Signage, Storytelling and State Parks, Oh My!

May 09, 2024
Experiential Design Parks & Open Space

How a coordinated park graphic system can help attract users, promote engagement and encourage people to return year after year.

The word "Kansas" often recalls images of the Wizard of Oz, prairies, fields and flatland. In a geographical survey by the American Geographical Society, almost a third of all respondents said they thought Kansas was the flattest state. While some areas of Kansas are indeed flat, there is more to the state than meets the eye; one prime example of Kansas' diverse and compelling landscapes is its 28 state parks. These parks celebrate a state rich with dramatic scenery and myriad outdoor adventures. In 2015, the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism engaged RDG Planning & Design to analyze state park signage and branding and establish a marketing and strategy plan to identify and promote the parks and their unique amenities. By sharing surprising and unknown adventures, RDG gave each park an identity and relayed a broader message about the entire state park system. Though much has changed since the project began, this branding remains an integral part of the parks. It serves as an example of how a coordinated graphic system can help attract users, promote engagement and encourage people to come back year after year. 

What does it mean to have a coordinated graphic system?

Let's start by clarifying a few key terms, beginning with what we mean when we say coordinated graphic system. The first part of a coordinated graphic system is the brand or a family of fonts, symbols, colors, illustrations and logos. For Kansas State Parks, the brand gives a distinguishable and recognizable identity to the individual parks through illustrative interpretations of each park's offerings. These illustrations are brought together stylistically and through the selection of colors and fonts, making the entire collective part of the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. In a coordinated system, the park logo is designed to allow it to stand alone and as part of a more extensive integrated system that could include a park system logo, representing a collection of parks, and a city logo. 

After completing inventory, analysis, and interviews pertaining to each state park, information was synthesized into one iconic logo to represent each individual park.

Signage and wayfinding complete our definition of a coordinated graphic system. Serving as the public interface to a park, the signage program helps users identify their location and provides necessary interaction while navigating through a park. In the case of the Kansas State Parks, a customized family of entryway and directional signs was developed using a brand likeness. Making the form of the signs unique was essential to the overall scheme, helping users not get confused with any other park system. Today, the customized form of the sign is highly identifiable and maintains cohesiveness throughout the parks.

A coordinated graphic system ultimately shares a similar and consistent story by applying the developed brand, signage and wayfinding. In this way, we accomplish several branding efforts concurrently:

1.       The entire park system and individual parks become recognizable through marketing and social media.

2.       We create signage throughout the park.

3.       The park offers promotional items, employee apparel, vehicles, etc.

4.       We create a source of revenue generation for the parks through customized merchandise.

These principles apply to many project sizes and types and can be implemented in corporate or academic campuses, healthcare buildings, commercial developments and cities and towns. 

Why a coordinated graphic system?

Our park systems have many competitors vying for the eye and interest of potential visitors. As people's attention spans are only becoming shorter, a successfully coordinated graphic system creates an identity for the park(s) and helps draw in people. For example, to differentiate a park with great fishing from other parks within the same system, the design may incorporate elements of fishing into the branding to signal the park is a destination for that activity. This approach was critical in developing the individual park brands for the Kansas State Parks: the overall theme had an identifiable look and feel, while each park captured the intimate moments unique to each park. While parks are multifaceted and attract a broad range of park users, maintaining a keen focus on what different parks are "selling" can help break through the advertising noise and create a competitive edge. 

How to accomplish a coordinated graphic system

One of the first steps to developing a coordinated graphic system is to understand who the designs will reach and how those audiences will likely use and receive the information. When addressing the intent behind the design for park graphics, there are two broad groups to consider: internal and external

A park's internal audience encompasses staff and management teams. Coordinated graphic systems can motivate employees and inspire loyalty among staff. Developing pride in a system or a park is an often-overlooked byproduct of a good marketing strategy. The public presence and persona developed through an intensive branding exercise means park staff have a symbol to stand behind. Think of the National Park Service (NPS): thousands of volunteers yearn to don the NPS logo every year because of what that symbol has meant over the past 100 years. 

The external audience encompasses the park's clients or general park users, both current and future. These are the primary users of a coordinated graphic system, and there are numerous reasons to keep the external audience in mind when designing a coordinated graphic system:

  • To create a consistent set of expectations. A high-quality logo on a high-quality sign can help users understand what to expect from a park. It's the first symbol or indicator of the park itself and the first introduction to the park and its values. The entire brand package can also dictate how users should perceive the park: if a logo includes an abundance of a clear blue sky, the use of the color could subconsciously express that the park is a pollution-free respite from congested urban life. In contrast, if a logo illustrates dense forestry and a forest is nowhere to be seen, disappointment or distrust could emerge in the park system. Graphic style plays heavily into the values that are created. If a park utilizes a lithographic style logo, it might signal to users a classic or historic park experience with scenery, relaxation and history. If a park uses a highly stylized or abstract logo, a more urban park experience could be expected with athletics, water parks, trails, pets and increased density. If a logo can successfully set park expectations, it will eventually take on an even deeper meaning for park users, one of comfort, ownership and belonging. 

  • To set the destination apart. Developing a clear and concise logo system can elevate a park's status and help break through the constant buzz of advertising surrounding our daily lives. Logos for each park must set the park apart from competitor parks and other parks in the system. If done successfully, logos for a group of parks will sell a park system as a whole while celebrating each park's inherent uniqueness. Effective park system logos unite all the locations and serve to summarize the entire system, ideally tying the best parts of the parks together into one value statement.

  • To increase marketability and awareness. The most apparent benefit of the graphic system is to advertise your parks. Regardless of context, a park logo is part of a visual identity that can be put in front of potential users. Whether on printed materials, social media, apparel or premium items, the brand is a public announcement of the park. Park-branded merchandise is the best form of advertising, as it often means a user paid money to advertise for you. However, park users are far more likely to purchase branded merchandise if the attached logo can publicly announce their values. Shoe companies use this strategy well, encouraging users to buy goods because the brand indicates socio-economic status, taste, style, etc. While we don't expect that same level of demand for branded park merchandise, a primary goal for the logo should be to reflect the park and its users.

  • To create a commodity. Since the first national park was developed in 1872, parks have served as tourist destinations. Naming locations — especially overlooks and unique features like waterfalls — was done to assign importance and encourage visitors to experience each location. We continue that process today, and while most destination names help distinguish different trails or campgrounds, our inherent nature is to commoditize areas of the parks to encourage people to see and experience them all. 

Key questions to ask when creating a coordinated graphic system 

Working with a specialized and interdisciplinary design team can be immensely beneficial to developing a cohesive system of logos and signs. For example, landscape architects understand the subtle differences in park use, landform, topography, and plant and animal life. They can work closely with graphic designers to ensure the design represents these items accurately. Once the design team is in place, it's time to start asking serious questions. These questions are intended to shape the direction of the logos and brand and verify that your park system is headed in the right direction. Because the logos are aspirational, it's also essential to have an objective firmly in hand before moving forward.

There are two sets of questions to ask: questions about the entire park system and questions about the individual parks. Below is a series of questions that can get the conversation started. Disseminating questionnaires or holding listening sessions with users outside of park leadership may be an effective way to solicit honest answers that can lead the design toward meaningful results. 

About the entire system:

  • What is our park system known for?

  • Is there a misconception about state parks we'd like to correct?

  • Is there a role we'd like our parks to play that hasn't been realized yet?

  • What sets our parks apart from others in the region/country?

  • What ties our parks together?

About the individual parks:

  • What makes each park unique (e.g., landform, flora, fauna, prevalent uses, clientele, history, culture, seasonal interest)?

  • Is there a future use/vision we'd like the park to adopt?

  • Is there a misconception about the park we'd like to clarify/correct?

  • What should the park be famous for?

  • Why should someone choose this park over others?

  • Are there unique stories this park holds?

Rebranding the Kansas State Parks

RDG's design for the Kansas State Parks offers a cohesive graphic system of customized visual identities for each state park and signage guidelines for a complete system. We developed a set of visual identities for the parks by researching historical data, visits to each park, information gathered from park staff, leaders and users, and each park's unique set of amenities. The resulting designs encompass fonts, symbols, colors, illustrations and signage, establishing unity and consistency previously missing in the parks system across the state. 

In total, 28 identities were established, celebrating each park's unique landscape. When we began the process, it was clear that existing branding needed to depict the park's amenities and features correctly. For example, Fall River Park was shown as having a large waterfall and a place to hike when, in fact, the park has a lake with cabins and camping sites. It is also one of the best places in eastern Kansas to stargaze. Disconnects like this have since been remedied, and the branding now speaks to what the parks offer.

RDG developed a toolkit of sign standards and guidelines to continue consistency created across the park system. Designed with each park's individuality in mind­, this toolkit is a living document that can be implemented as each park changes and grows, honoring the region's landscape, history and nature. Much thought went into the placement and implementation of signs: location and orientation, cone of vision, size of text, speed limit, amount of text, color palate and materiality of the signs. Now implemented, the system establishes the identity, images, graphics and branding used on apparel, merchandise, postcards, marketing material and any literature to convey the message and story of each park, inciting excitement, curiosity and joy to those far and wide.

Written by Mindy Alvarez, Experiential Graphic Designer; Tony Montgomery, Experiential Graphic Designer