Read the small print

Museum display graphics have the tricky task of capturing the attention of visitors in an increasingly interactive environment while being clear and legible.

With attendance figures at the front of their minds, museum heads are increasingly aware that unless all visitors can easily access information, they will turn away. In the past, some museums and galleries were criticised for putting aesthetics before legibility when it came to graphic displays. And while the current wave of exhibitions and new venues has this issue high on the agenda, this must be balanced with the growing need to create engaging, interactive, crowd-pulling graphics.

Designers have recently had the added incentive of the Disability Discrimination Act, 1995. The physical changes to premises have to be in place by 2004. “Our work is increasingly informed by the need to make texts accessible to visually impaired visitors,” says Joy Ashworth at Event Communications, graphic co-ordinator for Dynamic Earth in Scotland.

“Access is a buzz word at the moment,” says Sara Hilton, design and exhibition manager at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, referring to the importance of intellectual, as well as physical access. “Not enough consideration was given to it in the past.” The museum is undergoing a £15m development programme, and the first exhibition, with graphics designed in-house, opens in 2003.

But while some consider legibility to be improving, Museums and Galleries Commission deputy director Valerie Bott is critical of the continuing trend of “tiny typefaces and tiny little illustrations. I think we have gone backwards to decorative typefaces at the expense of people with poor sight and bifocals. People have got carried away with colour and images and graphics but they can demean the objects. There is a skill in designing something that recedes from view. Graphics need to be a servant rather than a competitor to objects [on display].”

Venues such as the Science Museum in London now bring in access monitors. Ellie Duncan charts the Wellcome Wing’s access visibility and helps with type sizes. Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry has an access monitor to assess elements such as background colour for display panels.

Graphic designers, of course, have their own input when it comes to typeface legibility. “I do 36 point,” says James Cook, partner at Objectives, which is designing the graphics for Redbridge Museum in Ilford. At the Wellcome Wing Michael Johnson has been retained as graphics masterplanner. “His job was to look at a variety of typefaces for legibility [on panels] and on-screen,” says Lyn Modaberi, Science Museum design manager.

Dynamic Earth chief executive Julia Fawcett admits that making graphics an integrated part of the design led to its own problems, that is “situations where legibility was not ideal. We wanted to spread the graphic information in innovative ways,” she says, and as a consequence, “We are disguising legibility, but heightening the effect. We are asking visitors to work harder to take information on board. On some occasions, messages are more subliminal.” She cites the Oceans Gallery, where suspended banners sway from a hydraulic motor, and a fishing net contains model fishes, each with a single word on them which form a sentence.

So the actual delivery of the words can play an active role in the whole experience. Johnson Banks is responsible for the Wellcome Wing’s © Antenna exhibition. It is graphics-led because the exhibition is on news and events as they happen, says Modaberi. “It is introduced with quite large graphic icons, and different materials with touch and texture, and electronic media,” she adds.

And while many of the bigger museums are using digital graphics, smaller or less wealthy venues still rely on panels: “Graphics panels are here to stay in one form or another; they are cheap,” says Cook at Objectives.

Designers’ lives are made easier if their exhibition clients give careful consideration to the quantity and structure of the written information that is required.

Hilton at the Museum of Science and Industry points the finger at verbose curators: “Not enough consideration has been given to [text] in the past. Curators have not been thinking [about] what visitors want to know and how they want to receive information.”

Tim Molloy’s work at the Science Museum Basement Galleries started the ball rolling for the introduction of new ways to convey messages. Modaberi says that changes to the old conventions are long overdue: “When I go around to some other museums sometimes it’s [like a whole] book on the wall.”

But curators are not the only potential threat to text clarity. “In modern, multimedia exhibitions like Dynamic Earth, text has huge demands made on it. With films, interactives, models and setwork all competing for visitors’ attention, the text needs to attract them for long enough to convey its message,” says Ashworth at Event.

Layering and hierarchy of text are key, Hilton says. And at the Wellcome Wing, “We have tried to make sure that the main messages are as brief as possible so layered information [and not just on panels] is delivered through various graphic devices,” says Modaberi.

But Cook argues that these devices can still not guarantee to hold visitors’ attention. “Even when you give a hierarchy to text, people look at a graphic panel and think ‘that’s an awful lot to read’,” he says.

While quantity, size and positioning of text are vital to visitors’ appreciation of museum display graphics, they are not the only elements that designers and curators have to take into consideration. “Graphic designers can do what they will, [but] without good lighting, their hard work is lost,” says Ashworth.

Signage functional requirements:

– The location of signs should ideally be part of the process of planning the building and environment.

– Signs should not be located where the glare of lights reduces legibility

– All signs should be in contrasting colours to their background

– The characters should contrast with the sign background

– Signs should be non-reflective both for the sign background and characters

– Sign content should be simple, short and easily understood

– Text and lettering should be produced in a clear, uncomplicated font

– Ensure the wording and use of pictograms is consistent throughout the building

– Signs need to be suitably illuminated either by adequate lighting or by the use of back illumination

An extract from the Sign Design Guide, due to be published in early summer, issued by the Joint Mobility Unit, a service provided by the Royal National Institute for the Blind.

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