Desert Botanical Garden: Trail Signs

From 1996-98 I worked with the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix to design and illustrate interpretive trail signs for their main trails. Based on ideas from visitor studies research, these signs were deceptively simple, yet based on several years of research and testing of the concepts. One of the purposes of this was to use text as the main element to direct visitor's attention to objects in the nearby environment. All the signs were printed using silkscreen.

illustration of saguaro smart Desert Botanical Garden: Trail Signs

Are You Saguaro Smart?”

illustration of saguaro smart visitor 225x300 Desert Botanical Garden: Trail Signs


It’s not easy to make your message stick in a viewer’s mind. Especially in an informal learning environ­ment like a zoo or botan­ical garden. That’s the key concept–visitors have not signed up for a class. They are there primarily to relax and socialize. Yet, visitors are very willing to learn if you can engage them But if they start to think, “This feels like school,” it’s a red flag. They will turn away.

Surveys had shown that visitors exiting major, lavish, expen­sive exhibi­tions at large museums, didn’t appear to have learned the main idea behind the exhibit. For example, they still thought a whale was a fish, or in the DBG’s case they still couldn’t tell a cactus from a euphorbia. It became a great mystery in museum studies. Dr. Screven, is a pioneer in studying visitor behavior and psychology in zoos and museums. In addition he created ways to quantify whether the messages were working or not.

The resulting signs were very successful, though the illus­tra­tions were humble. The DBG staff knew the signs would be successful because they tested them first using kinder­garten-class materials: markers, plaster­board and tape, etc. They watched visitors and inter­viewed them until they had every­thing right. It’s the only way to find out. They found that the text was what primarily grabbed people’s interest, not the colors nor the illus­tra­tions.

illustration of saguarosmart 225x300 Desert Botanical Garden: Trail Signs

Pen and ink art for “Are You Saguaro Smart?”

After the signs were produced and in place, they watched and tested them again, using scien­tific rating methods to score how much a visitor inter­acted with the sign. After all, that is what counts, not how award-winning the art and designs are.

I had the honor of meeting Dr. Screven and working with the DBG staff in devel­oping the signs for their main trails. It was a challenging project and it changed my way of thinking about how art relates to content, or the message. In a sense, the art and design has to get out of the way. Just like typog­raphy, design is the “crystal goblet”, the window into what the sign is saying, the idea or knowl­edge the viewer walks away with. The design or illus­tra­tions, in this context, should not call undo atten­tion to themselves.

Another reason for the simplicity of the art is the medium. The signs were produced using silkscreen. This was in 1996, before Photoshop could manage spot colors. I created all the art as pen or brush and ink on scratch­board. These were scanned and the color was indicated through other software, not very satis­fying by today’s standards, using a prede­ter­mined color pallate.

You can read more about Dr. Screven’s research and that of others at the Visitors Studies Association web site.

Here are some of the other signs and illus­tra­tions I created for this project.


illustration of saguaro hotel sign Desert Botanical Garden: Trail Signs

Saguaro Hotel” trail sign


illustration of DD desert of the world Desert Botanical Garden: Trail Signs

illustration of creosote bush 1 264x300 Desert Botanical Garden: Trail Signsillustration of Palo Verde 2 11 300x286 Desert Botanical Garden: Trail Signsillustration of PERESKIA 11 300x294 Desert Botanical Garden: Trail Signsillustration of DD8 Which is the Cactus 11 275x300 Desert Botanical Garden: Trail Signs

illustration of agave grades 300x277 Desert Botanical Garden: Trail Signs

Agave plant showing water-storing cells in leaves



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