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General Approach to Interpretive Planning

The following key concepts drive our general approach to interpretive planning.

Objective Driven
Information is a tool to cause an impact on behavior and attitudes. We do not tell people about conservation so they know more; we do it because we want a behavioral change – we want them to practice behaviors that help conserve natural and cultural resources. At the very least we want them to support resource management activities that focus on conservation. Consequently, objectives, couched in terms of impacts on behavior and attitudes, are key guidelines for developing any plan.

Objectives for Evaluation
Planning is basically an educated guess as to what is going to be successful and is based on context and knowledge at a specific time. In order to continue to improve, and to serve a constantly changing audience, it is important to evaluate the success of planned efforts. Therefore, objectives are written to be measurable. Although almost any objective can be measured, often time and money precludes extensive work in evaluation. Consequently objectives are written in such a way that organizations can evaluate given their parameters on time, budget and available staff.

Theme Based
The focus of the interpretive effort is on communicating key themes, which is consistent with NAI’s approach and with research in cognitive psychology that has found that people generally remember two or three take-away concepts or overarching themes rather than individual facts. Themes are selected by linking the tangible resources of each park with intangible concepts, especially universal concepts, to create theme statements.

Involved Clients
Our approach is based on the belief that to be really useful, a plan has to be implemented. To be implemented, it has to be your plan, not our plan. That ownership and consequent support for the plan is achieved by significant involvement during the planning process by the client and key stakeholders, and by creating opportunities for others to become aware of the project and provide comment. This generally requires a series of work sessions, interim submittals for review, and presentations involving all parties in order to gather information, present concepts, gather feedback, and discuss ideas. Such a forum allows people to get involved and contribute, and the consequent investment of time and contribution of ideas and information creates a sense of ownership that leads to support. We are interpretive planning and design specialists; you are specialists regarding the needs of the site and your agency, and of the context or constraints of the situation. The only way to get the best possible product under the circumstances is to combine our expertise with yours. Therefore, we approach each project with the intent of listening carefully so we fully understand the unique set of circumstances, issues and needs in a particular project, and of keeping the client engaged in all parts of the process to ensure that the plan is based on accurate information, is feasible, and fully meets their needs and expectations.

Visitor Experience Based
Visitors come to any location for an experience that involves a lot of factors and facets beyond information, including interpretation. The interpretive opportunities must fit into this context in order to be effective. Therefore, the visitor experience must be identified and described during the initial phases of the planning process prior to identifying the appropriate array of orientation, way-finding, and interpretive strategies that will support that experience.

Marketing Approach
Visitors ‘buy’ interpretive opportunities with their time (their most valuable asset) and effort. Consequently the information network must be developed using a marketing approach. Such an approach is based on identifying the market segments you want to reach, and then profiling those markets to determine what opportunities will attract and hold them, and determining how to present the information to communicate the theme.    

Orientation is a Need; Interpretation is an Option
People have a predictable set of basic needs, such as food, water, shelter and clothing, and the feeling of safety or security. In a leisure experience, the need for security is manifested in a need for orientation and wayfinding information so we feel secure in our ability to manage a strange environment. If that need is not met, visitors will not fully engage in options such as interpretive experiences. Consequently, the plan must address the entire information network to support the visitor experiences to help insure that interpretive opportunities are successful. The basic network is outlined below.

Type of information

Questions to be answered

Typical locations for information

General marketing information

Why would I want to visit your site?

Off-site (only applies to visitors who plan a visit, not drop-ins)

General planning information

What can I do there? How long does each activity take? What else can I do in the area? Etc.

Off-site for those who plan; Initial information desired on-site for drop-ins (after the bathrooms)

General way-finding information

How do I get to your site?

Off –site (at home) and along route

Site-specific planning and way-finding information

Now that I am here, where do I go and what do I do?

Initial information desired on-site for drop-ins (after the bathrooms)

Interpretive information

What is that? Why is it here? How does it work? Etc.

At interpretive opportunities

Extended experience information

I liked that! What else do you have and where do I go to get it?

Last part of a site-specific interpretive opportunity – directs people to other sites in the park, books, events, etc.


Seeing is Believing

According to most communication theories, people believe what they “see,” so if you can’t show them what you are talking about, it is hard to communicate. From an interpretive perspective, if we focus interpretive opportunities on concepts that can be seen in some way in the cultural or natural landscape, or in the features in that environment, the potential for interest on the part of the visitor, and for communication, increases significantly. For example, telling the story of the impacts of dune migration is likely to be more effective where people can see live trees being buried by encroaching dunes. Therefore, the inventory of opportunities is not simply an inventory of features; it is an inventory of stories you can tell effectively based on the props you have available for grabbing attention and then painting the picture you want the visitor to see.

The ‘Gauntlet’ instead of Democracy
Planning and design decisions are not based on who has the loudest voice or the most power. They are based on what will work most effectively in your situation to reach your desired outcomes. With that in mind, the first part of our approach focuses on establishing the base of information so we can assess possibilities using what we term, ‘the gauntlet.’ It consists of a series of questions that can be asked of each suggested interpretive strategy (Media):

    • Does it help meet our goals and desired outcomes and/or address our issues? (Management and Mechanics)
    • Will our target audience choose to spend time on it and will they be able to understand it? (Markets)
    • Can it be implemented and maintained under our parameters and constraints? (Management and Mechanics)
    • Is it consistent with our themes? (Messages)
    • Does it take advantage of our opportunities? (Mechanics)

If the answer is ‘yes’ to all those questions, the suggestion merits serious consideration. To create the gauntlet, we need to have a good understanding of goals and desired outcomes, issues, audiences, parameters (constraints) and opportunities. In essence, the planning decisions are based on and defended by this information rather than being subject to a majority vote.