The Information Architecture Institute
A conference on designing
complex information spaces of all kinds.
New York City, October 4 and 5, 2007

National parks and design


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David Guiney, from the National Park service was up next, in two distinct parts.

In part one, I wasn’t sure in David’s talk how well aimed it was at the audience - my takeaways were glancing blows: how the signage and weatherproof displays at historic and natural sites work to frame what’s seen. WIthout them they’re just landscapes - famrs, fields, mountains. But those little displays carry the heavy burden of context, information and an ad-hoc, single-shot-of-whiskey, taxonomy. People don’t spend much time at those displays, but it colors and frames everything they see afterwards whether they’re aware of it or not.

More than anything else, part one of his talk made me curious about their processes - they clearly thought deeply about their design work, but they have the extra challenge of designing in support of nature, rather than than giving the design work the spotlight. I hoped to hear more in part 2 after the break, and I was right.

Part 2 was framed around 5 themes:

  1. Facts vs. Feelings
  2. NPS with in-house design, or outsourced
  3. No park is an island
  4. Virtual vs. real
  5. Acceleration of quality

David threaded through these topics without a single bulleted point list - most of part1 and part2 were scenes from parks, examples of signage, maps, or interpreative displays, and in part 2, shots of the designers working together to make all those things happen. Instead of giving a case study, David weaved his own tales and experiences as a park ranger in various parks to hint, jab and touch on the themes of those 5 bullet points (which, in an act of smart design, were the same 5 bullets found on the questionaire he handed out).

In looking at the various examples of design work, the examples of NPS maps, the neatly folded gems they hand you when you enter national parks, brough piles of positive memories: I love those booklets and the cartography of those maps. Yet I’d never really thought of them as designed things: they were so functional and essential in my mind that they faded into the experience, as all good design is supposed to do.

Just like the paths and trails themselves, these small bits of design material divide the park in ways that most visitors never even think about, which is amazing (helping people connect with nature) and scary (how do they know they’ve provided the right choices?) at the same time.

-Scott Berkun

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