How to get excited about rocks: Designing en-

How to get excited about rocks: Designing environmental interpretation that inspires and
motivates visitors and enhances the visitor experience
David Revell
Imagemakers Interpretation Planning and Design, UK
‘Through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation;
through appreciation, protection.’
——Freeman Tilden, Interpreting Our Heritage, 1957
Very few visitors get excited about collections of rock samples in glass cases. At
least, this is our experience of designing geoheritage interpretation. So how else can
we engage our audiences?
This paper will examine the design challenges and media available in creating
compelling geoheritage interpretation, with specific reference to our work at Knockan
Crag in the West Highlands Geopark, Scotland, and the English Riviera Global
Geopark gateway site at Berry Head, England.
This paper is a companion to a paper by my colleague Graham Barrow Interpretation Planning and its Role in Sustainable Tourism and Visitor Management at Geoheritage Sites, published elsewhere in this journal and also presented at the 3rd International Forum on Geoheritage.
Interpretation is how we communicate the interest, significance, value and meaning of
a natural or cultural heritage site to the public. Interpretation design is the process by
which the interpretation themes or messages are communicated to visitors.
Effective interpretation design is provocative, exciting, revealing, memorable and
fun (Heritage Lottery Fund, 2009). To achieve this it must:
• Provoke the visitors’ attention
• Be pleasurable
• Be interesting and meaningful
• Be well organised and easy to understand
• Have a clear idea or theme at its core e.g. what makes the site special or unique
The visitor experience
Geoparks are competing for visitors’ time and money with a wide range of other parks
Author: David Revell BA (Hons) MA (RCA), Creative Lead, Imagemakers Interpretation Planning and Design
Consultants. [email protected]
David Revell: How to get excited about rocks
and heritage attractions. In a competitive market, Geoparks must consider how to differentiate themselves and offer a quality experience that will remain in the minds of
visitors. Positive visitor experiences become a self-reinforcing cycle. They generate
revenue, ‘word-of-mouth’ recommendations and stronger, longer lasting relationships
with visitors / customers.
The visitor experience is the sum total of every single visitor interaction across a
site, and includes welcome signage, car parking, orientation and wayfinding,
café/refreshments, toilets, trails, viewpoints, guides or rangers, and interpretation. All
these loci must be integrated so that, whilst they may be experienced individually,
together they communicate the same underlying messages and sense of value for the
Internet-based ‘pre-visit’ and ‘post visit’ experiences are now a critical component
of the visitor experience, both at the point when people make a decision to visit, and
afterwards where they can share their experiences with friends and others. Increasingly, decisions to visit are being made on the strength of ‘likes’ or feedback uploaded
onto social media websites.
Interpretation is an integral part of the visitor experience, and cannot be planned,
designed and delivered without reference to this wider perspective. Indeed, interpretation plays a central role in creating successful visitor experiences by engaging, inspiring, motivating and entertaining visitors.
Implementing the interpretation plan
In his paper, Graham Barrow describes the benefits of interpretation and the process
of planning interpretation. A detailed interpretation plan is the starting point for all
effective interpretation design. Consistent with all good communication design, interpretation design must be conceived with the audience in mind, together with a thorough understanding of the content or stories that must be communicated.
An interpretation plan will provide an insight into the people visiting the site. It
will explore their reasons for visiting, the duration of their visit, their level of interest
in the site, and what they are expected to do afterwards or how their behaviour can be
The key interpretive assets of the site will also be explored. For example, at
Knockan Crag this was its important geological feature: the Moine Thrust and the
‘Rock Route’ – a trail with stopping points that provide a broader context to the geology of the site.
The interpretive plan can also establish the ‘sense of place’ that must be implicit in
all visitor communications. For sites such as Knochan Crag and Berry Head, this
sense of what makes the sites special, distinctive or unique is the invisible thread or
the ‘interpretive glue’ that unites all the designs and media selection. The significance
of this cannot be underestimated as it should resonate throughout and link together all
the points of communication mentioned above. It will inform a site wide ‘tone of
voice’ for how the stories of the site are told through interpretative texts, and how
specific aspects of the displays, such as graphic design, are formatted.
Whilst the audience and the messages are the primary concerns in designing interpretation, other factors must be taken into consideration, such as the opportunities and
constraints presented by the site. For example, Knockan Crag is situated on a highly
popular tourist route through the Highlands of Scotland and is internationally recognised as a key geological site. However, the weather conditions are extreme, much of
the interpretation is external, and for some visitors physical access is challenging.
Clearly, the constraints and opportunities identified in the plan will have a bearing on
the approach to interpretation design.
Ultimately, the interpretation plan can be seen as the brief to the interpretation designer, as it provides the aims, objectives, context and parameters that the designs
must meet.
Meeting the needs of the audience
The process of designing effective interpretation must fundamentally consider the
comfort of the visitors, and any potential physical and intellectual barriers to their
engagement. This can include ensuring the interpretation is accessible to visitors with
physical impairments, or simply making visitors feel ‘welcome’ at a Geopark.
This would typically mean clear orientational and directional signage, as well as a
friendly reception staff. The Visitor Bill of Rights (Rand, 1996) is a useful benchmark
for designing interpretation experiences from the visitor’s point of view:
1. Comfort: “Meet my basic needs” Visitors need access food and refreshments,
toilets, baby changing facilities, a place to sit down and full access to exhibits.
2. Orientation: “make it easy for me to find my way round”. Visitors need to make
sense of their surroundings. Clear signage and well-planned spaces help them to know
what to expect, where to go, how to get there and what it’s about.
3. Welcome/Belonging: “Make me feel welcome” Friendly, helpful staff ease visitor’s anxieties. If they see themselves reflected in the volunteers, staff, exhibits and
guides, they will feel like they ‘belong’ here.
4. Enjoyment: “I want to have fun” Visitors want to have a good time. If they run
into barriers (broken exhibits, intimidating text and labelling or interactives they can’t
relate to) they will get frustrated, bored and confused.
5. Socialising: “I want to spend time with my family and friends” Visitors come for
a social outing with family and friends. They expect to talk, interact, and share the
experience. Interpretation design can encourage and facilitate these types of interactions.
6. Respect: “Accept me for who I am and what I know” Visitors want to be accepted at their own level of knowledge and interest. They don’t want to feel excluded
by staff, interpretation displays or interactives.
7. Communication: “Help me understand and let me talk too” Visitors need honesty,
accuracy, and clear communication from displays. They want to ask questions and
hear and express different points of view.
8. Learning: “I want to learn something new” Visitors come to learn something new,
but they learn in different ways, it’s important to understand the audience and access
their knowledge and interests. Controlling distractions like noise and avoiding overloading them with will help create an environment in which to learn.
9. Choice and control “Let me choose, give me some control” Visitors need control,
the freedom to choose and the ability to get close to whatever they can.
10. Challenge and confidence: “Give me a suitable challenge” Visitors want to
succeed but an easy task bores them but if it’s too difficult they get frustrated. Pro-
David Revell: How to get excited about rocks
viding a wide variety of experiences will match a wide range of skills.
11. Revitalisation: “Help me leave refreshed and restored” When visitors are fully
engaged and enjoy themselves they leave in positive and refreshed frame of mind.
Getting the content right
If the content of the interpretation, the text, images, sounds and video etc, is inappropriate or ill conceived, the interpretation designs will fail to engage and connect with
visitors. Some key guidelines on getting the content right are as follows (Heritage
Lottery Fund, 2009):
• Each piece of interpretation should communicate a single or limited number of
themes or messages.
• Outdoor interpretation should clearly and specifically relate to features, objects or
events in its immediate surroundings.
• Interpretation should encourage visitors to notice and explore the things around
them and should draw attention to specific features that can be seen, touched, smelled
or tasted.
• Written interpretation should be as concise as possible whilst still conveying key
• Text should be written to relate to the audience by using non-technical language.
Text can be given personality by including questions, poetry and quotations.
• The content may include illustrations, photography and other graphic components
such as diagrams. These should be clear and easy to understand, visually interesting,
be consistent with the overall style of the interpretation design, and extend or compliment the text rather then simply duplicate what is written.
Choosing the interpretation media – the story telling tools
The choice of media will be a determining factor in whether visitors engage with the
interpretation, and ultimately connect with the site and its stories.
Media choice will also be informed by the content (the theme or message), and
who the interpretation is for. Media choice will also be determined by the budget and
the cost of creating and maintaining the interpretation.
There are many different media available to interpretive designers, all of which
have their own advantages and disadvantages (Heritage Lottery Fund, 2009). These
media include:
• Graphic panels and graphic displays
• Guided walks, tours and demonstrations
• Performances and theatrical events
• Publications including leaflets, booklets and guidebooks
• Activity packs for families and children, including paper based games, quizzes
and crayon rubbings
• Low-tech interactive displays, including jigsaws, basic models for building, lift
flaps that reveal a message underneath and ‘revealer’ wheels that visitors turn to re-
veal messages through a window in the wheel.
• Dioramas that recreate specific settings, landscapes, scenes and events
• High-tech interactive displays including working models and mechanical apparatus.
• Audio media including listening posts, speakers, handheld wands and headphones
• Tactile media such as 3D models and textured surfaces
• Labels and plaques, usually with short pieces of text and / or simple images
• Audio-visual media including films and video, either projected or shown on
• Computer-based games and interactives, usually accessed through a touchscreen
• Websites
• Artistic media including sculpture, mosaics, murals and other forms of public art
• Archive and reference materials, usually provided with space to sit and learn quietly
• Objects for handling or dressing up, including touch trays, original and replica
artefacts, and clothes and costumes
We made use of many of these media in our interpretation of Berry Head and its
wonderful geology. Examples from this project can be seen in the accompanying
‘Moodboarding’ and establishing an overall ‘look and feel’
At the outset of an interpretation design project, it is essential to define the look and
feel of the interpretation. At the outset of an interpretation design project we will
typically create a series of moodboards in response to the aims and objectives defined
in the interpretation plan. The moodboards allow us to present a vision for all aspects
of the interpretation experience. The boards will include recommendations for structural materials, three dimensional design, lighting effects (if indoors), graphic design,
and artistic interventions. The moodboard is an effective way of presenting an overall
view of the visitor experience to the client team. Agreement of the general look and
feel in these early stages will allow the interpretation designer to embark confidently
into the detailed design development stage – with the moodboards to benchmark
Design challenge - learning styles
The interpretation plan will identify the types of people that will visit the site, but
these people will not interact with interpretation in the same way – they will have
different learning styles. The choice of media and the interpretive design must therefore also take into account the different learning styles of visitors.
The way visitors engage with interpretation can be described in three categories:
visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic (Cable and Beck, 2011).
Visual learners like to take in information visually, and tend to prefer visually
stimulating three-dimensional display and graphics. These visitors will not only read
short piece of text, but also diagrams, photography and moving images.
David Revell: How to get excited about rocks
Figure 1
The layered geology of Berry Head on the English Riviera Geopark was the inspiration for a
design style reflected through the signage and interpretation.
Auditory learners prefer verbal communication and conversation. Interactive
screens, oral histories, live interpretation, and story telling stimulate them. Face-toface interpretation delivered by guides, wardens or park rangers is particularly effective for auditory learners.
Kinaesthetic learners are ‘hands-on’ and prefer to learn through interaction. For
these visitors, traditional object displays in glass cases are not interesting. They prefer
tactile experiences, opportunities to hold objects and to physically ‘play’ with displays
both through digital and analogue interactivity
Figure 2 The visitor centre displays at Berry Head make use of a range of interpretation media, such as
graphic panels, computer interactives, audio points and a geology touchtable, appealing to people with
different learning styles. The content is also ‘layered’ to meet the needs of visitors with different
levels of understanding and interest in the subject.
Design challenge - ‘layering’
Interpretation design must also accommodate the different levels of understanding
about the subject amongst the audience. The extent to which the content on an interpretation display must be layered will be determined by the audience analysis in the
interpretation plan. For example, the interpretation at the Geopark gateway site at
Berry Head was designed to appeal to families and children with little knowledge of
geology and the geomorphology. However, visitors with specialist geological knowledge were also catered for by more complex and detailed content accessed through
screen based digital media.
The concept of layering can also be applied to the layout of text on graphic panels
and interactive screens. In this way text can be delivered in headlines, introductory
paragraphs and body copy. Some visitors will simply read short, sharp headline that
communicate the theme of the display, others will dwell longer and read the introductory paragraph that explains the theme, while some visitors will engage on a
deeper level by reading all of the written content which explores the theme and related topics and stories in greater detail. This type of layering can also be used to reflect the length of a visit e.g. people with limited time will still assimilate and understand the main themes of the interpretation from just reading the headlines.
Design challenge - graphic design
The graphic design of interpretation such as an outdoor panel or an indoor display
determines the ‘look and feel’ of the interpretation. Typically, graphics will work on
a number of levels; these levels correspond to the layering of content, referred to
above. Graphic design elements include typography, colour palette, the use of imagery including illustrations, photography and diagrams.
David Revell: How to get excited about rocks
The way in which these elements are laid out or arranged on panels and interpretation displays involves a balance of visual impact, distinctiveness, practical accessibility to the content being designed, and visual navigation from one part of the content to
another. Hughes (2010) asserts that graphics are rarely ‘read’ in a linear fashion, in
fact most visitors will see a title and skim the text until their attention is caught. In
addition, most visitors will look at a display or interactive element before looking at a
label or explanatory text. This behaviour must be reflected in the graphic design.
Design challenge - spatial design and visitor flow
In restricted indoor spaces, such as a Geopark visitor centre or geology museum, the
physical layout of the interpretation is critical in controlling the order in which content is received by visitors. Planning the circulation involves avoiding ‘pinch points’
where the space between displays is too narrow or where visitors are liable to start
queuing around a popular display. The positions of the displays must also take in account access and the numbers of visitors that may be passing through at any one time.
Depending on the size of the space, it may be possible to plan different routes through
the displays for different visitor numbers at ‘peak times’ and during quieter periods.
Outdoors, interpretation can help manage visitors by encouraging visits along specific trails and to particular viewpoints, and enhance the visitor experience by telling
a story about the landscape and its features. It is very important that whatever is being
interpreted can be seen from the location of the panel or other interpretive installation.
Figure 3 This viewpoint interpretation panel at Berry Head has been carefully located to tell the
story of geological features that can be seen from here. Note the small round plaque on the
left of the panel marks this a s stopping point on an audio tour of the site.
Design challenge - play and learning
Most visitors to geoheritage sites are making a recreational visit. This means many
will want to be stimulated and entertained, and will want to play with something, to
interact or participate in an activity. The interpretation design should therefore con-
sider including play and interactivity, not least because we learn better and engage
more when we do so.
A playful approach also makes the interpretation less daunting for some visitors
because it is less about formal education and more about discovery and revelation.
Other visitors, however, will want to learn and will prefer a more didactic, learning
orientated experience. Again, the principle is to consider the needs of the audience
and design a range of interpretation experiences that meet these.
Design challenge - accessibility and universal design
Good interpretation is accessible interpretation. Accessible interpretation can be created through adherence to the principles of ‘Universal Design’, which are intended to
create buildings, products and environments that are equally accessible to everyone,
including those with disabilities. Taking a universal design approach, good interpretation design does not separate or stigmatise disabled visitors, but ensures that everyone
enjoys the same experience as far as possible.
Design challenge - lighting for indoor interpretation
Indoors, lighting is both a practical consideration and medium to be used creatively
by interpretation designers. Lighting must be carefully considered, as it will have an
impact on the way visitors perceive the space in which the interpretation is being displayed. There is often a balance to be struck in that some of the interpretation media,
such as projections or screen-based displays, require low light levels to work effectively. However, low light levels and dark corners might not suit an interpretation
space which is intended to be light, open and encourage participation and conversation. Penny Ritchie Calder (2006) defines the three aims of exhibition lighting as (1)
ensuring the safety of visitors, (2) to provide lighting suitable for the materials on
display, and (3) to create an appropriate atmosphere. Recently the drive for sustainable energy consumption has led to more importance being placed on the use of natural daylight in exhibitions and displays. It is also thought that the use of daylight has
positive psychological benefits for visitors – ultimately contributing to how comfortable they feel which will in turn impact on their desire to engage and participate with
the interpretation.
Digital media and the digital audience
Digital media and experiences, including websites, smartphones, tablet computers and social media, offer tremendous opportunities for interpretation design.
Websites are a key component in the interpretation of Geoparks and geology museums.
Not only do they start to tell the geology story, they help to market and promote the site
and provide essential visitor information. Websites also enable geoheritage sites to have an
on-going dialogue with visitors, and to provide up to date information and links through
social media channels.
For audiences who are already digitally engaged, the use of mobile digital equipment
makes it possible for us to provide high impact multi-media experiences. An outdoor
graphic panel can now include a QR code, which visitors with a smartphone can scan to
David Revell: How to get excited about rocks
Figure 4
This website for Berry Head provides essential visitor information about the Geopark and
is starting to interpret its geology.
access additional digital content including photography, video, computer generated imagery and text that deepen and extend the story.
Smartphone and tablet ‘apps’ enable geoheritage sites and Geoparks to provide
multi-media trail experiences, leading visitors through a journey of discovery and engaging
them with interactive experiences and games.
Social media connections allow visitors to tell their friends and family about what they
are doing, and to share their experiences with other visitors. Game based exploration of
geoheritage sites can enable visitors to compete with each other to achieve the most points
or discover the most secret aspects of the geology – and competition is a powerful motivator.
Many smartphones, such as the iPhone and Google Nexus, are also location aware
through their satellite location system. This means that the digital material accessed
through the phone can include a site map with a live satellite connection that shows the
visitor exactly where they are and where to go - a really useful orientation aid.
Smartphones and tablets also allow interpretation designers to create ‘augmented reality’
experiences, where digital content overlays or ‘augments’ a real-world view. This technology uses the phone’s camera, satellite location and internal compass to trigger content, such
as a recreated animation of the formation of a landscape. This content is viewed against the
actual landscape or geological feature, allowing visitors to appreciate the geoheritage in an
entirely new and compelling way. Photographic or illustrative overlays can be geotagged
around the landscape can also allow visitors to ‘see’ historic or cultural artefacts or buildings that no longer exist.
Although digital media offer great opportunities, they are only part of a balanced approach to interpreting geoheritage. Not everyone has a smartphone, or wants to use it to
explore the place they are visiting. Visitors who are not already digitally engaged cannot be
expected to use digital media, and therefore the many other traditional media remain an
essential part of the Interpretation designer's toolkit.
The development of effective interpretation of geoheritage is a creative process. The
starting point in this process is an interpretation plan that articulates the themes and
objectives and identifies the audiences and their characteristics.
Interpretation designers have a wide array of media at their disposal, and a range of
design techniques and issues to consider in their application.
Geoparks offer great potential for interpretation, and a creative approach is needed
to effectively engage visitors with the meaning and significance of geoheritage - a
subject that few people have much knowledge of but whose inherent fascination can
be used to connect, inspire and entertain.
Cable, T and Beck, L (2011) The Gifts of Interpretation, Fifteen Guiding Principles for Interpreting Nature and Culture, Third Edition, Sagamore Publishing, Illinois.
Heritage Lottery Fund (2009) Thinking About Interpretation
Hughes, P (2010) Exhibition Design, Laurence King.
Rand, J (1996) The 227-Mile Museum, or, Why We Need a Visitors’ Bill of Rights, Visitor Studies Association.
Richie Calder, P (2006) Lighting the Way: Principles of good lighting design, Museum Practice 36.
Tilden, F (1957) Interpeting Our Heritage, University of North Carolina Press.