When organizing an exhibit, creating the labels may not be the most exciting item on the to-do list. The labels are often used to relay essential information about the item on display, such as the title, description, artist, creator, date, age, or where it’s from. Sometimes labels provide information on how the item was used, what it was for, or who is depicted in the image.
Labels are often skimmed over by the viewer.
How can exhibit labels be more interesting? What would make the viewer want to read the label?
- Less is more. A viewer does not want to spend ten minutes reading and thinking about the information in a label. The label should be short. In fact, the shorter the better (20 – 70 words). If the label has closer to 70 words, break the paragraph up into two smaller paragraphs to create the illusion of a shorter label.
- An easy read. Don’t use technical vocabulary that would not get across the information to the general public. The exhibit is meant to inform the general public, not stump them. It is best to use simple vocabulary and short sentences, with strong adjectives and verbs. By doing this, you are making the information accessible to a wider audience. It is also important that the label is easy on the eyes. The text should either be dark on a light background or light on a dark background, with a 70% difference in contrast between the two colours.
- Available in large print. The font size should be no smaller than size 12. The typeface should be sans serif or simple serif (e.g. or ) and there should be no more than two fonts in the label. Proper punctuation and capitalization should be used unless it is purposefully being manipulated to get across certain information. The Smithsonian has published an online article, Smithsonian Guidelines for Accessible Exhibition Design, aimed to provide recommendations on designing an exhibit that better relays information to all audiences.
- Make it worth their time. Why is the label worth reading? Engage the viewer with an interesting fact or the label could have a narrative. It may also help if the text is written with an active voice instead of passive. It could also be interesting to feature a ‘curator’s choice’ item for the exhibit.
- Provide an activity. It is recommended to include an activity within some of the labels in an exhibit. These labels could pose a question or encourage the viewer to look more closely at the item.
- Just a little bit higher. Make sure that the label is located near the item. It should be at a comfortable height so that the viewer does not need to look up or bend down to read it. The centre of the label should be approximately 57 inches from the floor. If the label is positioned high or low ensure that it is correctly angled to accommodate the viewer.
- Don’t make it a beacon. The label should be matte or very low gloss. The viewer should not have to change angles to read the label. Ensure that labels going within an exhibit case are examined for glare prior to the final installation.
Fun fact: The American Alliance of Museums’ Curators Committee in partnership with the Museology Graduate Program at the University of Washington, Seattle, and in cooperation with the National Association for Museum Exhibition and the AAM Educational Committee holds a yearly exhibit label competition. The competition, entitled Excellence in Exhibit Writing Competition, accepts international entries.
Brint Design. Periodic Table of Typefaces. Accessed 2016, Oct 13. http://www.brintdesign.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/tabla-periodica-tipografica_gio-01.jpg
Hammons, Carlyn. Training for Texas Museums. 2011, Oct 18. Five Tips for Great Exhibit Labels.mp4. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSnnR-7dQBI.
Majewski, Janice. Smithsonian Guidelines for Accessible Exhibit Design. Smithsonian Accessibility Program. Accessed 2016, Oct 13. https://www.si.edu/Accessibility/SGAED#page_21.
Parks Canada Access Series: Design Guidelines for Media Accessibility. Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services, 1993.