Interpretation Design – Not Just for Museums

Interpretation Design – Not Just for Museums

Though interpretation design (or heritage interpretation) is used to bring educational installations to life, the interpretation principals — engaging an audience through stories, facts, and images — also has broad application in the business world.

Heritage interpretation defined:

“… to improve and enrich the visitor experience by helping site visitors understand the significance of the place they are visiting, and connecting those meanings to visitors’ own personal lives.” – Wikipedia

Including “Experience” in your Marketing Mix

The term “4 Ps of Marketing” — Product/Service, Place, Price, and Promotion — was first expressed by noted marketing professor and author E.J. McCarthy in 1960, and is still used widely today. The second and fourth Ps, Place and Promotion, both include aspects of interpretation design to communicate a marketing message to customers at a specific location of interest or activity. Although top-tier creative teams often include story telling as a means of provoking an emotional connection in consumers, most small to medium-sized businesses, without Madison Avenue ad budgets, fall back on mundane and uninspired forms of communication that speak about their products and services, but do not speak to the experiences of their end users.

While the 4Ps may be mostly concerned with the product or service and how to get customers to purchase them, “branding” has, in some ways, become business’s “interpretation design”.

Entrepreneur magazine’s defintion of branding illustrates the commonalities between interpretation design and branding: “Your brand is derived from who you are, who you want to be and who people perceive you to be.”

Entrepreneur suggests that businesses, when defining brand, should ask the following:

  1. What is your company’s mission?
  2. What are the benefits and features of your products or services?
  3. What do your customers and prospects already think of your company?
  4. What qualities do you want them to associate with your company?

Numbers 1, 3, and 4 lend themselves well to interpretation design for business. Communicating your mission, user stories (testimonials), and personality (qualities and associations) can be done by borrowing from the heritage interpretation designer’s toolbox. If we repurpose the definition of interpretation design for the goal of branding communication, replacing “visitor” with “customer”, it might read:

“… to improve and enrich the customer experience by helping customers understand the significance of the business they are visiting, and connecting those meanings to customers’ own personal lives.”

This statement is an ideal that can only be achieved by planning and by really understanding the customer’s needs. It requires re-evaluating how your business presents itself to the public, wherever the two meet. Once such place, is your place of business.

Elicit Connection or Elicit Yawns

When you walk into a business do you get a sense of the business’s story, mission, values, and personality? Do those aspects of the business’s personality resonate with your own experience, or, when you glance around the business’s office, are you left with an impression that this could be any business? The typical business office experience is sterile, with no connection to the people who visit there, sometimes even with no connection to the people who work there.

Most businesses ignore how they are interpreted by visitors. The extent to which many business tell their story, particularly in their own offices, is often limited to service brochure racks that nobody reads, business cards, and office décor, but, these things don’t say anything about a company’s mission, core values, or people.

The next time you walk into an office, glance around. You’ll likely see the usual office interior: waiting room chairs, coffee table with neatly stacked magazines, water cooler, brochure rack, business card holder, washroom key on the reception desk, and some paintings here and there adorning otherwise barren walls. This predictable, generic office layout is a template that is stamped out repeatedly with little thought concerning its impact on brand; it communicates nothing and doesn’t elicit a feeling of connection or kinship from customers or clients. It will more likely elicit yawns.

Defining Interpretation Design for Business

Freeman Tilden, the “Father of U.S. National Parks Service Interpretation” described in his 1957 book, Interpreting our Heritage, six principles of heritage interpretation. The first principle states: “Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.” The same can be said of the way businesses choose to communicate with clients, customers, employees, and the public in general.

If office designers think like heritage interpretation designers, then branding, marketing pieces, signage — and indeed any media — by virtue of taking into consideration the experience of the user, changes from banal to subtly interactive, provocative, and relatable.

Another principle of interpretation is: “Information, as such, is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information.”

Business communication, including marketing, is often a stale relating of information. A business can and should reveal something more to its customers, clients, and visitors in marketing communication. That “revelation” can be subtle, such as a vision of the company’s personality, or more utilitarian such as the customer recognizing that a business’s products or services fulfills their needs. The point is this: a list of products and services is not what sells them, in the same way that your comfy waiting room chairs won’t make your customer’s like you. These are nothing more than necessities of business, serving a basic purpose. What sells anything, is relationship, and in the end that is what good heritage interpreters do — create experiences that help their visitors understand and relate to place.

Business success guru Bob Burg’s Golden Rule of Networking states: “All things being equal, people do business with, and refer business to, people they know, like, and trust.” Communication that really considers the needs of the end user helps them know you, like you, and trust you. Your business becomes a standout among a field of thousands of competitors, all of whom can provide the same service.

Practical Interpretation Design for Businesses

“Okay, great” you might be thinking, “but how, exactly, can I use interpretation design to promote and brand my business?”

Interpretation design requires planning. Sandbox Signs + Graphics, as our name suggests, is a sign company, and signage and display is the key element in interpretation design.

Take a look at this display, which combines image, story, and maps to help visitors interpret place — in this case, an illustration depicting the distribution Polaris Minerals’ product from production site to market.

Mixed-media display signage is one aspect of interpretation used by heritage interpretation designers that is easily translated to business. Imagine how a similar such display might help connect your company’s mission, history, people, and principals to office visitors.

Sandbox has created similar such mixed media displays for offices. This multimedia display commemorates hospital donors, connecting the dollars and cents to real people and the very real result of their giving.

A donor wall at BC Women and Children’s Hospital commemorates donors and lets the public know about a hospital initiative. Click for full size.

Here are some types of signage, wayfinding, and displays that businesses may consider when designing their office or event spaces:

How these are used in your office takes a little imagination and planning. Sandbox works with heritage interpretation designers to create interpretive signs, but we can also create interpretation signage for business, including buildings, offices, exhibits, event signage, and displays. Our sign services play an integral role in painting the picture for your customers and visitors. Displays can include a variety of media including: graphics, photos, text, and even audio.

Questions About Interpretation Design for Your Business?

If you’d like Sandbox to help you create an interpretation design plan for your business office or event, or if you are a heritage interpretive designer requiring custom signage and display services, contact us. We’ll be happy to answer your questions.