What are self-guided tour materials?

The following is list of interpretation materials where staff and/or volunteers are not involved directly in personal communication with visitors:

After-hours displays
Auto tours
Bulletin boards
Radio Transmission
Newspaper guide
Relief Model
CD or cassette
Interpretive signs
Map tear sheet
Information stations
Self-guided trails
Interactive video

Most self-guided interpretation uses printed material. The effectiveness of these documents depends on the quality of their design, writing, and production.

Design for the audience

  • What are the audience’s characteristics?
  • How will the visitors use the materials?
  • What conditions will the materials and the visitors be exposed to?


  • Be brief and to the point. Focus on one idea per text unit. Text units should not exceed fifty words. Use subheadings to break the text into sections and to guide the reader.
  • Use active verbs. Do not use jargon, but you should introduce and define new useful terms when appropriate.

Tips on design

  • Typefaces, styles, and sizes: Know the difference between serif and sans serif. Serif is easier to read. Sans serif is good for headings.
  • Consistency of typeface: Don’t use more than two typefaces. If you use two, chose ones that provide strong contrast.
  • Bold and italic: Use for emphasis, but keep it simple. Underline now usually indicates an Internet connection.
  • Size varies with the font: Graphic designers claim that 8 point, 9 point, or 10 point are readable and look most “professional.” However, keep in mind that many interpretive publications will be read quickly, while walking on a trail or riding in a vehicle. The light may be dim, and many of the visitors have poor eyesight.  12 point or 14 point may the better choices for many publications. Visitors often choose large type, even up to 18 point.
  • Line length: Avoid line lengths more than 65 characters.  Columns can be difficult with most word processing programs, especially in conjunction with graphics.  You can use text boxes.

Color is attractive and improves retention. Cool colors (blues) are soothing and imply formality. Warm colors (reds and yellows) are stimulating and convey informality. Green and purple are neutral. Red often implies a warning and is a passionate color. Greens and browns imply “nature.” Be sure that there is strong contrast between ink color and the paper or background. Full (four-color) printing is more expensive. One color printing is the least expensive. You can give an impression of more colors by using colored paper and a single color of ink (dark blue, brown, or green), plus half tones.

Illustrations are eye-catching and convey large amounts of information quickly. They must be high quality and appropriate for the audience and purposes of the document.

  • Line art: Line art does not have shades of gray. It is easier and less expensive to reproduce than continuous tone art. Line art includes pen and ink drawings, woodprints, and engravings.
  • Continuous tone art: Contains shades of gray or color. Photographs, paintings, and charcoal/pencil drawings are considered continuous tone art. This art is more expensive to reproduce for conventional printing methods because it requires creation of halftones. This art can be scanned and reproduced digitally.

Paper types

  • Bond paper – inexpensive, may bleed through when printed on both sides. Most common weight is 20 lb.
  • Offset paper – better for double-sided printing. Use 50 lb. weight for newsletters, 70 lb. for brochures.
  • Cover paper – Use for document covers and post cards. 80 lb. weight is most common.

Paper finishes
Smooth coated (clay) surfaces reproduce greater detail, but are more expensive. Rougher textures are good for less detail. Paper finish conveys a message – slick and glossy vs. warm and informal.

Camera-ready copy
Unless you use digital printing (see below), you must have “camera-ready” copy that looks exactly how your finished document should look. Most “lay-out” today is done with computers. However, you may have illustrations that are not in digital form. These are pasted onto the camera-ready copy. Be sure the edges are thoroughly stuck; otherwise a line will show. You can use tape, but it may show a line and it will obscure anything it covers.

Offset (photo offset), photocopying, and digital printing are the most common methods to produce interpretive materials.

  • Offset printing requires production of photographic plates. This cost is justified if a large number of the document will be printed and if multiple colors will be used.
  • Photocopying is fast and relatively inexpensive for small quantities (less than 100) using black print. You can use colored paper to make the document more eye-catching. Full-color photocopying is expensive and not comparable to offset print quality. Single color is available, but more expensive than black.
  • Digital printing is fast and inexpensive for black printing. Digital printers read your file and print directly from it, without using a camera-ready. This means that all of your document must be digital.

Adapted from
Texas State University’s Dept. of Geography Developing Interpretation