relationships of various formations, and in naming geographic features seen from the site being interpreted.


The best planned trail or tour may be reduced in its effectiveness by poorly produced physical aids. Visitors are swayed by appearance of a facility. One that is neat and attractive not only invites visitor use, but encourages good care and treatment. A facility that looks run down and neglected may receive little consideration by the user. In production of these physical aids, the local staff in an area can usually be depended upon to do much of its own design, and sometimes even construction. Some areas are fortunate enough to have skilled technicians who can do any type of sign work, but often this must be done by outside firms.

In preparing signs and markers, a check should be made of possible sources for the latest materials on the market, as new products are constantly being developed. However, the following suggestions are made of materials that have proven most valuable:

1. Routed materials.

Without doubt the most popular and economical sign thus far produced is the one routed into wood or some other material. Several kinds of wood have proved satisfactory, but redwood and "cedar" are two of the best. Redwood is a favorite with many areas because it is easy to work, is attractive, economical, stands adverse weather, and tends to harmonize with its surroundings. The lettering is easy to read. It does not have sun glare. However, one should not overlook the field of laminated plastics. Such material is especially useful when small letters are used in a label or sign. The plastic tends to be weather and vandal resistant, and is not expensive. It is especially effective as inlays in wooden signs, and can be obtained in a wide variety of base colors and cores. It does tend to expand and contract from temperatures, and may crack at the corners if too tight in a metal frame. Sometimes sun glare must be considered. Some colors tend to fade when out-of-doors.

In those areas where vandalism is a problem, use of the routed aluminum sign is an important consideration. It is attractive, durable, tends to be vandal resistant—and is rather costly. In making this type of sign, it should be specified that the surface be sand etched before routing is done. This eliminates sun glare, and discourages scratching of the surface by vandals and thoughtless visitors.

2. Painted signs and markers.

These usually have to be made by a commercial sign painter. It is thus more expensive than routing, as special skills are necessary to produce attractive letters. Type of lettering and size used are very important. Larger letters are required if the label is to be read from a car; smaller letters are desirable if the message is to be read along a walking route. Letter style is important, also. Script and Old English harmonize with historical subjects, but would be out of place with natural history. Care must also be exercised in choosing background for the letters, as white will cause glare on out-door signs. Soft tones in tan or green are best for sunny situations. Maintenance and replacement of such signs is rather costly.

3. Cast metal signs.

Metal signs are not only vandal resistant, but stand adverse weather very well. The two most popular types are aluminum and bronze. Cast aluminum can be obtained in a variety of colors. Such a sign is relatively easy to maintain, and so hard as to make vandalism difficult. It is especially appropriate in historical and archeological areas. Entire scenes or drawings of structures can readily be produced by this method.

Metalphoto interpretive sign, Aztec National Monument.

4. Printed signs on metal.

The product by the trade name of Metalphoto is best known at present and has many uses. Basically the process involves the placement on a metal plate of pictures and text through photographic techniques. It has several advantages:

It is attractive.

Almost any kind of photo, chart or drawing can be reproduced in detail.

It is weather resistant, little affected by climate, winds, flying dust, etc.

It is vandal resistant.

It is easy to produce and not expensive.

It works well in combination with other materials.

Naturally there are some disadvantages, but fortunately very few:

It is usually made commercially and not in an area darkroom. It does have some sun glare in outdoor situations.

5. Multilithed signs and markers.

For the area short on funds, this type of sign can be produced at minimal expense. This method is especially useful to show diagrams, photographs, drawings, etc., usually accompanied by a short text. The finished sheet can be glued onto a board or other material and covered with clear varnish, liquid tile, or embedding plastics and resins. It may also be made into a clear plastic "sandwich." If it becomes soiled or damaged in some way, it is easy to replace. This method also helps "test run" a new self-guiding trail or tour before going into a more detailed and expensive treatment.

6. The interpretive leaflet or booklet.

Self-guiding literature becomes an important tool of interpretation when well written and attractively produced. It is an effective substitute for the interpreter himself, although not a complete one. It has several important advantages over interpretive signs and exhibits. It offers greater flexibility in subject matter. It makes possible a wide variety of illustrations, including photographs, sketches, diagrams, maps and drawings. It can utilize color in its printing to increase reader interest, at the same time making it more desirable as a take home item. Revision and updating are easy to accomplish with each reprinting. Its use along the tour route affords more versatility than a fixed sign. The reader can always refer back to features along the route. It presents an unbroken story, even if a station marker has been removed.

Writing the booklet or leaflet is somewhat different from other interpretive publications. Most of them spend considerable text, illustrations and time reconstructing a scene, or describing a feature or structure. However, the writer of the self-guiding booklet must keep in mind that the real thing is in view of the visitor as he reads, so there is less need for extensive descriptive text and illustrations. No picture is as good as the actual scene.

Writing a self-guiding booklet for an auto tour is not quite the same as for a self-guiding trail or walking tour. The people in the auto tour are likely to stay in their car and read, if at all possible to do so. Sometimes the car is not even stopped at a roadside marker, and the booklet is read as the visitors proceed on down the road. Because of these things, brevity and clarity are vital. This calls for easily read text, and the designation of marker numbers must be conspicuous for quick identification. Bold face type or underlining of captions becomes important. The type of paper used in the booklet is a consideration. Slick and coated paper are attractive, but cost is high and the glossy surface produces excessive glare if used in sunlight. Because most tours, whether by car, boat, or on foot are usually carried on out-of-doors—often in all sorts of weather—a medium weight, uncoated paper is preferable.

There are a number of simple precautions the writer should consider when preparing text. If he observes them, he is likely to come out with a rather well written manuscript. Basically he should remember the old saying: "Write unto others as you would have them write unto you!"

As suggestions:

Select words that are simple and easily understood; shrink them where possible.

Don't be slangy, as people often resent it. This doesn't mean you should not be human.

Don't be wordy, but get to the meat of the subject quickly. This is not the place to show the extent of your knowledge of the subject.

Avoid unfamiliar terms and technical language; such can be confusing.

Don't go into superlatives. You are not preparing a sales pitch for the reader.

Don't be stuffy. This is not the place to demonstrate your knowledge of the English language.

Use short sentences and short paragraphs. The most effective sentence length is around 17-19 words.

Be sure your thoughts are well tied together.

Make your writeup friendly in tone. This is your way of "speaking" to the reader.

Use active rather than passive verbs when possible.

Avoid such impersonal words and phrases as "it is believed" or "authorities have found."

Take care that the picture you are creating in the reader's mind cannot be taken the wrong way.

Use good punctuation, as it helps to make your meaning clear.

Have just one idea in each sentence, otherwise you can confuse the reader.

With a well thought-out route, attractive and appealing markers and signs, plus thoughtfully written booklets, self-guidance is one of the most effective and rewarding interpretive devices.

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Last Updated: 01-May-2008
Copyrighted by Southwestern Parks and Monuments Association
Western National Parks Association