A hike in the woods or a stroll through a preserve or park can be enhanced by a good trail sign -- one that is informative, easy to see, yet doesn't intrude on the vista.
It's a lot to ask of a sign designer.
"A wayfinding sign should be apparent when you need it. But when you're not looking for directional information, its aesthetics should complement the environment so that it'll feel as though it belongs there," says Jeff Frank, lead designer at Corbin Design in Traverse City, Michigan.
Cost-effectiveness, durability, accessibility -- and attractiveness -- are all considerations in sign design, he says. For interpretive signs, a great deal of information often must be conveyed in a relatively small amount of space. And there's branding; an aquarium or zoo, for instance, might want their logo incorporated into signage.
National Park Service signs have their own recognizable look. From the beginning, it was influenced by the "parkitecture" of hewn logs and stone: Signs depicted a sequoia cone, and later an arrowhead and mountains.
In the 1950s, an effort was made to create a more cohesive visual identity, says Phil Musselwhite, a North Carolina-based graphic designer and Park Service veteran.
But that midcentury redesign of the logo -- triangles and balls representing trees and cultural artifacts -- met with a tepid response, and the arrowhead, bison and craggy vista were brought back. There's been some tweaking since then, but no drastic alterations.
With the number of Park Service signs estimated near 800,000, Musselwhite says, "signs are the primary way the NPS communicates with visitors."
Some greet, some guide and some educate, but they're all aimed at enhancing appreciation of the parks.
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