Graphics: the Glue that Holds Things Together


By David Knapp

Graphic Designer / AV Integration

A great story and one-of-a-kind artifacts may be at the heart of every great museum, but graphics are the glue that hold it together.

The design of a museum’s graphics sets the tone for the story being told.  Whether classical, historic, modern, or whimsical, the look and feel of the graphics gives visitors their 1st impression of what they are about to experience.  Well-thought-out graphic designs and messaging can put the story into an organized framework and help guests easily navigate through the exhibits.

The foundation of great graphics starts with a style guide.  Choosing the right font and colors goes a long way to producing professional looking graphics.  Once the groundwork is laid for the graphics, it’s time to choose relevant images.  As you comb through images, look for ones that are memorable and help tell the story. Take your time at this stage and as you look at photographs try to imagine the story the photo is telling.  Action shots are typically more appealing.  When a guest can relate to the story being told, they are more likely to engage with the exhibit. Once fonts, colors, and images are chosen, it’s time to develop the graphics. Don’t forget different learning styles when you begin this endeavor. In today’s twitter world, attention spans are short, so create graphics that pique interest and pull your visitors in.  When laying out messages for a museum, the layered approach helps cover all the bases.  A layered approach in the graphics allows visitors to have a variety of clear choices.  They can quickly look at the exhibit and tailor their visit to their areas of interest.

Title Graphics

Clear and engaging title graphics are the first step in the layered approach.  Much like a newspaper article, the headlines should give the major message of an area and generate a sense of curiosity in the guest.  A simple one-or-two-word title with a one sentence sub paragraph not more than 25 words makes for a good title graphic. The age-old adage, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’, is definitely applicable here. If you have good imagery, your title graphic may simply be a large photo with limited text. However it is designed, the title graphic’s purpose is to give guests a high-level idea of the message being told and to draw them into the space.

Interpretive Graphics

Once inside the exhibit area, interpretive graphics tell the unique stories pertinent to the subject matter at hand.  The average person reads between 200 and 250 words a minute, so keep words to a minimum here. Two hundred and fifty words is the maximum recommended for any interpretive graphic.  Be sure to choose good images here and let the pictures do most of the talking.


As guests move through the messaging, it becomes more and more specific.  Labels are the last category of physical graphics.  These small yet significant graphics provide context for the individual artifacts. The actual artifact should be the hero here, so don’t make these too flashy.  Labels are meant to augment the artifacts. They shouldn’t just be facts and figures but should tell the story of what makes the artifact special, who used it, what it was used for, and how it was used.

Hidden Messages

In every museum there are always more stories than time to tell them.  For those who have the time and are really interested in the subject matter, it’s good to have additional content.  Hidden messages can be used in touch screens or digital graphics to drill further down into specific subjects.  These can be easily changed and give visitors a reason to keep coming back.

So, as you develop graphics for a museum, remember to develop a style guide, use memorable photos, and keep you messages short and personal.  These building blocks are the keys to engaging graphics.

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