Signage, Storytelling, and State Parks…Oh My!

September 05, 2019
Experiential Design Parks & Open Space

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

The word “Kansas” often recalls images of the Wizard of Oz, prairies, fields and flatland. In fact, in a geographical survey performed 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 are its 26 state parks. These parks celebrate a state rich with dramatic scenery and a multitude of 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.  RDG set out to tell the story and give identity to each park, relay a bigger message about the state park system and share the surprising and unknown adventures the parks have to offer. Though much has changed in the seven years since the project began, the branded system remains an integral part of the parks and serves as an example of how a coordinated park 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. For this article, we define a coordinated graphic system as a family of graphic logos, signage and wayfinding that serve as the public interface to a park. These are the symbols, signs and logos users identify and interact with when they enter and navigate a park. Graphic logos include both park system logos, which represent a collection of parks as well as individual park logos. In a coordinated system, the two logos are designed in a way that allows them to stand on alone and as part of the larger integrated system. Coordinated wayfinding signs are customized signs that are unique to a specific system. In the case of the Kansas State Parks, all parks have a customized family of signs that is consistent throughout the state. The form of the sign must be unique so that it won’t get confused with any other park system.

When a graphic and signage system is coordinated, the signs and graphics work together to share a similar story. The customized form of the sign is as identifiable as the logo. In this way, we accomplish several branding efforts concurrently: (brand one) the system logo seen on the interstate sign leads users to (brand two) the park entrance sign, which leads users into the park where they buy (brand 3) a piece of that park’s customized merchandise. By coordinating all these efforts, the logos work together to share a common story, one that ties the system together as a whole and celebrates the uniqueness of each individual park.

It’s important to note that while the applications in this article relate to a statewide park system, the principles work across many project sizes and types. These design concepts can be implemented in any system with unique user destinations including corporate or academic campuses, healthcare buildings and commercial developments.

Why a coordinated graphic system?

Our park systems have a multitude of competitors vying for the eye and interest of potential visitors. Between man-made destination water parks, indoor digital driving ranges and apps designed to encourage endless scrolling, people’s attention spans are only becoming shorter. This is where a coordinated graphic and signage system can help draw people in: it’s through these branded elements that we’re able to tell the story and emphasize the mission and direction of a park or park system. For example, to promote a park that has great fishing, incorporate elements of fishing into the branding for the park to signal it as a destination for that activity. 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.

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/or receive the information. There are two broad groups to consider when addressing the intent behind design for park graphics: 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 that is developed through an intensive branding exercise means your staff has a symbol to stand behind. Think of the National Park Service: 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, aka general park users, both current and future. This is the primary user of a coordinated graphic system, and there are numerous reasons to keep this 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 park’s first introduction to the park and its values. Signage and logos can also dictate how users should perceive the park: if a logo includes an abundance of clear blue sky, it can subconsciously sell the idea of the parks as a pollution-free respite from congested urban life. In contrast, if a logo utilizes a view of dense forestry and a forest is nowhere to be seen in the park, it may lead to disappointment or distrust in the park system. Graphic style plays heavily into the values that are created. If a park utilizes a lithographic style logo, which was made popular during the 1930s with the Works Progress Administration, it might signal to users of a classic or historic park experience: scenery, relaxation and history. If a park uses a highly stylized or abstract logo, it may signal a more urban park experience: runners, dogs 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 and even ownership. If the logo matches users’ experiences and can match the set of values they place in the park, the logo can take a life of its own and be used as a personal symbol of the park.

  • To get the park in front of more eyes. The most obvious benefit of the graphic system is to advertise your parks. Regardless of context, its logo gets the concept of the park or park system in front of potential users. Park-branded merchandise is the best form of advertising, as it often means that a user paid money to advertise for you. However, park users are far more likely to purchase branded merchandise if the logo attached can publicly announce their own values. Shoe companies use this strategy well, encouraging users to purchase goods because the brand itself 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 not only the values of the park but of park users as well.

  • 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, both from competitor parks as well as other parks in the system. If done successfully, logos for a group of parks will sell a park system as a whole, while also celebrating each individual park’s inherent uniqueness. Effective park system logos unite all the locations and serve to summarize the entire system, ideally tying the best part of the parks together into one value statement.

  • To create a commodity: Since the first national park was developed in 1872, parks have been developed as tourist destinations. The act of 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.

Park logos seek to accomplish the same goal: develop logos for each park so people feel like they must see them all. Especially if the logos highlight dramatically different landscapes within a defined area, such as parks in a state park system, people will be more inclined to want to all the parks.

Key questions to ask when creating a coordinated graphic system

Working with a specialized and interdisciplinary design team can be immensely beneficial to the process of developing a coordinated and cohesive system of logos and signs. For example, landscape architects understand the subtle differences in park use, landform, plant and animal life and topography and can work closely with graphic designers to ensure that items such as landform and plant material are represented accurately. Once you have a design team in place, it’s time to start asking serious questions. These questions are intended to not only shape the direction of the logos but to verify that your park system is headed in the right direction. Because the logos are aspirational, it’s also important to have your park system aspirations 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 are a series of questions to get you started.

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 isn’t 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, etc.)?

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

  • Is there a misconception about the park that 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 that this park holds?

It’s important to note that some of the best people to answer these may not be in a park leadership position, so disseminating questionnaires may be an effective way to solicit honest answers that can lead the design toward meaningful results.

Rebranding the Kansas State Parks

RDG’s design for the Kansas State Parks signage guidelines offers a system of entrance and wayfinding signs and customized visual identities for each of the state parks in Kansas. In total, 28 separate identities were established, celebrating the unique landscape of each park. When we first began the process, it was clear that the existing branding and message of the parks did not correctly depict the parks’ amenities and features. 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 and is also one of the best places in eastern Kansas to stargaze. As such, there was a disconnect between the park’s name and its existing branding versus what the park actually offers.

Working with park staff and leaders, our team sought to understand what was currently working and what could be improved. We researched historical data and visited each park and, taking all the information we gathered from these experiences into consideration as well as each park’s unique set of amenities, set out to develop a set of visual identities for each park. The resulting designs encompass imagery, branding and signage for the park regions and establish unity and consistency that had previously been missing in the parks system across the state. 

RDG developed a toolkit for each park and laid out signage standards and guidelines to create consistency across the entire park system. Designed with each region’s individuality in mind, stone native to each region (sandstone, limestone, etc.) was used to save on transportation costs, allow each park to construct needed signage with skilled labor, and honor the landscape, history, and nature of the area. The toolkit is a living document that can be implemented as each park changes and grows.

The rebrand of Kansas State Parks sought to establish an identity for each park and create an overall brand for the parks system that would allow easy identification and instill in visitors a sense of welcome and belonging. 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 Tony Montgomery, Graphic Designer