Signage, Storytelling, and State Parks…Oh My!

Rebranding of Kansas State Parks

Most people think prairie, flat, fields, or Wizard of Oz when “Kansas” is mentioned. In a geographical survey by the American Geographical Society, almost a third of all respondents said Kansas was the flattest state. In fact, some people even call it “flatter then a pancake.” While some areas of Kansas are indeed flat, there is more to this great state than meets the eye. Between man-made destination water parks, to indoor digital driving ranges, to digital devices which encourage park users to look more at their phone than their surroundings, the parks and park systems were in desperate need of attention. Kansas’ twenty-six state parks offer some of the best examples of that diversity; celebrating a state rich with dramatic scenery and a multitude of outdoor adventures. Thus, the state of Kansas believed it was time to change this perception, and show the diverse landscape within the state, particularly reflected in their state park system. 

To accomplish this, RDG Planning & Design was hired to analyze state park signage and branding, and establish a marketing and strategy plan to identify and promote the parks and their unique amenities. A collection of signs is more than letting someone know they’ve arrived. RDG set out to tell the story and give identity to each park, relay a bigger message of the state park system, and share the surprising adventures most may not know about. Moreover, this newly designed coordinated park graphic system provides innovative ways to brand and sign the parks in a way to grab attention and attract more users.

The existing branding and message of the parks was not correctly depicting the amenities or features. For example, Fall River Park was shown as having a large waterfall and a place to camp and hike. In reality, the park offers a gorgeous lake with cabins and camping. It is also one of the best places in eastern Kansas to stargaze. There was a big disconnect in the what the park was named and existing branding and what the park offered. Some perceptions are that a lot of state parks are very rugged, when in actuality the parks are quite beautiful and adventurous.

Working with park staff and leaders to understand what was currently working and what could improve, RDG researched historical data and visited each park. Taking all this information into consideration, each park’s unique amenities, designers were able to develop a strong image creating that “identity” for each park. Flora, fauna, wildlife, and the people who visited were also looked at to form each identity. This led to generating imagery, branding, and signage for the park regions, and establishing a level of unity and consistency otherwise missing in the parks system across the state. 

When a graphic and signage system is coordinated, the signs and graphics work together to share a similar story. Coordinated park graphic systems clarify the mission and direction of a park or park system. For example, if a park decides that it is known for great fishing, and opts to include fishing as a primary theme of its logo, the logo serves as an impetus to ensure high-quality fishing habitat is available in the park. It may impact the decision of which parts of the park are developed first or help shape how maintained dollars are used. While parks are always multifaceted, and attracting a broad range of park users is important, maintaining a keen focus on what your park is “selling” is essential in breaking through the advertising noise your users are experiencing on a day to day basis.

“The Kansas State Parks Design signage guidelines developed by RDG is a thoughtful long-term vision to develop a system of new entrance and wayfinding signs and customized visual identities for each of the state parks in Kansas. In total, twenty-eight separate identities have been established, celebrating the unique landscape of each park,” said Jen Cross, PLA ASLA.

RDG developed a toolkit for each park to use laying out signage standards and guidelines to create consistency among parks. A signing nomenclature was also created for sign hierarchy, location, and type: grand entry or entry point, exit, secondary entrance, monument sign, etc. Designed with each region’s individuality in mind, stone native to each region (sandstone, limestone, etc.) was used to save on transportation cost, allow each park to construct needed signage with skilled labor, and to honor the landscape, history, and nature of the area.

Rising above the plains in Gove County in western Kansas is Monument Rocks, a series of large chalk formations formed some 80 million years ago. Also referred to as the Chalk Pyramids.

This toolkit is a living document that can be implemented as each park changes and grows and can be applied when ready. Adding to this, we wanted to relate to each region’s history while giving a modern look and feel, keeping brand and identity throughout. We were sustainable with material for longevity and growth. This project was not only to create beautiful signage to enjoy today, it’s about creating a sustainable system, both in process and materials, that will last for many years to come.

Park logos unabashedly accomplish that 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 want to visit all the parks just because the logos show such diversity. Therefore, park logos should highlight that diversity to the make each park enticing and different. The widely popular WPA posters, developed for the National Park Service during the 1930s and 40s, explicitly had that purpose: highlight diverse landscapes to spur tourism.

The goals were to establish an identity for each park and create an overall brand for the parks system for easy identification and to allow those visiting a sense of belonging and to let them know they are welcome. We also wanted signage to be effective at all times of the day by using reflective metal in places with no electricity. 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 sign. Once the overall implementation becomes consistent and establishes the “identity”, images, graphics, and branding will then be 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.

“I really enjoyed being educated on the diversity of Kansas state parks, wildlife, and natural resources, and the challenge of translating that information into unique illustrations for each park,” said Tony Montgomery, RDG Graphic Designer

For more details regarding the benefits of a coordinated park graphic system, click here.

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