Wayside Planning

Preparing for a Wayside Project

Use the new "Wayside Exhibits: A Guide to Developing Outdoor Interpretive Exhibits" to learn about best practices and good examples, and to avoid common pitfalls. The "Wayside Guide" can lead you through the work process, link to web pages, videos, PDFs, and other resources. Learn more about the Wayside Exhibits Guide.

Wayside Work Process

Wayside exhibit projects should begin with parkwide wayside planning integrated into the full spectrum of media within a park. But following the overall identification of all desired waysides within a park, it is often necessary and prudent to move a subset of waysides forward ahead of the others. A multiphase project is not a sign of poor management, rather, wayside exhibits can be—and often should be—completed in phases. Reasons include availability of funds, the need for original art or maps, the opening of a new trail, limited staff hours for the project, seasonal conditions, or other circumstances. Download the Wayside Work Process Charts.

Work with Harpers Ferry Center

Contact Harpers Ferry Center for assistance with general wayside questions, project strategies, cost estimates, technical assistance, and contracting options.

NPS employees: Please visit Waysides on SharePoint for more information and resources. (NPS access only)

Visitor Accessibility for Waysides

Making media accessible to visitors with disabilities makes our products even better and is critical in all stages all stages of the planning, design and production process. For more information about programmatic accessibility for National Park Service interpretive media, please visit HFC's Accessibility webpage. A good place to start is the accessibility guidelines. Please also explore this page for specific topics and additional resources.

Wayside Planning

Outdoor, or "wayside", exhibits often are planned at a point where the need to know intersects with the need to explain. Typically these wayside exhibits are flat panels mounted on a low base, angled to refer to a particular scene. They may also be mounted upright as trailhead exhibits or as orientation exhibits near visitor centers, marinas, or other major access points. For the purpose of this discussion, a wayside exhibit is defined as a combination of words and pictures on a two-dimensional outdoor panel providing interpretation, information, or orientation to a specific landscape. Waysides are very much a graphic medium. Although the boundaries are somewhat blurred, directional signs are not considered wayside exhibits.

Wayside exhibits have the challenge of interpreting a sometimes dynamic landscape in a setting that has multiple distractions. When a family emerges from their minivan at a park visitor center or overlook, many things compete for their attention. Arriving in a park, people may be scanning for wildlife or a dramatic vista, looking for a restroom or the start of a trail, or checking the schedule of the next guided walk. For a first-time visitor there are so many interesting features that it's difficult to know where to focus. To complicate matters further, this potential audience (or victims) of the wayside may be seeking an enlarging or inspiring experience rather than a didactic one.

In attempting to interpret everything significant in a setting, a park could spawn a dense forest of waysides. This thinking leads to the trap of the Wayside Exhibit Paradox: In a natural area, a wayside is a manufactured intrusion; in a historic area, a wayside is a contemporary intrusion. Too many wayside exhibits can dilute each message and compromise the resource; too few might shortchange the visitor.

It is possible to select sites and subjects judiciously, to present the interpretation to optimal effect, and to blend harmoniously with the resource. But to achieve this, planning must go according to the strengths of the medium. Planners who allow wayside exhibits to be theme-driven often underestimate the importance of the medium's third dimension—the piece of significant terrain that appears just beyond the frame of the wayside's two dimensional panel.

The best wayside exhibits are site-specific. A specific piece of ground should drive the idea and provide the creative tension—the interplay between the landscape being viewed and the emotional and intellectual reaction of the person entering and apprehending the scene. Think of wayside exhibits as captioning the scenery. In that way, the particular geyser or fort bastion or customs house foundation remains the primary focus of the exhibit. Just as the best writing is packed with highly specific language, the best waysides illuminate the specifics and significance of the immediate terrain.

Implicit in any discussion of wayside exhibit planning should be the notion that design is an integral part of the exercise. Rather than distinguish between planning and design, or viewing them as sequential aspects of the process, think of planning and design as having co-responsibility for the interpretive solution.

At Antietam National Battlefield near Sharpsburg, Maryland, a wayside exhibit faces a small church, approximately one hundred yards distant. The one-room whitewashed building has simple unremarkable lines. On the wayside exhibit is a large black-and-white photograph taken immediately after the battle. The church, though a bit shot up, looks much as it does today, but in the foreground are corpses of soldiers. Much of the wayside exhibit's power derives from this historic photo, taken from the precise site where the exhibit is installed.

Few people come to parks for the express purpose of reading. At its best, the text should succinctly illuminate the terrain and help people immerse themselves in the resource. The text is the springboard. Admittedly, some of the subject matter may be fiendishly complex. That is where succinct expression finds an enjoyable challenge.

Outdoors, the exhibit audience is mobile. The wayside graphic must attract people's attention; the title must be short and intriguing; the first sentence (most crucially the first sentence) must seduce the audience into wanting to know more. A wayside exhibit audience is the opposite of captive. Show them something predictable, academic, or jargon ridden, and they move on, having far better things to do. The best waysides make one point and one point only.

It is not enough to design and write a well-crafted wayside exhibit panel. It must be integrated into the scene. Too many outdoor exhibits appear to be located arbitrarily, as if javelined into the ground by a cargo plane flying at ten thousand feet. Wayside exhibits are part of the built environment. They normally should be accessible to all, including wheelchair users and people with arthritic knees. Develop a landscape architect's eye, or trick a landscape architect into joining your interpretive team. Remember that exhibits don't simply interpret the resource. They intrude on it as well. Blend the exhibits into pedestrian turnouts on boardwalk trails. Or blend them with railings, boulder groupings, or hedges.

Ideally begin with media planning or a long-range interpretive plan. For any park area, wayside exhibits should be just one component of a mix of media. Sequential narrative or in-depth analysis of a subject can be covered better in a publication than on the limited area of a wayside exhibit panel. Parcel the park's story according to each medium's strengths.

The core of any wayside exhibit planning venture is the site visit. First, survey the entire area, getting an overview of the outdoor resource and significant features. Identify potential sites and how they fit into visitor use patterns - the tour roads, trails, and interpretive loops. Closely observe visitor behavior, paying special attention to how people make use of existing interpretive media. Then return to each potential wayside exhibit site and study it in depth. Think about graphics as well as the story, and trust your perspective as a first-time visitor. Like a detective, seek the visual clues that reveal the significance of this particular piece of terrain. Notice how the rise of the land favors Stonewall Jackson's troops crouched in the sunken railroad; notice the pattern of the dry desert wash, the way the angle of debris may reveal the power of a flash flood. Let the landscape itself - the telling detail - illuminate the subject.

The initial result of the site visit should be a wayside exhibit proposal. This is essentially a list of all the sites that made the cut. For each exhibit, provide an outline that identifies the subject, the interpretive purpose or intent, the panel's orientation or view, and a detailed description of the precise location and any landscaping considerations. At this stage, each exhibit in the proposal should reflect a team perspective, including the views of a subject matter expert, park interpreter, designer, wayside exhibit planner, and park superintendent. As often as possible, include the maintenance foreman (who may be installing and maintaining the exhibit) and a landscape architect on the initial team. This is also the time to begin determining materials based on factors such as weather, potential vandalism, and the relative permanence of the information.

After the proposal has been reviewed and approved, the wayside exhibit planning/designing begins in earnest. The wayside exhibit plan, as a document, consists of draft text and a scaled layout of each exhibit panel. While developing text, particularly for a historic site, look for quotations that refer to the specific landscape.

As in theater, wayside exhibits depend on an audience response. Obsessively field-test your products; spend hours observing people interacting with outdoor exhibits. Eavesdrop on their comments. Use a stopwatch to time people who stop at (or pass by) the exhibit. To test wayside exhibit concepts and effectiveness, cultivate a group of informal evaluators —"civilians" with little or no connection to the profession of interpretation or outdoor recreation. Solicit candid responses; don't let them pull punches. Real people in a realworld outdoor setting may provide you with responses far different from those of your client park interpreter.

At its best, a wayside exhibit inspires a more active park visit. Good waysides often provide perceptual tools for further exploration. When the wayside exhibit across from Glacier National Park's Bird Woman Falls interprets that specific hanging valley above the waterfall, visitors learn how to recognize this glacial feature and can look for other hanging valleys during a tour of the park.

Wayside Writing

Start with a place. Tell a short, engaging story. Leave readers wanting more. It sounds simple, but space is limited and the audience fleeting. Visitors may linger at a wayside for 45 seconds or less. Can something of value be read in that short time? Wayside text must connect with, support, and enhance the images and landscapes visitors see. The following guidelines for wayside writing are particularly important for visitors with cognitive and learning disabilities.
Do not take it for granted that readers will automatically understand the link between the story and the place where they are standing. Make sure they do. But be careful not to describe what they can see readily with their own eyes.
Write in plain English, avoiding jargon and buzzwords. Avoid value judgments or subjective statements. Use an objective point of view to present interpretive messages in wayside exhibits. For safety rules, use direct, command-form instructions. Follow the Harpers Ferry Center Editorial Style Guide for specific guidance on word choices and format issues.
Weed out passive voice, and use short, active verbs. Keep the story moving. Use common language. Look for ways to replace longer words derived from Latin or Greek with basic plain English. For safety rules on trailhead waysides, stick with direct, simple Do’s and Don’ts. Don’t dance around the subject.
There is no one right answer to this question. Raw word counts vary for the many different sizes of waysides. An 18x18 can support far fewer words than a 36x48. A better measure is to get a stopwatch and have someone read draft wayside text out loud. Are the key ideas conveyed in less than 45 seconds? Did the reader stumble on hard-to-pronounce or not widely known words? If so, strike them out and rewrite.
All wayside text is not created equal. Keep key thoughts in main text blocks, and supporting details in captions or labels. Some visitors only read the title and look at the main graphic. Others read the main text and some captions. A few read it all. Sometimes ideas that started out in the main text find a better fit as a sidebar or a caption. Sometimes a phrase can be cut out of main text and put to work as a direct label on an image. Keep each element focused.
Many writers find they need to work up to the heart of the matter, like a diver bounces on a diving board. It may take one, two, or three sentences to get there. After writing draft wayside text, find the best sentences. Try them out as the first sentence instead of leaving them in the middle or at the end.
Compose the first draft. Compare it to the purpose statement. Read it in the context of the layout and a photo of the site. Get feedback from other writers, interpreters, and general-knowledge-only readers. Rigorously cut away everything that can be eliminated. The craft of writing good waysides depends as much on subtraction as on creativity.
Good wayside writing will help people discover something meaningful and worth the interruption. Why should they care? Look for hidden relationships. Find an angle of interest, a way to help visitors see what can’t be seen. Write for the reader’s benefit, not for your own pleasure or sense of what people ought to learn. Think about the visitor’s sense of place and address the moment of curiosity, the questions inspired by the place.

Wayside Design

Successful wayside exhibits inspire a connection between the visitor and the resource. Because they are located directly adjacent to features on the landscape, they foster an immediate and direct association of information and place.

Freeman Tilden defined interpretation as: “An educational activity which aims to reveal meanings and relationships through the use of original objects, by firsthand experience, and by illustrative media, rather than simply to communicate factual information.” Wayside exhibits are an “illustrative media” that illuminate features on the landscape as “original objects” enjoyed “firsthand” by active visitors.

Too often design is considered an exercise in decoration. People hire designers to make things “look good.” Desktop publishing and presentation software provide all sorts of styles and templates to help us format information so it looks “professional.” But design is not about adhering to a template, arranging images in a certain way, using existing or custom styles, selecting certain materials or making things look nice. Although producing a media product can and does involve all of those things, design is a process of problem-solving, planning, and developing products that serve an intended purpose.

Wayside design is the process of visualizing the meanings and relationships of the landscape and enhancing firsthand visitor experiences.
Waysides give focus to significant features on the landscape and facilitate their connection to larger meanings. They foster a direct interaction between visitors and park resources. Outdoors, the physical landscape feature within the viewing area of the visitor is the “original object” and waysides are the caption.
Visitors are out of their cars and on the move. What is the best location to capture their attention, encourage them to pause, and provide an interpretive moment? Envision yourself standing before a significant feature along a trail. Why did you stop where you did? If you have 3 seconds to grab a visitor’s attention, what will spark a connection to the site? Don’t expect anyone to read your carefully crafted text until they have some desire to read. There are some who will read every word you put before them, but aim for those visitors who are charging headlong through a park hoping to have a great time. Consider young children and non-English speakers. As they charge through, grab a moment of their time by grabbing their attention. Take 30 seconds to keep them engaged with a dynamic visual presentation that makes an immediate connection to the landscape. Use carefully crafted words to reveal that, yes, this is the site, the actual place, the “original object.” But don’t keep their attention away from the landscape too long by expecting them to read in-depth information or get the whole story because, after all, their experience should be of the park itself. Seek to interpret – spark the questions, and let them move on up the trail to further their firsthand experience.

Assume you are standing in some special place with a group of visitors and can have anything you want to help reveal the meaning of the site. If you are standing before FDR’s library, you might want FDR with you holding his architectural drawings. On a battle site, you might want the soldiers around you, guns at the ready. In a desert landscape you might like to have all the creatures that call the place home. In front of a historic building you might like to peek inside and see the original occupants going about their business. Or perhaps you need to fly above the site to see the differences in vegetation. What will reveal the meaning of the place? Think large.

With this exercise, you have begun visualizing what you will need to develop an effective wayside exhibit. How do you convert these ideas into a visual form? Think about the graphic that will speak a thousand words. Put the soldiers back on the battlefield by developing an illustration of the site at the time of the battle. Is there a photograph of FDR in front of the library with his drawing in hand? Gather all the creatures of the desert together in a series of photographs, or perhaps develop a new illustration. Is there a photograph of the interior space of the historic building, a drawing, or portraits? Look for an aerial photo from above the site to give focus to a subtle landscape detail. As you consider graphic selection, keep the wayside purpose and context in clear focus. It is important to remember that the landscape is part of the design solution.

While your team (subject matter expert, writer, designer, interpreter) is on site get your ideas on paper so you can share them with others. Make a thumbnail sketch yourself, or have a designer do the drawing to help facilitate the discussion. Sketch small to encourage simplicity and focus. Have actual graphics on hand but don’t be limited by them. Brainstorm ideas and draw them all. The quality of the drawing is not as important as the ability to show ideas, hierarchy of information, and graphic options.
Up to this point, the design process has not involved expensive or sophisticated software programs, nor the need to scan images or develop layouts. After you’ve sketched your wayside ideas and have agreed on what the interpretive focus will be, then you can move forward to consider panel size, reproduction methods, typography, graphic elements etc. This web site is loaded with helpful information that can be helpful throughout the process.

One of the tools used by the National Park Service is an underlying grid. The purpose of the wayside exhibit grid is to create a consistent recognizable format for organizing and presenting information to the public. Another added benefit is that it helps to streamline the process of producing hundreds of new waysides each year. The grids are not templates like those found on the graphic identity web site; they do not contain picture boxes, text boxes, and other preset features. Rather, they are structured but flexible page frames for holding your own specific content.

The NPS wayside grids – along with the National Park Service identity standards, editorial standards, map standards, consistent work processes, and long-term maintenance – help keep costs down and visitor confidence high in our wayside exhibits.

Wayside Bases

There are various styles and methods of construction for the bases that make up HFC-produced wayside exhibits.
Of all our standard bases, the low-profile base is used most often for interpretation.
This style of base is used to provide opportunities, rules, regulations, safety information, and orientation.
These are typically used to identify a plant or building offering space for a sentence or two.
These are add on items to enhance the visitors experience such as audio box, brochure holder, or a place where parks can leave temporary messages.

Wayside Maps

The wayside map standards are a collection of guidelines established to create consistency with official National Park Service publications maps.

Unlike published maps, wayside maps can only be used on-site and cannot be carried away with the visitor for further reference. Wayside maps work best when they are site-specific and have a clear focus. They should provide only the necessary information to assist a visitor traveling from the sign location (point A) to point B. They should not include all the information you would see in a photograph, on the ground or in other parkwide maps.

The “You Are Here” is almost always the most important feature on a wayside map.

The following information is needed in order to create a well-focused wayside map:

The specific location of the wayside is critical in determining the content of the map.
The intent of the map may be the same as the exhibit, or it may be somewhat different.
If there is a primary user group for the wayside, (Dayhikers? Campers? Tour Groups? Horseback Riders? Backcountry Users? Family Groups? Wheelchair users?) the map can be designed to better address the needs and concerns of the specific audience.
The size and scale of the map is based on its purpose, the amount of space available in the exhibit layout, and the geographic area and content of the map. A poorly designed map can mislead people if, for example, short distances appear to be very long. Maps should be created at the same size as will be used in the final reproduction. Adding to the map area, or changing the scale of a map can double the cost and time needed to create a map.
The cartographer will need to know what geographic features and labels to include on the map. Only those elements which are relevant to the purpose of the map should be shown. It is helpful to have a written list of all features (park areas, open water areas, drainages, roads, trails etc.) and labels (spelled correctly) listed in the order of importance. A map compilation can be a very helpful tool for conveying the map content to a cartographer. Also, the labels used on a map should reflect signage used in the park and wording used in the exhibit text. Refer to the official publication for consistency among media.

Published maps are generally oriented with north at the top, however wayside maps often work better when oriented in the same direction as the wayside. The following criteria can be used to help determine map orientation.

  • Map that shows a large area (entire park or an area that includes features that cannot be seen from the location of the ways should be oriented north.
  • Map that will be used more than one location with different You Are Here identifiers should be oriented north.
  • Map that will be used on a kiosk should be oriented north.
  • Map on upright for a site-specific trail should be oriented in the direction the trail is going.
  • Map on low profile should always be in the direction the visitor is looking.
Gather resource maps to be used for base information, keeping in mind that these reference maps were created for different purposes. A map compilation, a hand or computer drawn map showing all content necessary to create the final map, is an excellent reference source. To help with the organization and development of each new map, Harpers Ferry Center offers a Wayside Map Planning Worksheet.

Wayside Panel Materials

Several methods of panel imaging and fabrication are available. Of these methods, the one best suited to a particular situation depends on a variety of factors. Initial cost is, of course, important, but other questions should be considered as well. To what environmental conditions will the exhibits be exposed? Must the information presented be changed frequently? Perhaps the most critical factor is the behavior of your visitors. To what extent do you suspect that the exhibits will be vandalized?
Of all the environmental forces that affect the durability of an outdoor exhibit panel, sunshine is usually the most damaging. The extent of sun-related damage (primarily due to ultraviolet rays) will depend on the exhibit's altitude (ultraviolet effects are greater at higher elevations), its orientation (which way it faces), its configuration (whether the panel is mounted vertically or at an angle), and simply the amount of annual sunshine the panel receives. The greatest impact of sunshine is fading. However, high heat and fluctuating temperatures can also cause some materials to warp or delaminate. Other environmental conditions, including wind-blown sand, tree residue, dirt, bird droppings, and moisture can also impact the life of an outdoor exhibit.
The ability of a panel-imaging process to properly reproduce graphic images is very important. There is no quantitative measure to help determine which process to select. Simple comparisons of DPI (dots per inch) and LPI (lines per inch) are confusing, and don't always apply to each imaging process. The best way to judge visual quality is to simply view a panel (in natural light) and determine for yourself whether it is a clear and accurate likeness of the images from which it was produced. Do not rely on samples provided by fabrication vendors; instead, ask that samples be made from materials that you supply.
Cost is a factor that should be considered very carefully. As with any purchase, the true cost of a wayside exhibit panel can only be determined by weighing initial cost against durability. A panel that is inexpensive to purchase but does not last is not a bargain.
On the other hand, a panel that costs more but lasts far longer than the information it presents is not a bargain either. If you expect that a panel's content will change soon or often, choose a material that will allow changes to be made quickly and less expensively.
Keep in mind that a panel's lifespan is not simply a function of its inherent durability, but also depends on your ability to care for it. Simply put, a panel will last longer if it is well maintained. If you lack the resources or the commitment to properly maintain your exhibits, durability will be an especially important consideration.
Of course, no matter how hard you try to care for your wayside exhibits, there will always be people who vandalize them. The behavior of your visitors is one of the most critical factors to consider when selecting a panel material. While no material will survive a determined vandal, some resist better than others. Having the most rugged material is, however, not the only defense against vandals. Often the best response – to either intentional harm or unintentional wear from normal use by large numbers of visitors – is to select panels that can be replaced quickly and inexpensively.
The following are possible panel materials:

  • Description: directly printed on a solid aluminum sheet, then finished with clear hardcoat
  • Strengths: no de-lamination, excellent image quality, hard surface, can be double sided.
  • Warranty: 10 years
Fiberglass Embedded Inkjet
  • Description: paper inkjet print saturated with fiberglass resin and baked at high temperatures to form a single core.

  • Strengths: no de-lamination, good image quality, hard surface

  • Warranty: 10 years

High Pressure Laminate
  • Description: inkjet print sandwiched between multiple layers of melamine and phenolic sheets pressed at high pressure and heat to form a solid core.

  • Strengths: no de-lamination, excellent image quality, made of 30% recycled materials, hard surface, can be made self-supporting (1/4,1/2-inch thicknesses available)

  • Warranty: 10 years

Porcelain Enamel
  • Description: sheet of steel with layers of baked-on glass frits and mineral oxides

  • Strengths: superior image quality, durability, vandalism and scratch resistance

  • Warranty: 25 years

Wayside Grids

The wayside grids (zip file) Version 4 (2019) provide a digital framework for creating wayside exhibit production files. The grids are furnished in a variety of sizes and comply with the NPS Sign Program. They have been updated with accessibility in mind. All paragraph styles now include text tags for easier creation of accessible PDFs. Italic type is no longer the default quotation style and the arrowhead includes alt text.

Additional changes include column adjustments, master page enhancements, and removal of the default UniGuide frame.

InDesign CC 2019 is required.

  • Adobe InDesign CS2, CS3, or CS4 (MacOS or PC-Windows)
  • NPS approved OpenType® fonts NPS Rawlinson OT and Adobe Frutiger Std.
  • NPS staff can download NPS Rawlinson OT and Adobe Frutiger Std from the NPS Graphic Identity Program website.
  • Contractors and partners can obtain NPS Rawlinson OT through their local park contact.
  • Contractors and partners must acquire their own copies of Adobe Frutiger Std from Adobe Systems or from another font vendor.
  • Retrieve an OpenType Font Chart for the NPS typefaces.

Wayside Exhibit Installation

Harpers Ferry Center provides videos that show how to install wayside exhibit bases, step by step. Usually park maintenance crews prepare the sites and install the hardware, helped by interpreters. Some parks choose to contract out the installation to a local construction firm. Learn more about Base Installation.

Now every NPS unit is required by FMSS to examine and evaluate the condition of every wayside exhibit once a year. The manufacturers' warranty covers fading, cracking, peeling, or delamination. If you see this kind of problem, you can get your panel replaced free, or at very low cost.

Every wayside panel made after 2006 carries an ID sticker on the back that reveals what material was used, when it was made, and what warranty was promised. When parks call HFC to get a replacement for a faded or delaminated panel, keep this information close at hand.

Warranties don't pay for wayside panels that have been ruined by vandalism, accidents, or hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes.

To get a replacement wayside panel, contact the manufacturer or for HFC assistance contact Susan Haines 304-535-6033. It helps to know the title and location of the panel you want to replace. Digital files for panels fabricated through Harpers Ferry Center are archived and available for quick panel replacement. Learn the step by step process for replacing a panel in a full-frame base.

Wayside Evaluation

This checklist may be of assistance in identifying the deficiencies of installed wayside exhibits. Answer questions "Yes" or "No". Print out multiple copies of this checklist and complete a separate sheet for each wayside exhibit being evaluated. Add notes to the back of the page if necessary.

If you answer "No" to any of these five key questions, the entire wayside exhibit should be considered a failure. Take steps to remedy the problem.

  • Is the topic of this wayside interesting, significant, and site-specific?
  • Do the graphics invite viewers to interact with the wayside?
  • Is the exhibit’s content accurate?
  • Does the arrangement of text and graphics provide a clear interpretive point?
  • Is the text legible?
  • Are visitors using and responding to the wayside?

  • Does the wayside relate directly to the landscape?

  • Does the quality of the images reflect the professional integrity of the agency?

  • Is the arrangement of information logical and easy to follow?

  • Are the sentences clear and concise?

  • Can the text be read easily aloud without pronunciation stumbling blocks?

  • Does the wayside accomplish the purpose stated in the Wayside Exhibit Plan?

  • Do the captions relate to the images seen?

  • Is the content accessible for the visually impaired?

  • Does the wayside have just enough information to provoke thought?

Last updated: March 18, 2024