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Making Interpretive Signs, Problems and Solutions

Number 7 - February 1993

J. Willison

We approached several botanic gardens asking for problems encountered and solutions found to erecting and maintaining interpretive signs. The range of materials and techniques used in producing signs is vast. Here we have compiled a list some of the most common problems you encounter together with solutions you have suggested.

Problems and Solutions


  • Don't place signs in direct sunlight.
  • Restrict the size of the plate used so fading is even.
  • Use only black ink for lettering.
  • Restrict the use of colour.
  • Build a small roof over the sign.


  • Use painted wooden signs (cheap to repair).
  • Treat all wooden signs with wood-preservative (e.g. creosote). Discarded engine oil is a cheap alternative but be careful it takes a long time to dry - up to two weeks.
  • Use vitreous enamel signs (durable but expensive)
  • Mount potentially brittle signs on a more durable backing
  • Use cheap materials that can be replaced frequently
  • Use engraved aluminium signs.


  • Use laminated steel with embossed letters


  • Where infestation is a problem, use metal posts.

Algae and Fungus - Yellow Signs with Large Black Letters

  • Vandalism/theft
    Set posts in cement filled cans buried in the ground.
  • Clean graffiti etc off the signs as soon as possible to reduce the risk of further additions, particularly graffiti replies.
  • Mount tree labels out of reach of visitors but large enough to be read.
  • Use sturdy backing framing and posts, a more solid looking structure is less likely to be attacked.
  • Try to avoid provoking an aggressive response. "Help us to keep the gardens tidy, take your litter home" is less likely to provoke a response than "Don't drop litter"
  • Allow a budget, time and or money for maintenance and cleaning of signs

Lack of Specialist Design Knowledge or Expertise

  • Use design consultants (possibly willing to work for a reduced fee)
  • Find a local art or design college willing to get students to work with you.
  • Do as much background reading, research, investigation into interpretive sign-writing as possible before embarking on a new sign writing program
  • Consult with as many staff members as possible. Get their views on layout and design. Show them your ideas and get feedback from them.
  • Decide what the aims of the signs are. What is your message, who are you trying to reach. What image are you trying to get across. Answering these questions will help you choose appropriate designs.
  • Approach museums, zoos or other organisations who may be able to give you advice.

Lack of Staff and/or Time

  • Use volunteers to erect and maintain signs.
  • Decide the minimum amount of signs necessary and start by producing these.
  • Look for outside organisations to sponsor signs.


  • Imported signs are expensive, try to use local materials and ideas.
  • where possible reuse materials.
  • Find an organisation willing to share costs of equipment, design and production of signs. This could be another botanic garden, museum or zoo.
  • Instead of a sign, get voluntary guides to do 'spot talks' at some of the sites you want to focus on.

Thank you for your ideas and suggestions to: Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne, Australia; Jard¡n Bot nico Robert and Catherine Wilson, Coto Brus, Costa Rica; Narayana Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary, Kerala, India; Hong Kong Zoological and Botanic Garden, Kowloon, Hong Kong; Jardín Botánico de Bogota, Bogota, Colombia.