The Alabama Gulf State Park Project Interpretive Design Strategy.

Welcome post at Interpretive Center

Creating and implementing the interpretive design experience for Alabama’s Gulf State Park not only brought out the best in our project management skills, but it also allowed our team an opportunity to utilize everything we’ve learned in our careers–design, research, writing, illustration, and photography–on a very large scale.

Gulf State Park is a very special place. The park is nestled in between two popular tourist destinations, Orange Beach and Gulf Shores. Not only is it one of the last natural places left along the Gulf Coast, but it’s also one of the most environmentally diverse.

These 6,100+ acres begin in the warm Gulf waters and stretch northward to include white sandy beaches, ancient dunes, wetlands, lakes, sand scrub, pine savannas, and the majestic maritime forest along Gulf Oak Ridge.

After we launched the award-winning website, we got busy telling the story of this unique destination. Our role as the interpretive design experience lead included managing, creating and implementing a park-wide interpretive story package.

Over the course of the last two and a half years on this project, we wrote thousands of words and designed more than 500 moments of discovery throughout Gulf State Park.

Interpretive Center Park Exhbits

Nine ecosystems and more than 13,000 years of human history

The best part of being a designer is that we get to become amateur experts in an unlimited amount of things. At this point in my career, I know a little bit about an enormous variety of things. This place … its habitat and history were foreign to us. To close the gap, we interviewed naturalists, archaeologists, and locals, read book after book, reviewed countless research papers and got lost in masterplans, maps and so much more. But, that’s only half the story.

An International benchmark for environmental sustainability.

Ever heard of the Living Building Challenge (LBC)? No? I hadn’t either until March 2016. As I am writing this, there are less than 20 buildings in the world that have achieved full living building certification. The Gulf State Park Interpretive Center hopes to be added to that list in a little over a year from now.

I’ll dig deeper into this topic in a future post. In the meantime, what’s important to know is that LBC represents the most environmentally-sustainable building guidelines and ambitions on the planet.

Creating understanding, engagement, appreciation–and maybe even a little Alabama pride–for the Interpretive Center’s design, systems and ambitions became a critical part of the Gulf State Park story. Our research got deeper and more complex.

We kept asking ourselves this critical question:

How can we authentically engage everyone in these stories–especially the dad who is on vacation with his kids, potentially nursing a headache from last night, and is definitely more interested in finding shade than finding appreciation for solar panels?

Interpretive Center Front Porch

Talk to me.

“Can you make it sound like your Instagram posts?”

What I imagine our client was asking us to capture is the energy, excitement, wonder and even though it was not said … the down to earth sarcasm that comes through on my personal account every so often.

In other words, let’s make nature and history relatable and heaven forbid … entertaining.

Guiding principles:

  • Transform the park into the Park … Give it a voice. A perspective. A personality.
  • Talk to people NOT at them.
  • Learning happens everywhere – just not directly in your face. Facts unveil themselves in relatable and entertaining stories.
  • Don’t dumb things down. Present them in ways that unlock learning for the reader.
  • Ask questions instead of giving the answers.
  • Create a connection to place for the reader–at the Park, at home, and beyond.
  • Provoke deeper thought and conversation.

Essentially, our interpretive strategy creates a conversation between the Park and the visitor. A consistent, friendly voice and well-designed visuals tie the entire park and visitor experience together. This uniform interpretive brand provides folks a connection to a friendly “face” along the trail and at the many facilities.

Would different work?

There are a few moments from the process that will always stick with me. When we were developing the voice, I wrote some text to describe the sounds a particular frog makes. When we had random folks review these early drafts, I knew we were heading down the right path when the office manager in the building across the street lost it.

Frog sign along eagle loop trail

The conversation went like this:

Her: (Laughing uncontrollably.)
Me: Well?
Her: I hate going outside, but I’d love to see this sign in the wild.
Me: It’s in a swamp. Are you sure?
Her: I’ll suck it up. I love it! It is so different from the usual things you find in parks. It makes me want to read them all.

It’s always exciting–and a little surreal–to see people finally engaging with the ideas that fly from mind onto paper and then into the real world. While we were installing the Interpretive Center exhibits in August, I watched a teenager read every sign. Every. Single. One! That was a very fulfilling moment.

“Your stuff looks really nice. A bit unconventional, but in a really good way” – National Park Service Advisor

What’s Next?

Next week, Governor Ivey will cut the Ribbon the new Lodge and Conference Center–symbolically closing the book on this phase of our work with the Park. We’re immensely proud of the engaging stories we’ve been able to create. But, these are just the beginning.

We can’t wait to see what happens in the Gulf State Park story.

This is part one in a series on the creation of the GSP interpretive design experience.

Want a heads-up when the next story posts? No problem!

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