The Dobbs Ferry Waterfront Park in New York is a pleasant place to spend a Sunday afternoon. Yesterday, there were kids playing tag, couples cuddling, grandparents with walkers, dogs with walkers, and so on.
It’s also a good place to post a sign about the ecology of the Hudson River.
There’s a lot I like about the sign. It’s legible, decently organized, thoughtfully positioned and tilted, and presents science in everyday terms. It’s set in Franklin Gothic, a clean, strong face.
But the details of both the design and the writing could be tidied and strengthened more.
In this section, “flying” is truly flying in, or at least hovering, in the space allotted for it, while “swimming” is crammed in without enough space (but at least its baseline is aligned with the main copy baseline). At a glance, the accented lead-in words “over” and “below” stand out in a way that suggests they were caption direction indicators—but they are the main text. Setting the first few words in that style would help prevent this ambiguity. I’m not sure why they are red.
I get that the communications designer wanted to have the words “flying” and “swimming” stand out to emphasize that the river is used by both flying and swimming animals. But this first line is awkward: “Flying over the Hudson, migrating birds use it as a guide in spring and fall.” The word “it” comes without a clear reference point, and the phrase could leave some people wondering why the birds don’t use the guide in the summer and winter.
For a quick fix, we could try something like: “Flying over the Hudson in the spring and fall, migrating birds use the river to guide their journeys.” But even so, it’s awkward to start the phrase with a gerund when the activity is limited to two seasons. Sticking “when” in front of this phrase would help, but then the communications designer might frown.
Now let’s take a closer look at the photos…
The birds are inconsistent in scaling, which makes them harder to compare if we’re trying to identify them. The middle photo caption is about flocks, but so is the first one. Scaling one bird in the middle photo to be as large as the first and third would allow all three images to be larger, and help with species identification.
The fish at the bottom of the panel are doing anything but swimming. They are lying in white rectangles as if ready for the butcher’s knife. What if these were popped out of the rectangles? What if they were enlarged to have proportional sizes to each other?
Further, these three fish were chosen out of the 200+ species of fish in the Hudson because of three noteworthy attributes, where are irregularly buried in the caption text. One is the most spectacular, one is the most valuable, and one is the most popular. If you’re like me, you didn’t realize that until you read the captions carefully. What if this information were emphasized, as well as the name of the fish?
So let’s try that and re-write the third caption, which is currently: “Most popular among anglers is the striped bass, plentiful in the Hudson, with fish bigger than 30 pounds not uncommon.”
Admittedly, the fish still looks like it’s getting ready for your dinner. But I think the text is a little easier to scan. Which is probably what the viewer will do, when your sign is competing with views like this:
(Yes, that’s the NYC skyline. No, I wasn’t swimming—there was a floating dock.)