Relatively few zoo and aquarium visitors enroll in camps. Field trips capture only a portion of the guests who enter the gates. Only a small percentage of the visitors on a given day will be at a specific keeper talk or feeding demonstration. These educational opportunities will only reach a relative few people every day.
Instead, most visitors will rely on a single tool for most of their animal information. The most basic item in the zoo's educational arsenal. The sign.
And I immediately sensed a few of my colleagues rolling their eyes.
There are many kinds of signs in the zoo. There are directional signs. There are rule signs. There are temporary signs. There are guest safety signs. Most prevalent of all are the informational signs.
It's almost taken as a given among many people that signs are useless. Mostly, in their eyes, because no one uses them. The thought of reading the information provided seems to escape many guests; just the other day, I heard an adult exclaim, "Look at the coyotes!"... while the was literally leaning against a sign that said "WOLF" (the same applies to other kinds of signs as well - also last week, I saw a parent stand their kid atop the "Please Keep Off of Fence" sign nailed to an exhibit railing... all I could think was, "I think I've seen this movie before...").
Anyway, this is a common view point... and one that I disagree with entirely. I think a well-made sign that conveys good information is one of the best educational tools available. Sure, it's not as engaging as an actual demonstration or a chance to interact with a staff member (or animal!). But unlike many educational opportunities, it has the potential to easily and cheaply reach everyone.
So what makes a good sign?
It should be attractive. More than attractive - visually arresting. A sign has to at least temporarily hold the attention of a visitor who has a thousand other things to look at, It should be visually appealing with attention-getting images. At the very least, one good picture of the species, multiple if there is sexual dimorphism. (Note: for some animal imagery, there is a line between fascinating and disgusting). There are no rules for color scheme, except maybe avoid road-cone orange. Some zoos prefer very bright, colorful signs that catch the eye. Others prefer signage that blends in and creates a natural feeling.
And don't be afraid to be unusual. One of the coolest signs that I ever saw was the black rhino sign at the Lincoln Park Zoo. It was life-sized and shaped like a rhino, letting visitors stand right up against it and get a sense of the size of these animals. Also, interactive is good, too. Many zoos have signs of wingspans of various birds, encouraging visitors to stand up and spread their arms, seeing how they measure up to a condor, an eagle, a hawk, or a kestrel.
It should be brief. Remember the elevator speech. Few visitors will delay the pleasure of seeing the animal for too long, even for a well-made sign. The sign isn't going to teach them all that there is to know about the animal; what it ideally will do is introduce the animal, then encourage them to seek out more information about it, I'd say 100 words is an ideal summary, If possible, use images to replace words. For example, use a map to highlight an animal's geographic range, rather than words. Represent whether or not it is endangered visually with a thermometer or other graphic rather than text. Save your words for a brief message that conveys an essential impression of the species.
It should be universal. No sign is going to reach every member of an audience... especially if every member of the audience doesn't share a common language. Still, the sign should work for a broad, general audience of adults and kids. If you have to error one way or the other, I would suggest simple, child-friendly text with maybe a few technical words introduced, but explained ("These animals are nocturnal (active by night)". Adults who are reading the signs with children can use these as teachable moments to share information with the kids.
It should be interesting. Or relevant. Ideally both. When you write your draft text, step back, read it aloud, and then ask... who cares? You only have that brief moment to make an impression, so make it an interesting one. If you're telling guests about Arabian oryxes, don't use your window to explain that they have a single calf at a time - tell how they nearly went extinct and were saved. Don't tell people how many subspecies of clouded leopard there are - describe how amazing they are at climbing - maybe complimented by photos of a cat hanging upside down from its back feet, or climbing a branch upside-down.
Attractive. Brief. Universal. Interesting. All things that this post maybe isn't entirely. I better go work on my elevator post.