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.

Desert Botanical Garden trail sign. Are you saguaro smart?

“Are You Saguaro Smart?”

Visitors interacting with an interpretive trail sign at Desert Botanical Garden.


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.

Pen and ink art of saguaros for interpretive trail sign

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 for Saguaro Hotel trail sign

“Saguaro Hotel” trail sign


deserts of the world map for interpretive trail sign

pen an dink illustration of creosote bushpen an dink illustration of palo verde treepen an dink illustration of pereskia plantpen an dink illustration of cactus flower

illustration of agave plant showing water storage in leaves

Agave plant showing water-storing cells in leaves



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