What's the Point of Panels?

There is a lot of point, very much so, but you’ll have to read to the end to find out how!

I am sad to say I have seen a lot of terrible interpretation panels recently. I don’t mean panels that I have a few criticisms about here and there, picking out some phrasing, choice of an image or tweaking the layout for improvement. I refer to panels so bad I recoil in horror at the sight of them. The reaction is physical and emotional, much to the amusement of colleagues, friends and families I have been with at the time.
Friends wonder why I should have such a strong impulse to complain about them when, they argue, it’s just a notice board, nothing important. That just throws the problem into starker relief. People who recall positively a newspaper headline or Facebook post, bringing them up in the time-honoured ‘did you see?’ type conversation, barely notice the ‘notice boards’ stuck resolutely and firmly into the ground a few feet away because the panels fade so effectively into the background. These panels, having had hundreds of pounds of public, Lottery or charity money thrown their way, are resolutely invisible despite their hardwood legs of elephantine girth and their invitation to discover wonders about the place we have spent time and effort to visit.
Why should so many panels fail so spectacularly? Could they be a redundant technology, a throw back to an analogue past of VHS videos, cassette tapes, milk bottles on the doorstep, child-delivered newspapers and paying a person to hand deliver your message in the form of a written letter? Would my friends be switched on more by the offer of an app to help them explore in the digital world the woodland/nature reserve/castle* we visit?
* delete as applicable.
I believe not, but the panels I’ve seen lately would suggest the bell is about to toll unless some basic principles are considered.
I have seen panels with shy, eight-or-more-word titles, hiding somewhere along the top, set in a point size and tone variation of the background colour which makes them only readable from close by. It’s as if a timid thesaurus-devouring dormouse has been asked to suggest how he or she might like to describe what the panel is about, if they wouldn’t mind. Then comes the essay, or abstract of an essay, on the subject arranged around a chicane of four to five moderately sized images parked randomly across the panel. None are given any prominence and sometimes an image is simply a poor reproduction of what is in plain sight in front of you. I’ve seen numerous panels tucked away from main visitor entry points and thoroughfares, as if they somehow might cause embarrassment if positioned too obviously to be read.
What this amounts to is a panel that does not achieve its first aim – to attract the visitor over to see it.
For panels to work they need to adhere to a few basic principles based on visitor behaviour.
They should be positioned and designed to reach out and grab the visitor’s attention within the second, or less, that the visitor takes to pass by. Once they have captured the visitor, they need to offer a story which can be easily recognised and navigated through within the few seconds a visitor will spend assessing whether the panel offers anything of interest to compete with their other desires, or that of their dog, children, bladder, stomach, etc. Text should be short and evocative, based on the maxim that he more you write the less the visitor will read.
We can learn about good panel design by going to the newsagent or supermarket newspaper stand where we can see the art of the daily newspaper front page. Whether tabloid or broadsheet, each title throws its message at you in an alluring, large print headline and a single, captivating, large image. This art, or technique, is, of course, borne from the knowledge that each title jostles with the competition for attention. In the second or two you pass by on your way to buy your chocolate, drink, lottery ticket or milk, good design can tip the balance from indifference to impulse purchase.
We should be creating panels which do this too, panels which are so attractive they make visitors stop in their tracks and learn something new – on impulse. This doesn’t mean they have to be garish, crass or appeal to a lowest common denominator. They shouldn’t distract from the place they are set in but neither should they hide themselves away. Just that they borrow from the front page the craft of captivating communication through a short and easily visible title, a strong lead image and brief text broke into easily navigable paragraphs with a hook at the start and a written style enticing the visitor to read on. This will motivate the visitor to stop, to browse and to be drawn through the panel to construct meaning and discover what the panel aims to say. its a case of making sure the visitor can process the story quickly enough to want to stay longer and discover more.
The creation of panels which will be read is a creative and imaginative process. Each sentence, image and element of layout should be made to work hard to make the visitor’s experience of panels engaging, rewarding and thought-changing.
Substitute dog walk for chocolate, habitats for political blunders, historical event for sporting contest, and you can take inspiration from the newspaper to create a series of front pages across a property without descending into the obvious or banal. That way the effort and resources spent on creating panels will be worthwhile because they will reach out, capture the visitor’s attention and open their minds.