Writing For People Who Are Standing Up

March 16, 2015 General Musings

Ashley Healy’s article about experimenting with digital labeling techniques reminded me that the rules for writing good labels remain in effective no matter what the medium.

Interpretive labels refer to all written content that is delivered to visitors whether through a graphic panel, touch screen or smart phone. Interpretive labels are by definition interpretive; they go beyond the facts to provide visitors with context and emotion. Interpretive labels build bridges between the museum’s content and the visitor’s experience. At their very best, labels inspire sharing. They spark conversation and promote inquiry. They are a distinctive form of writing.

Writing successful interpretive labels is based upon a significant body of visitor research. These data show that interpretive labels are important to visitors and that while no visitor reads everything, every visitor reads something. Museum curators and educators have long lamented that “No one reads anymore,” but when it comes to interpretive labels visitors DO read IF the interpretive labels are useful and interesting.

Writing successful labels begins with understanding the needs and expectations of visitors. While each visitor represents a unique combination of experiences, expectations, knowledge and interests, some generalizations can be made about people who choose to spend time in a cultural setting such as museums, science centers and interpretive parks.

Remember, first and foremost, visitors are reading on their feet. No one eats a big meal standing up. Museum visitors need snack-size portions. Museum exhibits are full of visual and auditory stimuli competing for visitor attention. With so much stimuli, visitors easily become fatigued. In describing this phenomenon, Paul Gabriel likens fatigued visitors to having ADHD  and dyslexia, in other words “are easily attracted, distracted and overwhelmed by visual and auditory sensations, and are less and less prone to read much….”

In writing for this distinctive reader, it is also helpful to keep in mind:

• Visitors come in groups. The museum visit is as much a social experience as an educational one.
• Visitors have chosen to use their free time for this activity. They expect their museum visit to be rewarding and fun.
• Visitors often scan a label to judge whether it is worth their time.
• Controlled research studies have shown that adult readers, even those with a keen interest in a subject, will read only 50 words at a time before moving on.
• Some visitors only read the top level of information while others get their information from the short captions. Hierarchy in presentation is critical to help visitors focus.
• Visitors do not read every label, nor do they read labels in any particular order. Therefore, each label must stand on its own.

Why do visitors read labels?
• Visitors use label headlines to scan a room to determine what interests them and where they want to spend time.
• Parents and teachers read labels to “look smart” and answer their children’s questions.
• Visitors read labels aloud to share information with their group.
• Visitors repeat what they have read in labels.
• Labels with strong photographs, illustrations and diagrams help visitors grasp complex topics.

What makes a good label?
• Successful interpretive labels are ones that can easily be read aloud.
• They are conversational, using vocabulary, vernacular and sentence structure that reflect how people speak. They use language that can be understood by most visitors. Good labels use simple, clean, and clear language with active verbs.
• Good labels are inclusive. They use pronouns such as us and we.
• In a label, every word works. Tight text and shorter sentences are more successful than long sentences with complex structure.
• Good interpretive labels convey a sense of emotion to help visitors gain an understanding of the importance of what they are experiencing. They answer the visitor’s unspoken question, “Why should I care?”
• Good interpretive labels tell a story. They paint word pictures of past events, people and places.
• Successful interpretive labels make reference to what visitors see in front of them. They use words to direct visitor’s attention to specific detail. They use concrete references.
• Good interpretive labels reward visitors for reading to the end of a section; the last sentence is as compelling as the first. The last sentence leaves visitors feeling satisfied.
• Good interpretive labels do no harm. They do not raise questions that cannot be answered in the label text. They do not ramble or include information that is confusing or irrelevant to the topic.

Additional Resources

Excellence in Exhibition Label Writing. American Alliance of Museums.

Gabriel, Paul. 2006. Summative Evaluation of Fossil Mysteries for the San Diego Natural History Museum

McMannus, Paulette. 1989. “Oh Yes, They do: How Museum Visitors Read Labels and Interact with Exhibit Texts, “ in Curator. Vol 32, pp. 174-189. Published Wiley Online Library 2010.

Rand, Judy. The Visitors’ Bill of Rights.

Serrell, Beverly. 1996. Exhibit Labels. An Interpretive Approach. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Smithsonian Guidelines for Accessible Exhibition Design. Also, Programmatic Accessibility Guidelines for National Park Service Interpretive Media. National Park Service. Harpers Ferry Center.

Wheildon, Colin. 1994. Type and Layout. Are You Communicating or Making Pretty Shapes. Kickstarting Business Series.